The experience of nationalism in Quebec remains an oddly belated affair—especially considering its proximity to the United States, with its precocious example of nation-statehood. Despite its apparent blandness, at least in the lexicon of American comedy, Canada remains a perpetually irritated anomaly in the Americas: a state comprised of two nations (if not more, considering the significance of the aboriginal ‘First Nations’). Lord Durham’s Report, the imperial response to the Rebellion of 1837, infamously observed that Lower Canada (now Quebec) consisted in fact of ‘two nations warring in the bosom of a single state’, and the observation has been easily extended to the constitutional problems of modern Canada.footnote1 More than 150 years later, Lord Durham remains both a threat to Québécois nationalism—recommending the assimilation of the francophone population—and an oracle: the decisive appearance of the language of ‘nationhood’ in British North America. Thus, in the nationalist imaginary, the only means of avoiding assimilation into the rest of anglophone North America is to realize Durham’s two nations with the creation of a sovereign state, definitively marking the appearance of a mature French-speaking people in North America.

By any reasonable measure, Quebec has indeed emerged as a vibrant and progressive society in the past forty years—roughly the period since the election of Jean Lesage in 1960 ushered in the ‘Quiet Revolution’ which transformed Quebec’s former economic dependence on English- Canadian and American capital and dissolved the cultural monopoly of the Catholic Church. The Quiet Revolution also saw the explosion of a modern nationalism in Quebec and the creation of the Parti Québécois (PQ), initially led by the charismatic René Lévesque, as a social-democratic and nationalist political force. Although the PQ has governed Quebec more often than not since its first election in 1976, it has not been able to achieve in two referenda (1980 and 1995) what it sees as the culmination of the Quiet Revolution—independence from Canada. Nationalist fervour, in fact, seems to be in retreat from the high-water mark it achieved in the 1995 referendum on independence (significantly couched in the more reassuring terms of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘partnership’ with Canada), which failed only by the smallest of margins. Although the current PQ government remains officially committed to holding another referendum at some moment in the future, the population appears to have lost its avidity for another episode in the constitutional debate. Lucien Bouchard, the politician whose oratorical force and eloquence brought the sovereignist option close to success in 1995, resigned in January 2001 as Premier of the province, citing frustration at his inability to whip up nationalist fervour following the referendum. In the nationalist imaginary, still powerful in Quebec, this can only be taken as a collective lack of maturity and failure of nerve.

Is Quebec, almost alone in the Western Hemisphere, doomed to the status of neo-colonial atavism? No, runs the nationalist argument, Quebec’s collective maturation can be postponed, but it cannot finally be deterred. As Benedict Anderson has argued in his important work on nationalism, a logic of seriality is in place here: the universalization of ‘nation’ as the name of political and cultural identity in a world defined as one of United Nations.footnote2 Jacques Parizeau, the PQ Premier who organized the 1995 referendum, repeatedly invoked the moment of Quebec taking its seat at the United Nations and responsibly assuming all of the normal international duties. This was a projection without specific political content in the ordinary sense; there was no pretense of affecting world affairs or even the lives of most Québécois. A collective ‘self’, as Anderson’s argument suggests, looks for its reflection in the universality of ‘United Nations’. The compelling power of nationalism rests upon this psychologization of the nation. It measures both the ‘naturalness’ of the nation-state as a political form and the attractiveness of individual self-identification with a national ‘spirit’. The defeat of the referendum, then, could be treated as a kind of existential failure. Quebec once again failed to say ‘Yes’ to itself; indeed, failed to take up its adult responsibilities in the world at large.

