10/22/2013 05:48 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

How the Québécois Got Trapped by 'Civic Nationalism'

Quebec is an advanced democratic society, complete with dominant leftist movements such as anticlericalism, feminism, and social welfarism. In fact, the motto of Quebec society could well be laïcité, égalité, sororité.

Contemporary liberalism firmly dismisses ethnic nationalism: the notion that a civil society should have an basis in ethno-cultural identity, passed along from one generation to the next and reproduced by historical narratives, national symbols, and assertions of ethnic self-determination. Liberals believe that these practices contradict the ideal of a society where everyone is equal, recognized, and belonging. Accordingly, they tend to advocate the alternative of "civic nationalism," which rejects an ethnic basis as racist and retrograde while touting replacement values such as free association and freedom of religion.

Though it has succeeded in a very small number of cases, civic nationalism invariably encounters trouble when applied to nationally-conscious ethnic groups such as the Québécois population within Canada. Perhaps this is because ethnic nationalism is less of a principle than a simple reality. Being "against Quebec nationalism" is rather like being against air or the way the planets go round the sun. This is doubtless why the many self-congratulatory gimmicks promulgated by the Canadian governing class, including multiculturalism and bilingualism, have been so ineffectual in mitigating secessionism.

Nor can Quebec nationalism be easily slandered by association with fascist iterations of ethnic allegiance from the '30s or with the warring sectarian groups in the former Yugoslavia in the '90s. Quebec is an advanced democratic society, complete with dominant leftist movements such as anticlericalism, feminism, and social welfarism. In fact, the motto of Quebec society could well be laïcité, égalité, sororité.

And though ethnic solidarity remains constant in Quebec, the widespread belief that ethnic nationalism is coterminous with racism has indeed affected the province's strategy for pursuing sovereignty. In the 1960s and '70s, the Québécois branded their movement as a civic nationalism based on language. Their message was that Quebec was a mère patrie, not of their ethnic group, but of French itself.

Of course, their desire to "protéger la langue française" was not accidental; they weren't just lovers of Proust and Flaubert -- French was the language of the ethnic nation. But the strategy supplied rhetorical power for the principal nationalist project of the time: removing from the province the highest possible number of English-speaking Protestants and Jews -- the most steadfast opponents of secession, and the people who were the least deferential to their francophone and culturally-Catholic surroundings.

This couldn't be done by force, but it could be done by outlawing English, a strategy consistent with the message of consolidating a francophone civic nation. Most importantly, the strategy worked: the Canadian government acceded to the passing of Bill 101 and over 100,000 anglophones left on the Highway 401 to Toronto without looking back. And the ones who stayed became bilingual and essentially made their peace with the francophone majority.

While the civic branding succeeded the first time, it has come to haunt Quebec nationalists in the latest iteration of the movement: prohibiting public servants from wearing the Muslim headscarf. Once again, the PQ has deftly couched its Charter of Values in the language of legal liberalism; the proposed law targets not Muslim garments but all "conspicuous" religious accoutrements. But Christian and Jewish accessories were around long ago and were never opposed before. The difference now is that Quebec, and particularly Montreal, sports a sizable Muslim minority which the Québécois fear has not, and will not, integrate.

Clearly the nationalists had drunk their own civic-nationalist Kool-Aid when it came to immigration policy. So eager to propagate a francophone majority amid declining birthrates, several Quebec governments accepted large migrant populations from France's former colonies in North Africa -- a veritable hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. This is not a question of different "values"; it is a matter of different civilizations. And while there are doubtless many Algerian women who were eager to leave behind the shackles of the sharia and assimilate into Quebec, the ones running around Montreal in niqabs and burqas clearly have no affinity for laïcité, égalité, sororité.

Now the nationalists are caught in a contradiction. If Quebec is a francophone civic nation, it follows that someone born in Tunisia who speaks French has as much of a claim to Quebec as any descendants of the Habitants, even if he or she shares none of the other precepts of the society. But of course Tunisians and other foreign-born francophones are not, at least without assimilation, Québécois because the Québécois constitute an ethnic, not a civic, nation.

By not defending the true ethnic nature of their nationalism in the past, and choosing to misrepresent their movement as civic in character, the péquistes implicitly accepted the argument that ethnic nationalism was as bad as its critics say it is. And as their own immigration policy turns disastrous, their legitimate effort to correct it has come across as xenophobic and intolerant. They've been left, in other words, without a card to play. If the charter movement ends up failing, this bad hand might well be a decisive factor.

This column is also published in the Prince Arthur Herald.