Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Jane Jacobs, Quebec sovereigntist

Read more articles by

“While it is quite possible that Quebec would do no better on its own than as a province of Canada, there is little reason to suppose that it would do worse, and there are even some practical reasons for supposing that it might do better…. Dependence is stultifying, and sometimes the obverse is true. That is, sometimes independence releases new kinds of effort, opens up formerly untapped funds of energy, initiative, originality, and self confidence. “

– Jane Jacobs, The Question of Separatism

The name Jane Jacobs is familiar to just about any person interested in cities and she occupies a place of honour in the pantheon of urban thinkers. Jacobs was made famous by her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and to this day she is most well known for the influence that she had on modern urban planning. While she focused on urban issues throughout her life, she also intervened on a wide range of other political and social topics. One of her lesser know positions was support for Quebec sovereignty. What better day than La Fête nationale du Québec to take a closer look at her thoughts on the topic?

American by birth, she immigrated to Canada in 1968 and became a Canadian citizen in the 1970s. She quickly became politically active in her adopted homeland, and in 1980 she published The Question of Separatism, setting forth her views as to why an independent Quebec would be beneficial for the well-being of both Quebeckers and Canadians. As always, Jacobs delivers astute and heterodox analyses. Despite the fact that it was written 30 years ago, to this day it makes for an interesting and insightful read.

She starts off the book with what is in my view an extremely reasonable observation. Nationalism and national identity are fundamentally emotional. We can give logical reasons as to why one arrangement is better than the other, but at the end of the day it’s about how our imagination perceives our broader political community. According to Jacobs, “Trying to argue about these feeling is as fruitless as trying to argue that people in love ought not to be in love, or that if they must be, then they should be cold and hard-headed about choosing their attachment. It doesn’t work that way. We feel; our feelings are their own argument.” She then goes on to explain why, looking at the situation as objectively as possible, she saw Quebec independence to the the most beneficial way for forward.

Her support for Quebec sovereignty was largely born out of her belief that things on a smaller, more human scale are to be preferred whenever possible. “Large size creates complications. Big organizations need coordinators, liaison people, perscribed channels of communication, administrators, supervisors of supervisors, whole extra departments devoted to serving the organization itself.  A small organization can get along without a bureaucracy. A big one cannot.” In her view bigness is not synonymous with progress, and large structures should only be maintained when they are clearly the only form that will get the job done.

She was highly dubious that Canada passes this test, describing it as a “shotgun union that has proved neither happy nor fruitful”, and she saw many possible benefits in greater local control over policy. She also maintainted that the supposed economic dangers of separation were little more than fear mongering and pointed to many small countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark which have been very economically successful.

She also believed that ultimately sovereignty would be better for Montreal. She saw the Montreal of 1980 as being at a dangerous crossroads. It had lost its position as Canada’s metropole and unless something drastic changed it would be doomed to become a second-rate, stagnant regional city. Like Winnipeg or Halifax, it would be reduced to being a local administrative centre in a colonial, primary resource-based economy.  She posited that only as the metropole of an independent Quebec could Montreal remain economic vitality.

Jacobs draws an interesting parallel between Quebec’s National Question and Norway’s long and eventually successful struggle for independence from Sweden in the nineteenth century. Norway became a Swedish possession in 1814 when the two countries were fused together in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Over the decades Norway developed a nationalist movement that was slowly but surely able to extract more an more concessions out of the Swedish Crown: a Norwegian legislature, a flag, and even responsible government. After a number of political crises the Norwegian parliament unilaterally declared independence in 1904, a decision which was overwhelmingly ratified in a popular referendum. It was a messy divorce, but one which in the long term lead to greater prosperity and dignity for the two countries, and one that according to Jacobs Canada could learn from.

Many of Jacob’s more dire predictions haven’t come true, largely because over the past thirty years Quebec has been successful at carving away more and more autonomy from the federal government. Full independence hasn’t been acheived, but today’s Quebec is far more self-assured and independent than it once was. Quebec has managed to build up its own institutions, as well as its own local, homegrown economy, the so called Quebec Inc. As for Montreal, while it had a rough time in the 1980s, it has not seen the decline that she predicted, but has instead developed into the vibrant cultural and economic metropole of Quebec.

