Paper on Historical Basis of Quebec’s Claim to Special Treatment in Canada

Quebec holds a special place among all the provinces in Canada. The special place, etched in the nation’s constitution, has a long history dating back to the 1700s. Over the years, Quebec’s special place has remained within a federal system that has aimed to champion diversity, yet continue in the path of promoting peace. The method used to qualify Quebec’s special status has its roots in the 1960s, which opined that Quebec would continue to enjoy further special considerations and powers as a means of protecting and developing its distinct culture, even as it continues to be part of the federal system of the nation. Tracing the roots of Quebec’s special status, however, requires a look at the federal system and its workings. It also calls for delving into the history of Canada as a former colony and one of the top immigrant destinations in the world from its very founding as a nation. Quebec’s special status and treatment are thus not by accident but have a long history entrenched in the founding and laws of Canada as a country.

One of the most outstanding features in Canada is its federal system. Unlike most federal systems that treat all its federals equally, Canada’s gives precedence to Quebec.  In all intentions, the purpose of federal systems is never to bridge the differences among its citizens by making them uniform or through the elimination of those differences; instead, they work to preserve the diverse identities within a common rule (Brock, 2011). Like many political institutions, the federal system intends to channel and influence the preservation of diversity and unity. Brock (2011) posits, “In a well-functioning federal system, the peaceful articulation and accommodation of differences within existing structures serving all of society are critical. Thus, achieving and maintaining a flexible balance between diversity (federalism, multiple communities) and unity (the political whole, a binding community) is fundamental to this exercise” (p. 1). The idea has, for all purposes, been the underlying factor at play in federal Canada, where the whole has not been sacrificed for a part, despite its special treatment.

For a successful implementation, the workings of a federal system must go beyond the national and subnational levels to all the aspects of a nation. Strazzari (2017) avers that deeply infusing the spirit of federalism lies in the fact that often federal states are usually a result of compacting previously independent and formally equal states, which creates the supposition that each of the compounding components deserves equal treatment with an entrustment of equal powers. The idea here is to provide an encompassing federal spirit that transcends national and subnational levels to all jurisdictional units within the federation. Worth noting for federal governments is the need for respect, particularly the diversity in communities represented by across the entire federal jurisdictions. Brock (2011) contends “In a well-functioning federation, these diverse communities will reach out to their counterparts in the other jurisdictions creating cross-cutting cleavages that bind the nation together while diffusing the passions that could erupt if contained in one jurisdiction alone” (p. 3). The foregoing should ideally be the spirit and daily functioning of a federal system.

As a system, federalism is essentially a division of power between the twin levels of government. Yet it does not stop at the distribution of power alone but goes to citizens being subject to the two levels, while at the same time enjoying the benefits that come with the two levels (Brock, 2011). The measurement of success of any federal system, therefore, must take into account not only the respect towards the autonomy of the two levels but also the benefits that accrue to the citizens within their regions and the whole.

Equity and diversity are among the founding principles of federalism, yet Canada presents an anomaly in its treatment of Quebec. Quebec holds a special place among Canadians and receives equally special treatment, which has been a source of tension between it and the rest of the nation. As a province, Quebec has over the recent years been a sore thumb in Canada, prompting winds of constitutional change to buffet the province (Brock, 2011). Chief among clamor for change regarding Quebec were the 1980s-1990s patriation of the constitutional process, which left Quebec desolate, even as its government refused to sign the deal (Adams, 2015; Koshan, 2012). Later negotiations to bring Quebec to the fold worsened the tensions between Quebec and the rest of the nation. The disquiet between Quebec and the rest of Canada had settled in among the residents of Quebec and their culture, so much that the then separatist government called for a referendum on Quebec’s sovereignty (Brock, 2011). Although its bid on sovereignty failed, the small margin (50.6% against 49.6%) was a wake-up call to Canadians, prompting the national government to work towards convincing Quebec residents on the benefits of staying in the federal system.

To understand the cause of these tensions and near separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada requires a look at the historical basis of Quebec’s special treatment. Bélanger (2010) informs that across different stages of its history, Canadian authorities did recognize Quebec’s uniqueness among other provinces, according to its special constitutional protection. Among the first of the special recognitions for Quebec was the Quebec Act, which enshrined the special treatment in the constitution, largely different from provisions of other provinces in Canada.

Passed in 1774, the Quebec Act was a response to the American Revolution. According to Bélanger (2010), fearing that the Canadiens (French-speaking, Roman Catholic population of the Province of Québec) would join the Americans in revolting against them, the British government passed the Act. The Act was supposed to quell the British government’s fears of Americans getting assistance from the Canadiens, while at the same time give the Canadiens wider constitutional freedom to dissuade from intervening in the American Revolution. In hindsight, the British government had come to the realization that assimilation as a policy as spelled out in the Royal Proclamation (first constitution given to Quebec in 1763 giving it its first civil government) made little sense given that Quebec was largely French and few British immigrants had the intention of settling in the Province (Bélanger, 2010). The Act forthwith abolished the assimilation policies in the Royal Proclamation, while its intended purpose was to preserve Canadiens’ customs and prejudices, giving them an illusion of a New France, only under the British empire.

