Québec Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec party promotes a style of nationalism that is often contradictory. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Québec’s immigration reform fiasco casts spotlight on CAQ nationalism

The failure to reform the Québec Experience Program for temporary foreign workers has provoked a lot of debate in the province.

Most of it focused on the insensitivity of Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette and the choices of Premier François Legault.

But by concentrating on the shortcomings of the main players, there’s a risk of minimizing the ideological context of the failure of the reforms.

I would like to look back on what it reveals to us about the contradictions between the types of nationalism mobilized by the Coalition Avenir Québec.

‘Nationalizing nationalism’

Unlike the Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire, the CAQ is a nationalist — but not sovereigntist — political party.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette apologized to Quebecers and took ‘full responsibility’ for errors made in attempts to reform the Québec Experience Program. Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

While the PQ and Québec Solidaire put an emphasis on making Québec a country rather than on nationalism, the CAQ wants to mobilize two types of nationalism — a “nationalizing nationalism” and a “state-building nationalism.”

These different types have their own repertoire of beliefs, frameworks and policies.

Nationalizing nationalism is used by a group seeking to guide public policy in order to affirm or strengthen social boundaries among groups in order to extend its dominance. It adopts a style of governance that has concerns about diversity and feeds on polarizing identity politics in order to mobilize its base.

Its actions are primarily cultural and symbolic, such as increasing budgets for the francization of immigrants or for culture, but there are political and economic consequences. It can also take a national-populist form when it spurs voters into struggles, such as pitting average people against the elites, or citizens against foreigners.

In addition to the CAQ today, the PQ, after the defeat of leader André Boisclair in 2007, has brought a nationalizing nationalism to the forefront.

The discourse of this nationalism is first framed according to the domestic threats that the majority group ostensibly faces. It maintains the idea that the state could evolve into an autonomous entity without being affected by international political economy or geopolitics.

Nationalism of state construction

The CAQ also mobilizes voters according to a state-building nationalism. This is more a matter of power politics, or realpolitik. It focuses on rallying the political, economic and cultural resources available to the state to increase its power in an economic and geopolitical environment characterized by competition within the Canadian federation and the global economy.

In the Québec context, it is not marshalled by a sovereign state, but by a federated province. In Québec, the supporters of this type of nationalism also include certain sectors of the social economic class.

Historically, they have encouraged the regulation of the state and certain institutions in the economy, including the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec provincial pension fund manager, the Fonds de Solidarité capital investment developer, the Mouvement Desjardins credit union and the Investissement Québec government investment arm.

That strategy has been a corporatist model for managing class conflicts, headed by councils and summits. The 1996 Summit on the Economy and Employment illustrates this trend.

Premier Jean Lesage inaugurates Québec House in London, England, in 1963 alongside delegate Hugh Lapointe, laughing to the right. Lesage fathered the Quiet Revolution that modernized the province and coined the slogan ‘masters in our own house.’ THE CANADIAN PRESS

Several governments have employed this type of nationalism, starting with Jean Lesage’s call for Québecers to be the “masters in their own house” in the 1960s when he sparked the Quiet Revolution that modernized the province.

Before the era of premier Jean Charest, the Québec Liberal party had also advocated a state-building nationalism that was similar to the PQ, at least until Bernard Landry became the sovereigntists’ leader.

During the first year of its mandate, the CAQ more closely resembled this form of nationalism than to the libertarian influences claimed by the now-defunct Action démocratique du Québec party that preceded it and sought to stimulate the economy by mobilizing economic nationalism. The CAQ’s policy of increasing foreign investment in Québec, increasing electricity sales to the United States or creating a Québec version of Amazon are part of this perspective.

Caquist contradictions

However, nationalizing nationalism and state-building nationalism sometimes aspire to contradictory goals.

Proponents of the former often perceive those of the latter as people who concentrate on identity and look through the paradigm of individual freedoms, who are too open to immigration, who have beliefs that are too liberal, multicultural or cosmopolitan.

For the supporters of state-building nationalism, on the other hand, populist nationalism underestimates the economic, political and socio-demographic power relations facing the state. It creates divisions that erode citizens’ trust in the state and its institutions. Eventually, supporters of state-building nationalism accuse proponents of populist nationalism of promoting an agenda that runs counter to the medium-term interests of the state.

The crisis caused by Minister Jolin-Barette’s immigration reform highlighted the contradiction between these two poles of nationalism promoted by the CAQ.

The reform proposals were in line with the nationalization of CAQ policies that lead to the cancellation of 18,000 immigration files, lower immigration thresholds, the adoption of Bill 21, the implementation of values tests on economic immigrants and a language debate on the use of the bonjour/hi greeting. Immigration was framed as a burden to be regulated and linked to a labour market designed for the short term.

This framework contradicts a state-building nationalism that sees Québec in competition with other provinces to attract as many skilled immigrants as possible to maintain its demographic, economic and political balance of power in Canada. In the long run, this policy, like the one to lower immigration thresholds, had the effect of reducing Quebec’s balance of power within the federation.

A volatile electorate

It’s premature to assess what impact this failure will have on CAQ supporters. The sociology of nationalism can explain which types of nationalism can be effective for a party to use to rally its base.

However, electoral sociology reminds us that voters do not necessarily vote according to identity. They often see identity issues as secondary to taxation, economic, social, health, family and social policy issues.

The CAQ electorate, like that of the PQ, is generally more favourable to nationalizing nationalism. However, it is volatile. It can support the CAQ without much conviction on identity, but feels alienated from Montréal, which it associates with the Liberal Party.

A number of CAQ supporters did not hesitate to vote for the Québec Liberals in 2014 to block the PQ and their sovereignty referendum agenda. Others had supported the so-called Orange Wave of the NDP federally in 2011, although that has since proven to be a flirtation. Still others had Québec Solidaire as their second choice in 2018.

These voters are not electoral anomalies. In 2018, they felt that the Québec Liberals deserved to miss the playoffs for one or two seasons. They are not sovereignists. They are suspicious of the powers that be and they feel poorly represented by the main political parties.

In the short term, it is perhaps not among the CAQ electorate that the immigration reform failure will have an impact. Instead, it could have an impact in how the balance of power between the different camps will evolve.

[ Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter. ]

This article was originally published in French