There is a debate raging on in Canada this week about recognising that the people from the province of Quebec form a nation. I’ve heard some people who claim that the word nation has a different meaning in French and in English. Since most Quebeckers speek French and most Canadians outside Quebec speck English, this is of crucial importance to the debate. So, with my usual skepticism, I decided to check that claim by myself.

Surely, if the meaning is different between the two languages, dictionaries should be able to provide evidence for this. So I dug out the English definition from The New American Oxford Dictionary, 2nd edition:

A large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.

Then I looked up the first definition for the French word in Le Petit Larousse Illustré 1993. Here’s the translation:

Large human community, generally installed on the same territory and having a historical, linguistic, cultural, economic unity more or less strong.

While there are many identical words with slightly different meaning in French and English, nation does not appear to be one of them. Next time I hear someone claiming that, I’m going to ask for some proofs or I’m not going to buy it.



They are probably making that assumption because they themselves use the word to refer to a piece of land owned by the people, rather than the people that live on it. “I don’t use the word that way, therefore…”

French Canadians are a nation, in the same sense as the First Nations are nations. Both are still a part of the greater Canadian nation.

J. King

I find the assertion “Quebec is a nation” to be highly insulting, personally, in no small part because—as you pointed out above, Michel—it has no basis in reality. I’m no Quebecer (ie. a resident of the Province of Quebec), but I am French Canadian, and it seems to me that the assertion that Quebec is a nation implies that Quebec is the French-Canadian homeland to the exclusion of the other provinces of Canada.

I simply don’t understand why French Canadian malcontents can’t simply take pride in the fact that they are descendant of a great people who helped build a great nation, and that Canada—all of Canada—belongs to them just as much as it does anyone else here.

To identify one’s nationhood with only a small part of Canada rather than its totality seems self-limiting to me, and actually fills me with profound sadness: it’s denying one’s history, the very fact that the name “Canada” was given to this land by francophone settlers hundreds of years ago. It’s a damned shame.

Michel Fortin

Interesting comment J. King, thank you for posting. While I think most Quebeckers consider themselves part of a nation, I’m pretty sure too that a majority of them consider themselves as much Canadian as they’re Quebecker.

I think the idea of Quebec a nation makes pretty much consensus here, at least politically it does. It’s totally unlike the idea of Quebec as an independant country however, which is another question entirely which should be taken separately. While I was quite young during last referendum campain about this question (1995), I remember clearly having some sad thoughts for French Canadians outside Quebec like you, about what would happen if things had gone the other way.

J. King

Actually, I was a Quebecer at the time of the last referendum. Sadly, I was far too young to even begin to understand the gravity of the situation or the ramifications of a “successful” outcome.

Still, times change, and I am now an Ontarian, and have been for several years—however I am not a Canadian merely as much as I am an Ontarian: residency in a given province is, as far as I’m concerned, transitory. Canadians have a constitutionally-guaranteed freedom to migrate freely anywhere within Canada at any given time; in that respect we are all equal no matter where we live and that, to me, is very important.

I was born in Quebec and I now live in Ontario, and were I to migrate to British Columbia tomorrow, I would certainly miss my home here and my acquaintances, but I would have yet another rich culture in the Canadian tapestry to explore, and though many things would be different as compared to here, experience from my unfortunately limited travels across the country tells me that I would encounter fewer surprises on the western edge of Canada than I would a stone’s throw south in New York. The greater Canadian identity is far more precious to me than the sub-identity of any given province, because that’s what allows me to feel at home here in Ontario just as much as I did in Quebec all those years ago.

Switching tracks, though, if Quebec “nationhood” does not imply the legitimacy of a future sovereign nation-state, do you know what it does mean? Offered definitions I’ve heard vary wildly, so I’d be interested in here reaching a semantic consensus of our own if you wish to discuss the subject further.

Michel Fortin

Quebec has considered itself as a nation for some time. The interesting thing is that it’s not even a sovereignist party that started the trend, it was the Union Nationale, by suggesting that our legislative assembly be renamed the National Assembly in 1968. Quebec also has its own civil code based on the French civil code instead of British laws.

What’s new is that Ottawa is now somehow recognizing this. What does that mean? What does it change? I sincerely don’t know. Does that mean someone will try to reopen the constitution so that Quebec finally wants to sign it? I truly doubt it.

If you want to read further, it seems that the article about politics of Quebec has a good summary of the different positions regarding the national question. It’s a very complex issue and I’d struggle summarizing it myself.

Michael Lewis

I have never really been able to understand this issue. I have been to New Brunswick, the only officially bilingual province in Canada, and they don’t seem to have this crisis constantly looming on the political horizon.

Of the few québecois which I have had the pleasure of having as friends, none of them really understood what the problem was either. In fact, a good friend, Sylvain, who didn’t even learn English until his late twenties, explained to me that he was taught all throughout his life that English Canada was out to destroy his life, and take away his culture and force him to be English. When he finally left Québec, for New Brunswick, he discovered this was not the truth.

Now living in Alberta, it is true that there is a narrow mind-set of many English speaking people I know, but this typically has very little to do with Québec directly, but rather Ottawa and the traditionally ruling Liberal party (and its leaders…from Québec). The animosity is not towards the province, or the people, but lingering resentment is passed on by proxy from the federal government.

Having said this, my opinion is that everyone, anywhere in Canada, should have access to education in BOTH English and French, and that it ought to be a requirement that everyone be at least proficient, if not bilingual in both languages.

A recent opinion article in Maclean’s explained the effects of the issue in just about the exact way I would have written it (had I thought of it first!). “One of these things is a lot like the others” by Andrew Potter.

The ideal with which we might envision Canada is a group of 10 provinces and three territories, all of which have equal rights, responsibilities, and obligations to each others. One cannot be made more equal or more important than another, because then none are equal.

I can be an Albertan, but I can also be a Canadian! At times, domestically, I may disagree with the ideas of the Québecker, the Newfoundlander, or the Manitoban, but that disagreement does not negate the fact that we are all Canadians.

And from a social and cultural perspective, it is English Canada which has lost its own! We are often more “american” than we our ourselves. The influence of the american media is nullifying! At least French Canada has its own media, which is largely unaffected by american media.

But to each his or her own, this is probably solely my opinion.

Et en mon français terrible:

Mais chacun à son gôut, je suis seuls avec mon idée.

(SVP, corrigez moi!)

Michel Fortin

Michael, thanks for your comment. Andrew Potter’s article you’ve pointed to is correct in a way: many people here see the rest of the country as a single entity while that’s certainly not true.

But we can’t say the same for our federal government. I think many of our nationalistic aspirations, or at least the most pragmatic ones, comes from the feeling that more things should be done and decided at the provincial level. This is supported unanimously by the political class here, and by most of the population too. And it’s reenforced each time the federal government starts a new program on matters of provincial juridiction.

Independence is often seen as a solution to that problem. Although I’m pretty sure most Quebeckers would prefer to stay in Canada, it’s clear to me that they also want more autonomy and that many are ready to jump off the boat for this. That’s not the only argument in favor sovereignty, but it’s certainly a big one and the most rational one.

And I bet that Ottawa recognizing the nation here in Quebec won’t change a thing. If nobody fix the current state of affairs, there’s going to be a new referendum about independence here eventually and it may very well “fix” things its own way.

Uniformity is not the same as equality. It’s true that Quebec does seek greater powers in many fields, but that’s more power within its own territory. It has little to do with changing the balance of power between provinces, and it does not preclude another province from seeking the same powers either.

  • © 2003–2021 Michel Fortin.