Quebec is a country in North America, currently a province of Canada. Its predominantly French-speaking character is a legacy of a differentiated history stemming from the beginning of French colonization in the 16th century. It is one of the world’s largest stateless nations, with a population mainly made up of descendants of European colonists, members of First Nations, and more recent migrants from around the world and their descendants.
Canada, where French is an official language alongside English, is a federation made up of ten provinces and three self-governing territories. Provinces are considered to be constituents of the Canadian federation, while territories have their autonomy devolved by the federal government. Provincial powers —and the very existence of the provinces themselves— cannot be repealed through a constitutional amendment without the agreement of the provincial legislature.
Explorer Jacques Cartier founded in 1534 the first settlement on the land that would eventually become today’s Quebec. Until then, the territory was dominated by Cree, Inuit, Naskapi and Iroquois peoples. A strong influx of French settlers during the 17th and 18th centuries changed the territory’s demographic balance, until it became majority French-speaking.
In 1763 Quebec passed into British hands. The United Kingdom, however, maintained the linguistic rights of French speakers and confirmed the official character of the Catholic religion, to which most French speakers adhered.
In 1867 Quebec became one of the four founding provinces of federal Canada, within which it will continuously maintain an autonomous legislative and executive power.
During this process, the indigenous peoples were stripped of their forms of autonomy and, in many cases, of their territories. Their languages underwent processes of minoritisation, and the colonial authorities encouraged their acculturation and assimilation.
Throughout the 20th century, the Franco-Canadian identity, anchored in Catholic conservatism, was gradually replaced by a new sense of national identity, the Québecois identity, which grew fast during the 1960s amidst a process of social modernization in the historical period known as the Quiet Revolution. As regards party politics, that process culminated with the decline and dissolution of the main conservative and Catholic French-Canadian party (the National Union) during the 1970s and 1980s, coinciding with the rise of the pro-sovereignty Parti Québecois, which for the first time won the Quebec legislative election in 1976.
Quebec’s sovereignist government held a referendum on independence in 1980 (40.4% of votes for secession, 59.6% against) and yet another one in 1995 (49.6 % for, 50.4% against). The Parti Québecois says it will hold a third vote in the future, with no precise day.
French being its most spoken language is one of the main differentiating features of Quebec in the North American context. According to the 2011 census, French is the mother tongue of 78.1% of Québécois, followed by English with 7.7%. The Charter of the French Language (1977) provides that French is Quebec’s only official language, the language used in schools and the language of common usage in business.
Speakers of Native languages stand at 0.4% of the population. Cree is the one with most speakers (15,000), but Inuktitut is strongest in proportion (it is spoken by 90% of Quebec’s Inuits).
The Quebec National Assembly approved in 2003 a resolution that affirmed that “the Québécois people form a nation.” In 2006, the House of Commons of the Canadian Parliament passed a motion recognizing that the “Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.”
80% of French-speaking Québécois considered in 2012 that the Constitution should recognize the Quebec nation, according to a Léger Marketing survey.
The 11 indigenous peoples of Quebec (Abenaki, Anishinaabeg, Atikamekw, Cree, Malecite, Mikmaq, Innu, Naskapi, Wendat, Mohawk, and Inuit) espouse their own national identities.
Politics and government
The executive power of the autonomous government (province) of Quebec is exercised by the Executive Council and by the prime minister, while the legislative power is vested in the National Assembly, whose members are elected by universal suffrage by Quebecers aged 18 years or over. The Government of Quebec-appointed Quebec Court exercises judicial power of first instance in civil and criminal offences.
Quebec’s exclusive powers include the areas of education, health, natural resources, civil rights, municipal organization, and local and provincial justice. Areas shared with the federal government include transport, immigration and agriculture.
First nations are represented at the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, exception being made for the Inuit.
The James Bay Cree have legislative autonomy in local affairs since 2017 in their territory of Eeyou Istchee. North Quebec’s Inuit have a supramunicipal executive government (the Kativik Regional Government) and are calling for the creation of a legislative and executive autonomy in their territory, Nunavik, that expands the powers of the Kativik Regional Government and the Makivik Corporation.
Since the 1990s, the political scene has been dominated by three main parties: the Parti Quebecois (PQ), the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) and Democratic Action (currently the Coalition Avenir Québec, CAQ), to which a fourth party must be added starting with the first decade of the 21st century: Quebec Solidaire (QS).
Two of those parties support Quebec independence: PQ, which holds centre and centre-left views, and QS, to the left of PQ bringing together sectors ranging from the social democrats to the communists, with an important place for green and feminist politics. PLQ is a federalist, liberal party that holds centre and centre-right views. CAQ is a centre-right, non pro-independence, Quebec nationalist party. In the national axis, it is located between PQ and PLQ.
Prime minister: François Legault, CAQ (since 2018)
Distribution of seats in the National Assembly (October 2018 election). 125 members:
Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) - 75*
Liberal Party of Quebec (PLQ) - 28**
Québec Solidaire (QS) - 10
Parti Québecois (PQ) - 8***
Independents - 4****
* CAQ won 74 seats at the October 2018 election plus 2 more at the December 2018 Roberval by-election and the December 2019 Jean-Talon by-election after the resignation of the two PLQ's MNAs of those ridings. CAQ lost 1 seat afterwards (see below).
** Initially, 31.
*** Initially, 10.
**** The independent seats are held by Catherine Fournier, who was elected as a member of PQ; Guy Ouellette, who was expelled from the PLQ; Harold Lebel, who was expelled from the PQ; and Denis Tardif, who was expelled from the CAQ.
Electoral system: first-past-the-post in 125 single-member election divisions.
(Last updated January 2021.)