September 07, 2012

Quebec Sovereignty: Flashpoint?

While many populations worldwide live with very immediate and painful results of their strategic plights, strategic studies for Canadians by and large assume interstate conflict away from the shores of a unified Canada.

On the fourth of September, we had a limited glimpse of what others suffer. Quebec went to the polls in provincial elections. Elections are always anxious moments, as centuries-old rivalries boil to the surface in a cauldron of populist manipulation at the hands of the provincial political elite. Quebec is a province of just over 8 million citizens in a country of 34 million. It is isolated linguistically as the only French speaking province in an otherwise mostly Anglophone state, and on the occasion of its elections and some political scandals, it considers the possibility of separation from the Canadian Federation.

It is important to note that of the 8 million Quebecers, over a million feel more affinity with the English language than they do French, never mind the other million who’s mother tongue is neither English or French or are from Amerindian communities (roughly 10% of the population is from a visible minority).

As the question of sovereignty is strongly imbued with French Quebec’s cultural and linguistic anxiety (though not all French would prefer sovereignty), it is a question which fractions the groups within the province along linguistic lines. In a province that already polices the use of English in education and the public sphere, anglophones and allophones fear for their rights and identity when Quebec sovereignty is mentioned.

As the Parti Quebecois won a minority government this last Tuesday, nerves were frayed in all camps. An unaffiliated man discharged a firearm at the Parti Quebecois campaign celebration, killing one and injuring another. As he was dragged away by police, he screamed “les anglais se reveillent” ("the English are waking up" - ironically in French). Madmen such as this one exacerbate political tensions and erode the otherwise surprisingly civil discourse of the province.

To be absolutely clear; the province is nowhere near a referendum on sovereignty, even less a nation-state itself.  Yet a government formed by the flagship party of the separatist movement makes us ponder for the sake of the exercise (without delving into the political debate): Could the worst-case scenario of a civil war happen in the event of a successful bid for sovereignty? While it is difficult to gaze into the crystal ball of happenstance, and a referendum would not cause Quebec to separate overnight (thus avoiding many pitfalls associated with a sudden and unmanaged transition), we may derive potential flashpoints from looking at key actors in the province and their interests.

The Government of Quebec
The GoQ would lack state capacity in its critical transition phase, though it would be better off in this regards than most separatist movements as Quebec has developed a shadow government of sorts over years of jurisdictional battles with Canada. This weakness would be most painful in the security sector, as the new state contends with unrest. The nascent GoQ also risks having a very poor and dangerously reactionary decision-making cycle as it contends with numerous situations spiralling out of control.

The Government of Canada
It is incredibly unlikely that the GoC would resort to arms to keep Quebec within the Federation without additional cause. Canada lacks the capacity, the will and the ideological mindset required for an operation of this sort.

The United States
The US, while having an intrinsic support for the GoC, would now witness instability in its near-sphere of influence.  A separation of Quebec would cost it greatly. The US would do everything it can to limit the scope of escalation. The US’s main interests would be limiting economic disturbance and reorganizing all international treaties and organizations it shares with Canada, such as NORAD.

Mobilized Quebec sovereignty activists
The separatist dream has been a long time coming. French Quebec has had a hard time swallowing historical defeat at the hands of English Canadians. While poems and speeches of liberation would accompany a jubilant crowd of self actualized nationalists, this revolutionary energy would be difficult to control once the time for riots and celebrations has passed. Overzealous nationalists may become a burden after the fact as the GoQ seeks to restore order and calm Federation loyalists. In addition, Quebec does have a history, if relatively minor, with its personal homebrew of nationalist terrorism (still alive and well, as seen here and here). A separation and ensuing conflict with loyalists may galvanize such groups.

Quebec Loyalists to the Federation
Largely in Montreal and towards Ontario, many communities identify themselves as Canadians first. From one day to the next, these communities would be told they are no longer Canadian, and that they have to accept the status quo ante or emigrate. While many would choose to leave, there is a distinct possibility that some would refuse and take to resisting the fledgling state. Entire communities may declare themselves Canadian and demand support from the GoC, causing a difficult political debate there as well.

Quebec Amerindian Populations
“If the French can do it, why can’t we?” Amerindians in Canada have always wanted more autonomy, and the breaking up of the Federation would offer them an incredible opportunity for creating an independent nation. Some communities already manage their own affairs and have small militias to protect territory. They have the greatest potential for a “fait accomplit” throughout the chaos.

Ethnic Communities
While ethnic communities may sway to one side or other of the independence question (the large Haitian population may side with its linguistic sister, while others may feel the sting of Quebec’s nationalism a little too starkly), one thing is certain: Communities will tend to look towards themselves for support and trust in a state defined by homogenous French Quebecers.

The course of relations between these various groups is what would guide any outcome and potential for conflict. As previously stated the governments would attempt to manage the transition in a slow and methodical manner. The two primary actors in many different situations would be the GoC and the GoQ. It is to be noted that while the military should be perceived as a key player and sore point for the deciding of who-gets-what (notably the Royal Canadian Air Force), I believe the cohesion and common experience between Quebec units of the Canadian Forces and their Federation partners would preclude any escalation of military tensions outside of minor and localized rivalries. Yet while wishing for a peaceful transition, the Governments of Canada and Quebec would find themselves at odds over many natural resources, economically joint projects, shared land and marine borders, and accrued infrastructure and assets. The logistical and legal quagmire would offer up many potential flashpoints to be seized upon by non-state actors. It is worth stating that Quebec nationalization of Canadian assets could be one of the few issues changing the strategic calculus for the GoC in favour of a more adversarial relationship, yet still short of open conflict.

The most significant flashpoint comes from the loyalist side, as they are the ones who have most to lose in the event of a separation. The danger here is escalation. Loyalists may choose to partake in resistance actions, and confront the now national SQ police force. As tensions rise – and all it takes is one misguided police action - additional militants may join ranks and up the ante. Once this occurs, the now mobilized sovereignty activists may become a problem in their own right, with the SQ trapped in the middle of a Quebec-wide community clash (undoubtedly centered in Montreal). It would not take many hate crimes, at first by madmen such as the one who struck the Metropolis on election night, to begin drawing up territory as owned by various groups and allowing distrust to spiral to new heights.

The SQ and GoQ would also have to contend with the possibility of whole communities declaring themselves independent or loyal to the GoC, if the GoQ fails to woo them as part of the independence project. What does the SQ do if Oka escorts GoC representatives to its doors? What does the GoC do if towns near the Ontario border hold their own referendums with 97% Canadian intention? What precedents are set by the GoQ that may galvanize sentiments even more? And how are these events viewed from the Federation? What will public sentiment in Ontario look like when a Quebec town revolt is shut down forcibly by the SQ? Would the US be able to mediate the conflict, as the GoC is perceived as too involved to do so?

All things considered, these potential flashpoints amount to a low probability of open international conflict. But the spectre of civil war looms ever quietly in the hearts of non-state actors. Should separation occur, these groups are the ones which will require the most convincing to stave off the worst.

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