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Boundaries of the Nation and their Implications in a Multinational State: Comparing Quebecers and Other Canadians

Published: 15 May 2019

In their contribution to our majority nationalism series, Antoine Bilodeau of Concordia University and Luc Turgeon of the University of Ottawa share the result of their survey which compares the way in which Quebecers and Canadians construct community boundaries.

While the production and reproduction of community boundaries lie at the heart of the politics of any political community, it occupies an especially prominent place in multinational states. Among other things, the politics of multinational states is about which nation citizens identify with and the extent to which different national identities are perceived as mutually exclusive or overlapping. Such distinct national identities can contribute to processes of competitive nation-building as distinct/overlapping “imagined communities” fight for the loyalty of citizens. The politics of identity in multinational states has been the object of numerous studies. However, no study has, to the best of our knowledge, explored how members of majority and minority nations in multinational states draw the boundaries of their respective political community, that is the criteria used in establishing who is or isn’t a “true” member of such community.

In order to fill this gap, during the Summer of 2017, we asked 820 Quebecers and 4100 Canadians outside Quebec to rate the relative importance of different characteristics in order to be a ‘true’ member of the nation: place of birth, ancestry, time spent in the community, religion, speaking the language, respecting laws and institutions, and feeling of belonging. For each of these characteristics, respondents had to indicate whether they thought it was very important, somewhat important, not very important or not important at all in order to be identified as ‘true’ national. Quebecers had to indicate whether these characteristics were important to be a ‘true’ Quebecer and other Canadians had to indicate whether the characteristics were important to be a ‘true’ Canadian.

We sought to understand whether Quebecers and other Canadians define the boundary markers of the Quebec and Canada political communities similarly. We focus on the importance given to “ascriptive” markers of identity (ancestry, religion, birthplace and time in the community), as opposed to “attainable” markers (feelings of belonging, respect for the laws and institutions, and language skills). We also explore whether those boundary markers have similar attitudinal consequences in both societies, exploring more specifically their impact on attitudes toward immigration and generalized trust.

We found that despite a popular perception of a “civic Canada” and an “ethnic Quebec”, members of both communities draw very similar boundaries of who belongs to the Quebec and Canadian nations. Attainable criteria are equally important both in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada, and they constitute the most important set of criteria for identifying what it takes to be a “true” Quebecer or a “true” Canadian. We also found that ascriptive characteristics remain, more than forty years after the adoption of the official policy of multiculturalism, key criteria for identifying a “true” Quebecer or a “true” Canadian.

The study also demonstrates that markers of national identity have broadly the same impact on attitudes toward immigration and generalized trust in both Quebec and the rest of Canada. Hence, both Quebecers and other Canadians expressing stronger support for an ascriptive definition of the nation express more negative opinions about immigration. Moreover, Quebecers and other Canadians expressing stronger support for an attainable definition of the nation express greater generalized trust.

In conclusion, the minority nation status of Quebec does not appear to result in a more exclusive set of boundary markers of belonging to the nation. Quebecers, like other Canadians do, primarily rely on attainable criteria such as speaking the language, respecting laws and institutions, and a sense of belonging to define a “true” member of the nation.

Nevertheless, despite this clear predominance of a civic definition of the nation, many Quebecers and Canadians also rely on ascriptive criteria such as birth place, ancestry or even religion to define membership to their nation.  The study suggests that despite a gradual loss of (international) legitimacy of ethnic forms of nationalism, including for minority nations (Barker, 2010), a significant number of citizens still assign considerable weight to ethnic or ascriptive characteristics when it comes to establishing the informal border of membership to their national community. This is especially relevant for Canada, a country that has sometimes been described as the world’s first “postnational country”.

Photo credit: Alphabet by Le Bistronome Flickr


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