John Peters Humphrey On Quebec Secession

By William Ayotte-Rideout

Over the last 40 years, the Province of Quebec has made two attempts under the political leadership of the Parti Québécois (P.Q.) to achieve sovereignty, and separate from Canada.[1] The first referendum was in 1980, under the political leadership of René Lévesque, and the second in 1995 under Jacques Parizeau.[2] Both attempts failed, as the majority of Quebecers voted ‘No’, yet this majority was small.[3] In 1995, for example, only 50.58% voted against separation.[4] Thus the logic behind the Quebec separatist movement is important. Sovereigntists argued that Canada ought to recognize Quebec’s right to self-determination, if it succeeded in obtaining the popular vote through democratic procedure.[5]

John Peters Humphrey discusses the idea of granting Quebec’s right to self-determination in his speech, titled Quebec and the Right to Secede. Humphrey’s speech was delivered in the United States in the mid-1970s[6] between Quebec’s general election of 1973, and the upcoming provincial election of 1976. At the time, the political climate in Quebec was not as intense as it would later become from 1976 to 1995.[7] Humphrey was speaking at a time when polls indicated that only 24% voters were in favour of independence.[8] Humphrey was among those people who were against Quebec sovereignty.  Humphrey also expressed his doubts that the P.Q. would be able to get enough support in the election of 1976. Thus many were caught by surprise when the P.Q. was get elected with only 41.4% of the popular vote.[9] Humphrey’s speech is important as it shows us that in the mid-1970s the right to self-determination was not understood as a legal right, either internationally or in Canada. Furthermore, Quebec sovereignty was viewed as a dangerous threat to cultural stability within Canada, and to the country’s unity. This is an important argument to understand as we look at the evolution of the nationalist debate in Quebec, following the first referendum in 1980, and key developments since then.

Humphrey begins his speech to his American audience, by discussing the idea of ‘a right to national self-determination’ in the international context. He notes that while the United States clearly does not ascribe to this right at home, given that they did not grant the South the right to secession and fought a Civil War to prevent this from happening, Woodrow Wilson, an American, advocated for the right to self-determination internationally. However, Humphrey states that Wilson did not view this as a legal right, but as a principle. Significantly, he also highlights the fact that nowhere in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the right to self-determination identified as a legal right. He concludes that the right to self-determination applied only in colonial circumstances. For example, Nigeria was given the right to secede from Great Britain. However, there is no international recognition, Humphrey states, that there is a right for for a ‘people’ within a country to secede. Thus he states “French Canadian Separatist can find little comfort in international law”. Moreover, he notes that Canadian law also did not recognize the legal right to self-determination. This is important, as it shows Humphrey is not convinced that Quebec has the legal right to self-determination, both according to international standards, as well as within Canada. Thus he turns to politics.

Humphrey takes a clear position against Quebec separation (although he does not explicitly state it). While he expresses his doubts that the separatists were going to be able to garner enough support in the next election, he also believes that if they did, the federal government would not necessarily view an elected P.Q. government as “a mandate for independence” and thus grant their sovereignty. Moreover, Humphrey believed Quebec separatism was bad for both Canada and French Canadian culture. Humphrey acknowledges that in the past, some people understood Canada as having two separate nations, but he makes the point that English Canadians are beginning to see that the strength of Canada as a nation depends on “their ability to find accommodation with Quebec.” Moreover, he argues that French Canadian culture would be better protected in Canada than in a sovereign Quebec. He notes that at this time, the federal government was beginning to consider recommendations of having a federal government that can communicate in both languages anywhere across the country. He also noted that there was a growing sense among Anglophones, that speaking French “is now the ‘in’ thing”. He believed that an “Independent Quebec would be a weaker guardian of the French fact than a Quebec which is part of a strong Canada, a Canada which is also bilingual and bicultural”. Humphrey further states that Canada is a much more decentralized federation than the U.S., and so he predicts that if Quebec were to separate, Canada would fall apart as a country, and the U.S. would have to “pick up the pieces”.

Humphrey’s arguments are important to reflect on. His ambitions about a growing movement of acceptance, leading Quebec to develop a sense of belonging in Canada did not unfold perhaps as he would have hoped. By the end of the 20th century, many Quebecers were dissatisfied in their place within the Canadian federation.[10] The motivations behind the Referendum of 1995 were in large part due to the failures of the Meech Lake Accords, in which “a large majority of Canadians outside of Quebec (between 60 and 70%) opposed the agreement, mainly because of the distinct society clause for Quebec”.[11] Many Quebecers wanted recognition of their special status as a distinct nation within Canada.[12] It seemed as though Quebecers were looking for accommodation, but other Canadian provinces were not willing to give it.[13] Laforest argues that as a result, many Quebecers fell into a state of internal exile from Canada, and have had to orient themselves following the long-term consequences of the patriation of the Constitution in 1982.[14] Another interesting  development was the passing of the Clarity Act in 2000.[15] This piece of legislation allows the federal government to determine whether a referendum was legitimate, as well as judge whether a majority vote was clearly obtained.[16] Significantly, the Clarity Act also prohibited unilateral succession from Canada, making it illegal for a province to declare independence without a constitutional amendment.[17] Therefore, if Quebecers decide they want to pursue the right to national self-determination today, they may find it more difficult. In conclusion, Humphrey’s understanding of the right to national self-determination within the Quebec-Canadian context seems to have evolved amongst today’s politicians and policymakers. In a way, the federal government has recognized the possibility of Quebec succession, but has passed legislation limiting its potential.


[1] François Rocher. 2014. “Self-determination and the Use of Referendums: the Case of Quebec”. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society. 27 (1): 25.

[2] François Rocher, “Self-determination and the Use of Referendums,” 25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 39.

[5] Ibid, 43, 25.

[6] Humphrey probably wrote this speech in early 1974, as he talks about the upcoming federal election, which took place in July 1974.

[7] François Rocher, “Self-determination and the Use of Referendums,” 25.

[8] Ibid, 28.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 42.

[11] Ibid, 35.

[12] Guy Laforest. 2009. “The Internal Exile of Quebecers in the Canada of the Charter”, in James B. Kelly and Christopher P. Mandfredi (eds). Contested Constitutionalism: Reflections on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Vancouver: UBC Press: 256.

[13] François Rocher, “Self-determination and the Use of Referendums,” 35.

[14] Guy Laforest. 2009. “The Internal Exile of Quebecers in the Canada of the Charter”, 252.

[15] François Rocher, “Self-determination and the Use of Referendums,” 42.

[16] Ibid, 41

[17] Ibid. [LM9]Given the focus of your earlier analysis on group rights, the conclusion should focus on this point.

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