While not everything has come to pass as Jacobs predicted, many of her insights and comments have held up to the test of time. In many ways her Sweden/Norway analogy of slow, gradual separation has become an even more accurate analogy with thirty years hindsight. Of course, it remains to be seen in Quebec will make the final jump like Norway did. While not all of the points covered in The Question of Separatism are still relevant, it makes for interesting food for thought.

The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty was published in 1980 by Random House Books and was based on a series of Massey Lectures given by Ms. Jacobs in 1979 entitled “Canadian Cities and Sovereignty Association”. It only went to print for one edition and it has never been published in French.



  1. As a relatively recent resident of Montreal and Quebec (3 years) I find myself more and more sympathetic to the sovereignty cause, and I agree with Jacobs’ position that smaller groups of people can be more democratically governed than large ones. However, the currently reality is that the government of Quebec is actually very large; I believe we have one of the largest bureaucracies per capita of almost anywhere in the world. And despite the public largesse, we still have crumbling roads and a very overburdened health care system, etc. It’s difficult to see how independence would change that, although it would be refreshing for Quebeckers to take full responsibility for these problems.
    There would be no passing the buck in an independent Quebec!

  2. I agree with Jacobs’ position that smaller groups of people can be more democratically governed than large ones

    That sounds great prima facie. Until you recall all the tiny dictatorships the world over. Quebec might hope to be as liberated as, say, Albainia or Belarus!

    Nevermind all the mob-ruled Western cities. No chance of that happening in Montreal, right? A gouvernment overconcerned with legislating in favor of its majority language may not have the spare time to look into those water meter & construction contracts, after all.

    I used to think ‘smaller = better’ too. but, as you point out, QC is not bureaucratically small by any means, and separation promises no reduction. And, honestly, nationalism is a worrysome fuel for secession. When it’s the only fuel – it’s simply a bad move.

  3. Thanks for this article Devin. One quibble – i think she actually published this book BEFORE the 1st referendum, as there’s no mention of the results. Oh, to be swept up in a time of political optimism when even my anglo-immigrant dad voted in favour of sovereignty… I wonder how much things have changed economically since 1980 though, and whether some of her arguments still stand.

    On the other hand, our federal government is the best reason for sovereign governance that I’ve experienced yet.

  4. Jean Naimard: I think you are a case of emotions influencing what you see as “logical”.
    At the time of confederation, the French “trust in the state” that you refer to later on, was why there was such blind trust in the church, a wholly French Roman Catholic one that was very directly involved in politics.  To suggest that this was imposed by English Canada is simply false.

    The big government is why I cannot have a family doctor in Quebec, while other provinces do — the cost of that public service is so burdensome that we cannot afford things like quality health care, and our taxes are so high.

    The small government out West is an example of why they have such poor social services.  What is great, in a very logical fashion, about Canada, is that as a combined country, each of the many sides influence each other.  Quebec’s pressured not to become another France, with strikes and a generally unhappy workforce, while the West has to provide more social services than the U.S. 

    The most logical of all arguments in favour of a whole country, however, is that we as Canadians and/or Quebecers are not alone in the world. Canada, as a result of all these varied parts, has enormous respect and influence relative to our size.  Quebecers benefit like all Canadians in having a chance to be a part of this greater influence.  Quebec alone would just be another little Nationalist country with no real influence in the world.

    The part you wrote about manufacturing is simply ignorant to any facts.  Have you been to Toronto?  The manufacturing industry is several times greater than that of Montreal, and still growing.  Quebec’s manufacturing has constantly been suffering from high taxes, and the only reason high technology is still here is that our taxes go to subsidize them (hello Bombardier).  Apparently Quebec prefers Bombardier to doctors.  Is this an example of good big government?

    “employees will not quit on you and become your competition, so you can safely train them for higher productivity, only to jump ship and turn against you.”  You are saying, very directly that French people are better people than English people.  
    The idea of Canada is that we’re all equal, French, English, Chinese, whoever.  You’ve very openly shown how Quebec, if independent, would treat non-French as lower class.  With the problems of racism already very bad in this province, for nationalism to be instituted at all government levels, would be the end of the progressive development of Quebec that’s been ongoing since the last referendum.

  5. Wonderful article! I, like the first commenter, was (and will soon again be) a transplant to Montreal. Cognizant that the input of an American on the sovereignty debate is liable to be less than appreciated, I usually keep my mouth shut.

