On September 11, the National Day of Catalonia, an estimated 1.6 million Catalans joined hands across the vast territory they’d like to call their own.
Dubbed the “Catalan Way,” the idea was to span, point-to-point, the entire land mass of Catalonia — the autonomous region in northeastern Spain seeking full independence from Madrid.
Demonstrating strength through numbers, activists formed a human chain across hundreds of kilometers, uniting in their quest for political and economic independence.
In the Canadian province of Québec, which also hosts a vibrant movement for territorial and economic independence, one would expect to see the same type of fervent displays.
Québec, like Catalonia, has roughly 7 million inhabitants who speak a language other than that of the national majority. The French language in Québec allows for a a vibrant cultural sphere with independent artists, musicians, and intellectuals, similar to the rich artistic traditions of the Catalan people. Both regions are vastly rich and developed, and argue they could expand once they are set free from the central government.
The province of Québec currently has a minority-ruling government in favor of independence, while Catalonia’s President Artur Mas has staked his entire political career on his native region separating from Spain.
The factor which separates the two breakaway nations, however, is politics. Unlike Catalonia, Québec’s independence movement has moved away from grand marches and nationalistic celebrations, and instead toward the political arena. It’s been championed by the pro-independence Parti Québécois, the party heading the current government. They’ve been in power for a combined 19 of the last 37 years, and held unsuccessful referendums on national sovereignty in 1980 and 1995, the latter of which lost by less than 1 percent.
Though intellectuals, artists, and civil society groups have pushed for Québec’s independence over the years, it is the Parti Québécois, and its federal counterpart the Bloc Québécois, that have personified the movement. Therefore, the idea of sovereignty has become more about molding political institutions and seeking power than seceding from Canada.
Once in power, the party shelved their ideal quests for independence in favor of more political, ideological goals. They imposed harsh restrictions on immigration and language, revamped the education system, and greatly increased healthcare and welfare spending.
It’s difficult to point to the exact moment of this degeneration, but no example comes to mind more than in wake of the failed 1995 referendum. In an bitter concession speech, Prime Minister Jacques Parizeau blamed “money and the ethnic vote” for the unsuccessful vote. Thus began a new brand of Québec independence — a brand reliant upon nativism, xenophobic populism, and a paternal welfare state to keep citizens reliant on the provincial government.
It was no surprise, therefore, when the Parti Québécois recently unveiled the “Québec Charter of Values.” This law would enforce state secularism and ban public employees from wearing religious symbols or pieces of clothing in the duties of their jobs, while citizens receiving public assistance would have to their faces uncovered.
Famed Québécois songwriter and poet Richard Desjardins summed it up well: “I still believe in independence for Quebec, but not with this gang!”
Even prominent members of the party have criticized the left-leaning, overarching creed of today’s Parti Québécois.
Jean-Martin Aussant, an economist and former investment banker who served as the Parti Québécois’ shadow economic minister from 2008 to 2012, left the party last year. He too felt disillusioned with the party, which he judged too comfortable with power and insincere when it came to seeking independence. He formed Option Nationale in 2012, a party dedicated first and foremost to Québec’s independence.
“There is no political party which proposes a clear ‘yes.’ We have to talk to Québécois about the advantages of sovereignty. At the moment, there are no parties which do this in a sincere, engaged fashion,” he explained to Radio-Canada.
The problem, which both Desjardins and Aussant articulate, is that the the politicians and the bureaucrats usurped the sovereignty movement. The passion for independence was taken from ordinary individuals and boiled down to a slick, packaged form of politics, chained to an ideology of “us versus them.”
At least in Catalonia, ordinary people are rallying together and not relying on political institutions to carry through with the idea of independence. They aren’t putting their hopes and desires into political parties which say the right things at election time but abandon all ideas of a new state once in power.
Of course, there is no perfect formula nor equation for creating a new country out of the mold of an old one. And Canada, the most decentralized federation in the world, likely gives much more autonomy to Québec than Spain gives to Catalonia.
But at least among the Catalan people, who are impassioned enough to link together across hundreds of kilometers of land and take the independence movement into their own hands, they have yet to misplace their idealism and dream of self-determination. They have united to create the vision of their free tomorrow, untangled from the political whims and wishes of the temporary guardians of state’s purse strings.