To understand why sovereignty has emerged as a serious issue in Quebec at this time, we must look at two cities, Montreal and Toronto. They are responsible for what has been happening in Quebec. Between them, they have converted Quebec into something resembling a new nation, provincial political status notwithstanding. Nobody planned this outcome. Nobody even recognized what was happening at the time it happened. The events that worked this transformation do not go back very far. We can date them statistically as having begun in 1941, but that is because 1941 was a census year. I suspect they began in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II and the beginnings of the Canadian war economy.
Now, however, Quebec is presented with a difficulty not only unprecedented there, but unprecedented in Canada. The country has never before had a national city which lost that position and became a regional city. As a typical Canadian regional city, Montreal cannot begin to sustain the economy or the many unusual assets it has now. As it gradually subsides into its regional role, it will decline and decay, grow poor and obsolescent. No boom in resource exploitation can save it because—as a national center—it had already surpassed what even the most prosperous Canadian regional cities are capable of supporting. None of the traditional Canadian approaches can contend with this new problem.
A third of Quebec’s population is concentrated in Montreal. Not only will a declining Montreal have a directly depressing effect upon that large share of the province’s population, it will have a depressing effect on the province generally. The city will become a poorer market for producers in the hinterland who now depend on it. It will be a declining source of city jobs for the population at large. Its all-important cultural function in the province’s life will suffer.
In sum, Montreal cannot afford to behave like other Canadian regional cities without doing great damage to the economic well-being of the Quebecois. It must instead become a creative economic center in its own right. That means it must cast up streams of new enterprises which, among them, take to producing wide ranges of goods now imported from other places, including other places in Canada, and which will generate new, city-made products and services that can be marketed outside of Montreal and Quebec as well as within; and it must become the kind of place where such enterprises can find the capital they require, and in turn generate more capital.
Yet there is probably no chance of this happening if Quebec remains a province. Canadian bankers, politicians and civil servants, captivated as they are by the siren songs of resource exploitation, ready-made branch plants, and technological grandiosities, can hardly be expected to respond to Montreal’s quite different economic claims upon their attention. Beliefs and practices common to all of Canada are not apt to change simply because one city, Montreal, and one province, Quebec, so urgently need them to change.
The Quebecois themselves seem unaware of the nature of the problem which looms in their future, and given the prevailing assumptions, they may not come to understand it. But they will understand this: things are not going well.
That is why the issue of sovereignty for Quebec, now that it has been raised anew as a possibility, is not going to evaporate. Inevitably, whether or not they could do better on their own, the Quebecois are going to think they could, and many of them are going to want to try. We may expect the question of separation to be raised again and again in coming years until it is finally settled either when Canada accedes to some form of sovereignty for Quebec or when the Quebecois accept the decline of Montreal and become resigned to it and to its repercussions.
The latter seems to me unlikely. Quebec is not like the poor Maritime Provinces, which have been tied ever more tightly into Confederation by adversity and the federal government’s redistributions of tax money to alleviate it. The Quebecois have a special fear: that if they themselves cannot make a success of Quebec, their long struggle will prove to have been “a sad tale told by a minority on the road to oblivion.” That is how the old story of separatist sentiment in Quebec ties into the new story.
While it is quite possible that Quebec would do no better on its own than as a province of Canada, there is little reason to suppose it would do worse, and there are even some practical reasons, which I will touch on in due course, for supposing it might do better. Furthermore, as we all understand, dependence is stultifying, and sometimes the obverse is also true. That is, sometimes independence releases new kinds of effort, opens up formerly untapped funds of energy, initiative, originality and self-confidence. That has been the experience, for instance, of Norway when it broke away from Sweden at the beginning of this century.