The debate around the "Quebec nation" was on the wrong track from day one, for the simple reason that there is no such a thing as a Quebec nation.
Apart from its meaning as a "sovereign country," the word "nation" designates a people bound by history, language and territory. In this sense, the "nation" that is referred to is the French-Canadian nation, formed by the descendants of the French colonizers of "Nouvelle France;" even though the vast majority is concentrated in Quebec, the actual territory of this nation is Canada at large. Provinces are not nations because they all are multicultural, including Quebec.
Everybody knows this, but nowadays, it is politically incorrect to refer to an ethnically based nation. The inescapable reality, though, is that the presence, in Quebec, of six million French Canadians is the only reason Quebeckers think of the province as a nation, and the reason why Quebec is the only province that has a powerful sovereigntist movement.
Newfoundlanders and British Columbians, for instance, have strong provincial identities, but there is no secessionist movement in these provinces because there is no ethnic group that could give birth to such a movement.
If there is a sovereigntist movement in Quebec, it's certainly not because the province has a civil code and a Caisse de dépôt. All provinces have some distinct institutions. The source of the sovereigntist movement lies in the existence of the French-Canadian nation - a nation that is, of course, inclusive and into which many individuals from various minorities have integrated through marriage or choice. It is language and a 400 year-old history that explain Quebec nationalism and the push for sovereignty.
During the 1980s, ethnicity became an unsavoury concept because it smacked of ethnocentricity and xenophobia. Sovereigntist leaders replaced it with the concept of a "civic nation" that would exclusively refer to contemporary, multicultural Quebec - never mind that practically nobody outside the French-Canadian community feels part of a Quebec nation.
This semantic about-face had several advantages for sovereigntists: It excluded the word "Canadian" (as in French Canadian) from the political vocabulary; it masked the existence of the French-speaking minorities (always a problem for sovereigntists); it provided an attractive (if false) image of the sovereigntist movement as a wide gathering of Quebeckers of various origins, and finally, it would lead to sovereignty, seen as full nationhood. But it was a linguistic fraud.
In the process, French Canadians lost their identity. Those who live in Quebec are the only community in Canada without a name. They use periphrases to identify themselves, describing themselves as "francophones" (but this also applies to people of Haitian or Lebanese descent) or as "old-stock Quebeckers" (but this also applies to the anglophone minority of British origin).
Yet, the distinctions prevail in the daily language. Quebec anglophones routinely use the French term ("Québécois") to refer to French Canadians. When the late premier René Lévesque appointed Robert Boyd to the board of Hydro-Québec, he said with a wink: "He's a good Québécois" (meaning, he's a French Canadian despite his English surname).
The word Québécois, or Quebecker, has two meanings: It designates the citizenry at large who share the same driver's licence and health-care card. But when it comes to identity, French Canadian and Québécois are synonyms, as in "At my school, there are more Haitians and Arabs than Québécois." Or, speaking of a Quebec-born Jew who married a French Canadian: "He married a Québécoise."
The concept of a civic nation uniquely based in Quebec was created by the sovereigntists for tactical purposes. The provincial Liberals, under pressure to cater to the nationalist vote, foolishly fell into the semantic trap. They too have been half-heartedly talking about the "Quebec nation" for a few years. And then, Michael Ignatieff and the Quebec wing of the Liberal Party of Canada blindly followed suit. They should have known that words are not innocent.