The Act brought with it additional changes to Quebec as a province. Bélanger (2010) informs that first among the changes was the expansion of the Province to include Ohio Valley, which previously was subject to a dispute. Although a Governor would be responsible for governing the Province, assistance would be provided through an appointed Council. Perhaps most important was the abolition of the anti-Catholic Test Oath, which had previously locked out the French (practicing Catholics) from the colony’s governance in favor of the British protestants (Anglicans) (Beaman, 2017). Additionally, the Act expedited the establishment of a House Assembly, with a legal system that borrowed and merged British criminal laws and French civil laws (a feature that continues to date). Through the recognition of the French civil law, it meant that the Roman Catholic Church had the mandate and authority to collect tithe (although leaving out the Protestants), even as seigneurs reaped through the reintroduction of the French civil laws closely tied to their seigneurial system. An additional bill embedded in the Act reverted tax obligation to those charged during the French regime.

Although the Act succeeded in dissuading the Canadiens from joining the Americans, it also failed to impress the Canadiens. Bélanger (2010) posits that the Act fell short of satisfying the Canadiens, although it did recognize the special character and composition of the Province within the wider British Empire. Canadiens’ dissatisfaction with the changes moved them to refuse to join the British against the Americans and yet again they (Canadiens) did not join the Americans in large numbers for the revolution.

Even before the Act, Quebec’s special place in Canada was inherent in its fronting of the federal system. Bélanger (2014) informs that from the onset of the old Union, Quebec pushed towards federalism, even though the idea was originally from the North. Quebec and Ontario shared confederation on the principle of duality, which meant two provinces equally sharing power, despite Quebec amounting to only 40 percent of the confederate population (Bélanger, 2014). Federalism ideally helped the French Canadians to alleviate the fears of both the anglophone and francophone populations in Quebec. Confederation of Ontario and Quebec into a federation through the Constitution Act of 1867 birthed the federal system currently in use in Canada (Richardson & Lambek, 2018). It assured the equality of the provinces in status, in addition to grounding the recognition of the fundamental differences of the given populations in the provinces. In their push for federalism, the French in Quebec sought the protection of their culture, which the Constitutional Act establishing the federal system assured, grounding the special treatment of the province.

The push for protection of their culture is evident in the Constitutional Act’s composition of the senate. According to Albert (2015), the Constitutional Act put a threshold in the representation of regions in the nation’s senate. Each region had 24 representatives, who have to own property or live in their respective representative regions. Quebec, however, was different as each of the 24 senators has to be appointed for one of the 24 Electoral Divisions. Moreover, the appointee had to be a resident or own property in the province and the Electoral Division they had been appointed to (Bélanger, 2010). The provision’s goal was to afford an adequate representation of the catholic and protestant groups in Quebec within the senate. The act essentially made it difficult for the government to appoint a representative who had no cultural similarities with the district he/she represented.

The Constitutional Act’s special treatment of Quebec is additionally visible in the House of Commons. Instead of using a representative by population formula to get the number of representatives, the Constitution gave Quebec a standard 65 seats, while other provinces’ number of representatives was calculated from Quebec’s population ratio (Albert, 2015; Bélanger, 2010). The move meant that even when Quebec’s population did not rise commensurate to the other provinces, it had its 65-block of seats. The system installed such a form of representation to give and protect the province’s (Quebec) weight in the confederation.

Through the Constitution, Quebec enjoyed discretion in the provincial legislative council and the number of councilors. The 24-member provincial legislative council absent in Ontario at the time made Quebec stand out. Moreover, there was no fixed number of councilors where there was a legislative council’s presence. Bélanger (2010) offers that such a move was to ensure there was an adequate representation of the Anglo-protestant minority.

The Constitutional Act also has provisions for linguistic rights. While other provinces relied on English, the Constitution allowed English or French to be used in Quebec’s National Assembly. The provision extended to courts in the province. Moreover, official communication and records had to be in both English and French, as well as journals and laws passed by the province.

Quebec’s special treatment in Canada has a long history, dating back to the founding of the federal system currently in place in the nation. From the foregoing, the special treatment emanated from the distinct characteristic of Quebec from the onset of founding Canada as a nation. The unique characteristics and the need to appease the inhabitants called for wisdom in handling the intricate balance of power and culture present in the province at the time. The special treatment, however, has not augured well with the rest of the provinces, who continually see the special treatment as contravening the essence of federalism. At the core of federalism is equal treatment for all, which is a far cry from the current and historical treatment of Quebec.  Although entrenched in the constitution, it will be prudent to find ways to quell the simmering disgruntlement, which threatened the unity of the federal system through Quebec’s sovereignty vote.


Adams, E., M. (2015). Constitutional nationalism: Politics, law, and culture on the road to patriation. In Harder, L. & Patten, S. Patriation and its Consequences: Constitution Making in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Albert, R. (2015). The difficulty of constitutional amendment in Canada. Alberta Law Review, 53(1), 85-113.

Beaman, L., G. (2017). Religious diversity in the public sphere: The Canadian case. Religions, 8(259), 1-18.

Bélanger, C. (2010). Quebec, the Constitution and Special Status. Westmount, Quebec: Marianopolis College

Bélanger, C. (2014). Quebec and the Confederation Project (1864-1867). Westmount, Quebec: Marianopolis College

Berger, B., L. (2013). Children of two logics: A Way into Canadian constitutional culture. I Con, 11(2), 319-338. Retrieved from

Brock, K., L. (2011). A Double Take: Quebec within the Canadian Federation or Racing in the Rain Canadian Style. CPSA Annual Conference, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario. Retrieved from

Koshan, J. (2012). Peter Lougheed and the Constitution, Notwithstanding. University of Calgary. Retrieved from

Richardson, S., B. & Lambek, N. (2018). Federalism and fragmentation. Canadian Food Studies, 5(3), 28-48.

Strazzari, D. (2017). Immigration and Federalism in Canada: beyond Quebec Exceptionalism? Perspectives on Federalism, 9(3),56-84.