    My experience discussing the issue has been telling. Speak to an anglophone Quebecker about it, and there is usually a visceral, gut reaction. Few anglophones seem willing to argue individual points, much less discuss the logistics of sovereign Quebec. Fair enough: Jacobs argues national identity is emotional.

    However, in speaking with francophones – federalist or not – their positions seemed more measured and more malleable than those of anglophones.. In fact, for such an emotional issue, most seemed remarkably pragmatic. Their positions suggested that sovereignty is not a simple issue, a yes/no question, but a means to an end. This end, which I believe is more or less agreed upon among francophones, is a strong, centralized, autonomous Quebec.

    I think the anglophone-federalist contingent checked out a long time ago. The Gazette made a bit of a fuss about a recent opinion poll that suggested, allegedly, that “separatism” was “dead”. The only thing that is dead is the idea of Quebec as just another province. On some level, everyone seems to accept that Quebec’s general trajectory leads towards increasing independence. It’s one thing to take a pragmatic federalist position and weigh the tangible benefits of confederation against the economic repercussions of separation; it’s another thing to take an ostrich-like position and deny Quebec’s unique identity and needs.

    Regardless, the oddest trend I note is the tendency of recent anglophone transplants to support sovereignty. (Like me!) Is it a result of us fetishizing Quebec and its culture? Maybe. But I suspect that as the old guard of Westmount and the West Island fades into irrelevance, you’ll find an anglophone population who increasingly identify more with Quebec than with Canada.

    Bonne St-Jean!

  6. This article is not, in my opinion, the type of article to be published on Spacing. When I read spacing, I’m looking for analyses of urban planning, transport and how we relate to inhabited space; surely not an analysis governance and administration, be it written by Jane Jacobs or not.

    Nationalism is so passé, can we please get on with more pressing matters?

  7. @Alannah: Thanks for mentioning that; you may be right. The content of the book was definitely prepared before the referendum, in 1979. I thought I read someplace that the book actually came out after, but I can actual find a source for that, so I could have made that up.

    @Norm: In her book, Jacobs addresses and debunks the question of size. Canada does punch above its weight on the international scene, and there’s no reason Quebec couldn’t either. An independent Quebec would still be more populous that: Norway, Denmark, Israel, Switzerland, Finland, Ireland, and New Zealand to name just a few.

    @James B.: I debated writing this article for a bit because it does stray somewhat from the content that Spacing normally publishes. That said, I thought it would be an interesting topic to cover that readers would appreciate. Also, in her book Jacobs devoted an entire chapter to Montreal and its role and prospects as part of Canada or an independent Quebec. Her take on the National Question was very much informed by her recognition of the key role cities play in our societies. And as for nationalism being passé, I don’t see anything in current events that would make me believe that’s the case.

  8. I heard about this book, and took it out from the library thinking that I must read it. After all, Ms. Jacobs is known as a saint in the field of urban planning and she is sympathetic to the soverigntist cause! Tabernak!

    After reading it, I say that it is an interesting take on our National Question from an outsider’s perspective, though from over 30 years ago and before the first referendum.

    While I have always been sympathetic to the cause of preserving and nuturing French in North America, I am less sympathetic to the concept that this is only acheivable by forming an independent Québec. Canada, as we know it, is a federation of autonomous entities who are given the freedom to create their own legal and liguistic realities. Québec has been successful in fostering it’s own social and governmental systems within this framework of geovernance, while still reaping the benefits of an open federal system. Of course, this is the result of a concerted effort by Québec nationalists to counteract centuries worth of oppression. But they have been successful in asserting and preserving their linguistic and cultural differences and enjoying the benefits of this system. How much more independence and autonomy can Québec be given? Besides, of course, the mainly symbolic creation of a new and independent nation-state. It could be argued that the federal framework of Canada already provides Québec with the sovereignty-association that Levésque dreamed about.

    To me, the sovereignty movement is an exclusive ethnic and nationalist movement that plays on the emotional heart-strings of a threatened people. Perhaps when Ms. Jacobs wrote her book, things were more dire. But 30 years later, we see that Québec has remained strong and only grows stronger. It is flourishing. Montréal has not been reduced to the provincial and regional city that she feared it would become. She was wrong.

