Debate over ethnic nationalism sweeps through Quebec politics

Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitão accused the Coalition Avenir Québec of engaging in 'ethnic-based nationalism.'
Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitão accused the Coalition Avenir Québec of engaging in ‘ethnic-based nationalism.’ (CBC)
Photo of Jonathan Montpetit
Jonathan Montpetit

Carlos Leitão, the Liberals’ normally buttoned-down money man, tossed a match onto the oily rag of Quebec politics last week. He then stepped back and watched as the predictable happened.

In an interview with the West Island edition of the Montreal Gazette, Leitão said the Coalition Avenir Québec — currently besting his party in pre-election polls — engaged in “ethnic-based nationalism.”

For good measure, he added: “I’m not afraid of the words. This is what it is. They view the French majority as being under attack from all those foreigners out there.”

The CAQ did not take kindly to the comments. But neither did the two other opposition parties, the Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire. All three backed a motion that declared “no party in the National Assembly advocates ethnic nationalism.”

The Liberals refused to let the motion come to a vote, but that didn’t prevent a bitter debate from erupting in the National Assembly on Thursday. Leitão sat impassively as the CAQ and PQ demanded he apologize. He didn’t.

Leitão’s broadside has since been the subject of much hand-wringing by Journal de Montréal columnists and private radio hosts alike.

So what’s the big deal about ethnic nationalism anyway?

Good vs. bad nationalism

The term is often opposed to civic nationalism, which tends to be understood as the “good,” cosmopolitan kind of nationalism.

As a sense of attachment to a community, civic nationalism is thought to be based on the voluntary support of certain universal ideals and institutions, such as the rule of law or the defence of fundamental rights. It is inclusive and rational.

Ethnic nationalism, on the other hand, is taken to describe the kind of attachment based on “common descent” or what scholars call ascriptive ties, that is, bonds about which you don’t have a choice, such as race. It is exclusive and…

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