There are many things that Americans find confusing about Canada. After our beer and our incessantly annoying politeness, probably the thing they understand the least about us is Quebec. That's all right. Quebec is probably the thing we understand least about ourselves as well.
As a service to my American readership I offer this truncated version of the last 350 odd (and very odd some of them have been) years of the history of Quebec in Canada. Although this should by no means be seen as a definitive statement, hopefully it will give you a little more of a grasp on how the current situation came about.
The first thing to remember is that the French were the first settlers of the area that stretches from modern Quebec to as far West as the Mississippi River and down into the Ohio Valley. If they hadn't actually settled that territory, they had explored it and formed trading partnerships with the native nations living there. This, of course, started to bring them into conflict with the English who were establishing themselves along what is now the Eastern seaboard of the United States.
By the 1700's the conflict between the two nations came to a head in what's known as the French-Indian Wars. This is sort of confusing as it leaves out all mention of British involvement. The fight ended up being a conflict between the British colonists and their Native allies (the Iroquois confederacy) with the French and their Native allies, the Huron.
To this day I still hear Iroquois claim that the Huron pretty much ceased to exist as a nation after those wars. The Iroquois were finally able to obliterate their old enemy during this war with the help of the English.
Anyone who has read about any of that conflict will know it was brutal and nasty, especially during the wood land campaigns where the British learned the dangers of marching single file through the forest the hard way. But gradually their superior firepower and numbers began to tell, until all that was left was to invade Quebec City.
That turned out to be easier said then done. It wasn't until the forces of General Wolfe discovered a path from the St. Lawrence River leading up the cliffs to the Plains of Abraham outside the city that they were able to win the day. On September 13th 1759 the British army under the command of Wolfe defeated the army of New France under Louis Montcalm giving England control of the majority of North America.
In 1763, when a treaty was signed between France and England officially ceding the territory from the one nation to the other, the colony should have in theory become Protestant, English-speaking, and subject to British civil law. But showing unusual prescience regarding trouble in the colonies, the decision was taken by the British government to not tamper with the social and civil structures already in place.
The Quebec Act of 1774 gave the people of Quebec the right to conduct business according to their own civil laws. It also guaranteed them the right to freedom of religion and to educate their children in French. Before anything else happened in North America, including the American Revolution or the formation of Canada, the British government recognized that Quebec was a distinct society and acted accordingly to ensure its preservation.
Of course they had a practical reason for their seeming generosity: guaranteeing Quebec's loyalty in the years ahead. Like I said, someone saw the colonies south of the 49th parallel going south, so to speak, and decided that the last thing Britain needed was a large number of irate colonists everywhere. The people of Quebec were bought off with the freedom to hold on to their cultural identity. This is something they would have most likely lost had they become part of the new union to their south.
What amazes me is, since everything from the price of oil to the smog in our cities is America's fault, why we Canadians have never held America responsible for the problem of Quebec. If it hadn't been the threat presented by the emerging desire for independence from the crown in the thirteen colonies, nobody would have given a damn about the rights of a few thousand people.
Heck, they didn't have any qualms about forcing French-speaking people outside of Quebec off their land a few years later to make room for loyal British subjects fleeing the American Revolution. They sent the French packing to Louisiana, the last French territory in North America, and gave their farms in New Brunswick and other Maritime provinces away.
There's no way the British government would have given Quebec those rights unless they felt like they had no other option. So it really is America's fault, what with your independence, and then the War of 1812. If it hadn't of been for any of that, Quebec would have been nicely assimilated right off the bat and we wouldn't have all the troubles we're having to this day.
Well, that's all in the past now. I guess if you're able to forgive us for torching the White House back in the War of 1812 we can forgive you for this. Anyway, you're suffering the fall out as much as we are; how many shows has Celine Dion done in Las Vegas now? That's an example of a distinct society raven coming home to roost if I've ever seen one.
It always amazes me that Canadian politicians keep getting up and making big pronouncements about Quebec being a distinct society within Canada. The fact that it's old news hasn't seemed to register yet. Yesterday it was Steven Harper's (our current Conservative Prime Minister) turn, with the leaders of the opposition parties, to add their voices to the chorus of redundancy by calling Quebec a distinct nation within a nation.
If one were inclined to be cynical, one might check the polls to see how low the Conservative numbers are in Quebec. There numbers have been on a steady decline since soon after the election. They face the potential for an even greater decline the longer Canada remains embroiled in Afghanistan. Quebec has the highest rate of opposition of any region in the country to Canada's involvement.
The easiest way for a politician in Canada to try to make points in Quebec without actually committing him or herself to doing anything is to make reference to their distinctness. That always plays well in the press. The secret is to learn how to say it without alienating the rest of the country and how to get the other political parties to go along with your idea.
Naturally, nothing short of separation will satisfy the ardent nationalists. But recognition of the distinct society is enough to satisfy most moderates, enough to give you a bump in the polls sufficient to absorb any minor loss in other provinces.
Without major gains in Ontario or Quebec, Harper and his gang will never have a majority government so he's got to do something. Since their social conservatism doesn't play well in either province, they need to use something as a hook to establish their power base. Espousing support of Quebec as a distinct society has always been a favoured ploy because it sounds substantial without having any real meaning or committing you to a course of action.
Ever since Canada became a country, successive governments have made it sound like they are doing something new and unique by recognising the distinctiveness of Quebec. But in actual fact all they have been doing is reaffirming a position that was taken almost three hundred years ago by the conquering British. Is it any wonder Quebec is looking for more?