MONTREAL — Quebec sovereignists rejoiced at the result of the election in the Spanish region of Catalonia that saw parties in favour of a referendum on separation from Spain win a majority of seats in the regional legislature.
The Catalan flag was hoisted outside the headquarters of the Société St. Jean Baptiste on Sherbrooke St., and various separatist luminaries touted the Catalan vote as an inspiration and morale booster for a sagging Quebec independence movement.
It would appear that the Catalan separatist movement has more wind in its sails that the local one. In September, a pro-independence demonstration drew a turnout of a million and a half in Barcelona, showing drawing power that the Quebec movement can only dream of these days. In Sunday’s election, parties favouring a referendum took 87 of the legislature’s 135 seats.
However, beyond the fact that the ethnic Catalans and the francophone Québécois are a substantial minority in their respective countries, the differences between the two render other comparisons specious.
Catalans rightly chafe at the lack of respect for their native language by Spanish authorities. It was ruthlessly suppressed under the 40-year Franco dictatorship, and only since its demise in the 1970s was it allowed to be taught in schools. French, on the other hand, is an official language in Canada, and Quebec’s French-first language law has been in place for decades.
In Catalonia, local nationalists complain that while Spain has granted a certain level of autonomy to the region, the central government in Madrid has been grudging in its recognition of this, and has taken measures to trim the regional legislature’s prerogatives. Quebec, meanwhile, is a province of Canada, equal to all others and with constitutional dispensations in recognition of its distinct character. The current federal government has shown a marked hands-off attitude toward provincial jurisdictions compared with previous administrations.
Quebec has power to impose and collect its own taxes, something denied Catalonia. Economically, Catalonia resembles Alberta more than Quebec in that it is Spain’s economic powerhouse, contributing a disproportionate sum of its revenues to the national treasury, while Quebec is a net beneficiary of the Canadian fiscal system.
Quebec is also freer than Catalonia to pursue its destiny. Quebec is empowered to hold independence referendums, within the reasonable constraints of the Clarity Act, and has done so on two occasions without even those restraints. Catalonia, under a Spanish constitution that declares the country indivisible, would have to get approval from the central government to hold its referendum, a permission that government has threatened to deny.
Even with Sunday’s vote, Catalonia is far from being inexorably on the road to independence. The vote was less of a boost for the independence movement than the seat count for pro-referendum parties suggests. Among them are the right-leaning governing party, which won only a 50-seat minority, and the hard-left principal opposition party whose support will be essential in pushing for a referendum.
It hardly seems like the makings of a harmonious coalition. Rather, it looks much like the Quebec Liberals and Québec solidaire attempting to make common cause.
And this in a situation where Catalonia, along with the rest of Spain, is on the verge of bankruptcy. Unemployment is running at 19 per cent; the region has no legal access to international bond markets under Spanish law; it has rung up the highest debt of all Spanish regions. And even amid its mounting independentist fervour, it had to hit up Madrid last spring for a €5 billion loan.
For most Quebecers, that hardly sounds inspiring. On the contrary, it is more likely to impart relief that they live in a stable Canada.
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