This strongly felt rhetoric of existential crisis is not simply a reaction to the loss of two referenda. It suffused the culture of Quebec throughout the explosion of national feeling in the period of the Quiet Revolution. The virtual poet laureate of the time, Gaston Miron (1928–1996), could write a poem called ‘Pour mon repatriement’ (For my repatriation) which declared, ‘un jour j’aurai dit oui à ma naissance’ (one day I will have said yes to my birth).footnote3 Indeed, from at least the 1950s and throughout the period of the Quiet Revolution, Québécois nationalists have relied on a psychologized ‘subject-nation’ whose destiny, like that of a child’s, is necessarily independence from the parents. The psychoanalyst Camille Laurin, who later became a leading figure of the first PQ government (author of Bill 101, still widely celebrated as the bulwark of the French language in the province), lent his professional credentials to this collective psychology.footnote4 In the period of nationalist mourning after the most recent referendum, the trope could return as the spectre of perpetual childhood: a book entitled Ce pays comme un enfant.footnote5 The continuing use of the language of collective birth and maturation represents perhaps the most rhetorically powerful gesture in the nationalist repertoire—in Quebec or elsewhere.footnote6

Although an advanced society, Quebec is, in the powerful optic of nationalism, retarded. It presents us, then, with an interesting example of the political and cultural vicissitudes of nationalism as a serialized, global project. Its example is especially pertinent to ‘new–old’ nationalisms in European countries (Scotland, Catalonia) even as it is also linked to postcolonial instances by its American and colonial provenance. Its case also allows us to take the measure of the nationalist intellectual in the new cultural landscape of postmodernism. ‘At the base of the modern social order’, writes Ernest Gellner, ‘stands not the executioner but the professor.’footnote7 This aspect of ‘modernity’ remains sharply defined in Quebec, where a clerical near-monopoly on francophone intellectual and cultural life is a living memory. (The number of Catholic priests in Quebec dropped from 8,400 around 1960 to 4,285 in 1981.) In this setting the nationalist character of secular intellectuals has been largely taken as a given: they are the organic intellectuals of the nation-state, defining themselves against the universalism of the Catholic clergy. ‘Intellectuals are in some degree predestined to propagate the “national” idea’, Max Weber remarked almost a century ago, and the dictum has held up remarkably well.footnote8 In Quebec, as Jocelyn Létourneau has persuasively argued, this destiny took the shape of a ‘father’s’ protective concern for the ‘petite nation’ and its people.footnote9

This destiny, however, can no longer be taken for granted in Quebec, where the national narrative and the privileged position of the intellectual within it show signs of structural fatigue. If the explanation of this exhaustion is too often a facile account of ‘postmodernity’, it remains remarkable that the signal theorization of postmodernism was produced for Quebec. Jean-François Lyotard’s account of the postmodern condition was in fact originally produced for Quebec’s Conseil des Universités in the late 1970s, part of the Quiet Revolution’s ongoing reconceptualization of education in the province.footnote10 This report, however, was likely to have appeared as entirely antipathetic to the first PQ government, as it prepared itself for the 1980 referendum on ‘sovereignty-association’. Lyotard’s contention that the new ‘multiversity’ was no longer equipped ‘to train an elite capable of guiding the nation towards its emancipation’ was, as far as I can tell, promptly ignored by the institutional matrix which originally commissioned the report.footnote11

This does not mean, however, that the discourse of Québécois nationalism has been able successfully to evade the dilemma Lyotard presented. The 1995 referendum, in fact, saw the confluence of two forms of nationalism: both the popular appeal of a rhetoric of national ‘humiliation’ and eventual ‘affirmation’ powerfully mobilized by Lucien Bouchard in the referendum campaign; and, in a considerably lower and more ironic register, a late nationalism. If modernity produced the nationalist intellectual, this is now a figure subjected to ‘postmodern’ stress. Nationalism is an increasingly suspect force, but the nation-state itself has lost none of its legitimacy. Thus, the United States can embody the ‘ancient’ legitimacy of the nation-state while resolutely setting its sights on various forms of ‘bad’ nationalism.footnote12 If this conjuncture also highlights the attractiveness of nationalism for the left, it has at the same time produced a late nationalism that divests itself of any large claims to emancipation. This is perhaps particularly true of small nations, Scotland and Catalonia as well as Quebec, that have aligned their national aspirations with supranational economic and political arrangements (the EU in Europe, NAFTA in North America).footnote13