The Parti Quebecois’ (PQ) victory in Tuesday’s snap election in the predominantly French-speaking Canadian province will likely embolden some supporters of Taiwanese independence, as it usually does when the separatist movement takes power, to draw parallels in their struggle for nationhood.
While it may be tempting to regard events in Canada as a source of inspiration, the Quebec experience is a bad template for Taiwan’s struggle against Chinese encroachment and therefore should not be used as an analogy.
Above all, unlike Taiwan, Quebec is part of a federal system whose “colonial” power that the separatists have been struggling against is democratic, officially bilingual and does not threaten to use force or unleash paramilitary columns if they do not behave. Contrary to China, Ottawa does not brandish 1,600 ballistic missiles at the province’s 6.1 million people, nor does it have a so-called law that would legitimize the use of force against it should its people decide to secede, which they have tried to do twice through referendums. Canada does not curtail the human rights of Quebecers or undermine their freedom of expression, though authoritarian China does so to Taiwan. Finally, unlike Taiwan, Quebec shares land geography with Canada and has not had the privilege of 117 years of separate existence that the island-nation has had since the Japanese took over in 1895 (not to mention the time before that).
The object here is not to pass judgement on the validity of the claims made by Quebec separatists or whether Taiwan is more deserving of independence than Quebec. The point is that the two conflicts are idiosyncratic and as such serve as poor templates for one another.
Still, politicians and pundits in Taiwan will sometimes argue the case for independence along “ethnic” and “linguistic” lines, and in that aspect, Taiwan can learn from the PQ’s experience, primarily to find out how not to behave.
The PQ leader and Quebec’s first female premier, Pauline Marois, has among other things proposed to expand the province’s language Law 101 that prevents francophones and immigrants from attending English-language junior colleges, and seeks to introduce a law that would make it impossible for non-French speakers to run for office.
In comments that echo Jacques Parizeau, an openly xenophobic former PQ leader who blamed the failure of the province’s second referendum in 1995 on the “ethnic vote,” Marois has also said (in French, of course) that it is the responsibility of everyone who wishes to call Quebec their home to learn and assimilate to the local culture, not to replace it with their own. For a party that equates language with cultural identity, this raises serious questions about whether the 20 percent or so of people who live in Quebec and who are not francophones continue to be welcome there under the pequistes.
Adopting such an ideology is not only a step backward for a multiethnic and immigrant society like Quebec’s, but risks exacerbating tensions between Anglophones and francophones, while encouraging extremists, like the 62-year-old man who shot and killed a person during Marois’ victory speech in Montreal, who fear the PQ will make them second-class citizens and no longer part of Quebec society. The term assimilation immediately brings to mind extreme rightists like Jean-Marie Le Pen in France or the late Joerg Haider of Austria, and goes against the reality of the modern world, where cultures do not replace one another in a zero-sum game, but rather evolve and become richer as a result of interaction.