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The Quebec Debate: Group vs. Individual Rights

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Disclaimer: This post reflects solely the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors

Quebec is one of the 10 provinces of Canada. Sitting right on the southeastern edge of Canada and bordering four American states, it is the only province in the country that is majority French-speaking. 

         Although French is not a threatened language in a global context, it is a contentious issue in Quebec. That is, the linguistic and cultural differences of Quebec make its population a recognised and protected minority under international human rights law, granting Quebec the right to self-determination. This means that Quebec has the unique ability, as a minority group, to enact laws which protect its political, economic, and social identity. 

         Throughout Canadian history, however, the independent nature of Quebec has clashed with Canadian politics and culture. On several occasions, Quebec’s exercise of its right to self-determination has conflicted with Canadian values, which favour individual rights over group rights. – mMany of these occasions were covered by news media globally. This has led to a general debate over the following question: Should group rights trump individual rights in Quebec?

        Often – especially within Canada – people will look at the situation in Quebec and dismiss it as a non-issue. But, just like with any other minority group, Quebec’s language and culture is important. It is that group’s right to preserve. On the other hand, it is possible, if not probable, that the boundary between group rights and individual rights becomes confused, leading to the rights of individuals being infringed upon within the minority’s territory. 

         This article explores what it means to have the group right to self-determination and why this right is important to Quebeckers, as well as address the downfalls of that right, including how it affects individual rights surrounding freedom. 

Quebec and Its Right to Self-Determination

Whilst over 75% of the Canadian population is anglophone (i.e., English-speaking) the majority of Quebec’s population has French as their mother tongue. Beyond linguistic differences, and perhaps most importantly, Quebec has a distinct culture – and group identity – from the rest of Canada. The reason for this lies in Canada’s history.

Canada first emerged as a French colony founded in the 17th century. Over the following decades, a series of battles between the French and the British culminated in a final victory for the latter in 1763, after which the colony was separated into Upper Canada, where a mostly English-speaking population resided, and Lower Canada (now modern-day Quebec) where the mainly French-speaking population resided and still does. 

Naturally, due to their linguistic and cultural differences, there was a rift between the British and the French. With the British having ultimate control over the government, an assimilation campaign was started against the French. Anglophones controlled Canadian business and finance, and they blocked the expansion of francophone schools outside of Quebec, in some cases even banning school teachers from speaking French. There was also a religious divide, as the British were Protestant and the French were Catholic. 

In all parts of public life, francophones lacked the power to practise their culture or speak their language. Quebec is a francophone community surrounded – one might even say enveloped – by anglophone culture. This culture is not only different, but increasingly hostile: According to a 2019 poll of the Canadian provinces, most Canadians have negative opinions of Quebec, thinking it unfriendly and selfish. Given the history of assimilation and negativity from the rest of Canada, it is easy to see why Quebec insists so strongly on maintaining its distinct identity, granted by the group right to self-determination. 

The right to self-determination allows groups to pursue their own political, social, economic, and cultural development. Thus, Quebec has the right, under international law, to adopt legal measures that aim at conserving its identity as a minority group within Canada. The Canadian Constitution itself also recognises Quebec’s special status, allowing Quebec to enact laws that, for instance, ban public displays of religious symbols in order to maintain Quebeckers’ sense of secularism. 

However, this special status opens up the other side of this debate: whether individual Quebeckers’ rights should supersede the group right to self-determination.

The Individual Rights of Quebeckers

Some people may find it difficult living in Quebec, especially if they do not speak French. Indeed, Quebec identity is tied directly to its language – which is why Quebec has wanted to separate from the rest of English-speaking Canada for decades.

Whilst some attempts to preserve Quebec’s identity are downright farcical – such as Quebec’s attempt, and success, at banning the word “pasta” from restaurant menus in 2013 – other identity-related laws should be considered with more severity. It is these laws, which Quebec has passed throughout its recent history, that pit individual rights and freedoms against self-determination.

In 1977, Quebec passed Bill 101, which limits Quebeckers’ rights to use any language other than French in public settings, such as on business names and on public signage. In 2019, Bill 21 emerged, prohibiting people who wear religious symbols (like veils and turbans) from working in the public sector, effectively discriminating against religious minorities.

More recently, Quebec passed a bill which has created perhaps the biggest backlash: Bill 96. Put into effect in May 2022, Bill 96 has made significant changes to all areas of Quebec society. Regarding education, the Bill has capped the number of students who can attend anglophone Quebec colleges and declared that anglophone students can only get a diploma if they pass an exit French exam. For their part, healthcare workers are no longer legally permitted to “make systematic use” of any language other than French. Even Quebec judges are now only legally required to know French; so, if you do not understand French, you must jump through months-long hoops to get an English-speaking judge, because one will not initially be provided to you. Finally, if you are a business in Quebec with more than 25 employees, the province’s language police (yes, that exists) are allowed to search and seize your business for whatever they want – whenever they want – if they suspect that you are not following language laws. 

Unsurprisingly, Bill 96 has had a widely negative response from Canadians and Quebeckers alike. Human rights lawyers and legal theorists are actively looking into potential rights abuses of Bill 96. Major anglophone institutions, like the English Montreal School Board, are planning to bring legal action against the Quebec government. And Quebec anglophones in general have taken to protesting in the streets. 

The general sentiment from the international community surrounding much of Quebec’s action in preserving its identity has always been tentative. For instance, the United Nations recognises Quebec’s rights to self-determination, but also seeks to discourage any identity laws that threaten fundamental human rights, like Bill 21. The case for Quebec demonstrates the difficulty of human rights: Both types of agents – groups and individuals – are entitled to protections of their rights… So whose rights supersede?

Should Quebec’s group right to self-determination trump individuals’ rights to freedom of expression, religion, and other such rights? If so, what is there to say about the rights of minorities within Quebec, like anglophone minorities, who themselves have the right to protect their English-speaking identity? Further, what happens to individuals who want to assert their private rights to speak their own non-French language, or work in the civil sector whilst wearing their religious headgear – do they not have the rights to do so in Quebec, simply because Quebec is a recognised minority group?

These are all important, complex questions to consider, and their answers are not black-and-white. Being from Quebec myself, it seems reasonable to me to hold out on hope for a middle ground, one where groups may exercise their right to preserve their identity, but limit their power so that it does not trump individual rights. 

Until we reach that middle ground, however, the Quebec debate remains. 

By Serena Celeste,

Serena is a current postgraduate student at UCL completing her master’s degree in Human Rights. She is interested in all areas of politics, though is especially passionate about human rights research and the intersection of political science and psychology.

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