    I will not reduce myself to the same racist generalizations as Mr. Naimard. I have known too many leftist Anglos and too many conservative Francos that defy his narrow-minded and trolling outlook. Nationalism is at the heart of so many of our problems that must be transcended.

    Vive le Québec.

    Il est déjà libre.

  9. Comme nous pouvons tous le constater à la suite de cet article, la souveraineté demeure encore l’objet de tous les débats et si le nationalisme québécois semble plus discret depuis quelques années, cela m’étonnerait tout de même qu’il soit entièrement chose du passé.
    Concernant les arguments de Jacob’s, je m’inscrit toutefois en opposition avec celui de la taille du gouvernement influençant l’aspect démocratique ou la facilité d’action. Le palier de gouvernement le plus petit et le plus “proche” du citoyen, le gouvernement municipal, n’est pas garant d’une ébullition démocratique ni d’efficacité de décision ou encore d’innovation. Je pense que la clef se situe dans un partage juste et cohérent des pouvoirs entre les différents paliers gouvernementaux… Ce qui est plus ou moins le cas en ce moment!
    En terminant, si c’était la St-Jean hier, c’était également cette semaine les 20 ans de l’échec de l’accord du lac Meech. Je clos donc avec cette citation du Premier Ministre libéral québécois de l’époque, M. Robert Bourassa:
    “(…) quoi qu’on dise et quoi qu’on fasse, le Québec est, aujourd’hui et pour toujours, une société distincte, libre et capable d’assumer son destin et son développement”

  10. One of the biggest injustices done by all levels of government in Canada is not teaching the citizens how their democracy works.

    However, as we have now entered the Information Age, we can longer blame the government for keeping us in the dark. We have only ourselves to blame.

    A simple Google search would reveal how power is separated in our country. This part of the constitution is quite telling; in fact, most of the power over issues that affect our daily lives is held by the provinces. So if things are bad in Québec, they are bad because of our government in Quebec City and not in Ottawa. They are bad because we, the people of Quebec, allow it to be bad, not the people form the ROC. When Premier Charest or Premier McGuinty or Premier Stelmach is blaming Ottawa for something that is under their domain, do not be fooled. They are lying. They are passing the buck.

    I agree that smaller government can sometimes better serve the people. But smaller government also tends towards tyranny (by the majority or by dictator). Just ask yourselves: how democractic is our smallest level of government – the family unit?

    And if smaller were better, how small should government be? Why stop at provinces? Quebec is pretty heterogenous itself – Nunavik et Le Grand Nord, Lac St-Jean, Beauce, Gaspésie, Montréal, The Eastern Townships, etc. Should each of these be a country? Why stop at regions? Why not just have city-states? or borough-states?

    Liane says it best:
    « Le palier de gouvernement le plus petit et le plus “proche” du citoyen, le gouvernement municipal, n’est pas garant d’une ébullition démocratique ni d’efficacité de décision ou encore d’innovation. Je pense que la clef se situe dans un partage juste et cohérent des pouvoirs entre les différents paliers gouvernementaux…».
    This sharing ensures that no one level of government has the opportunity to directly screw the people over. The different levels act as checks and balances in maintaining democracy. Why do we need checks and balances? Because government should never be fully trusted. Not because government is inherently sinful, but because people are – Adscam, G20 Billons, and manilla envelopes.

    I invite all of you, sovereignist, federalist, indifferent, to take a few moments this holiday week to actually learn how your country functions. Once you do, I’m sure the fighting amongst the people of Quebec will end and the real battle will be directed at our elected officials. Because at the end of the day, whether Quebec be a province or a pays, our roads will still be crumbling, our school system will still be failing our children, and I still won’t be able to get a family doctor.

  11. The importance of the Federalist-Separatist question in Quebec is proved by the uncommonly large number of contributions to the Jane Jacobs article, arguably far from the onjectives of Spacing Montreal. The difficulty of solving the question here or anywhere is similarly proved by the unparliamentary, disrespectful remarks, and the unsubstantiated claims and counter-claims by most contributers. Almost all arguments on the subject end up with personal attacks between the participants. Over the entire span of the recent life of the question, at least 50 years, I have seen almost all of the objective based community organisations of this country, province, city, neighbourhood – fall apart and lose their battles because there is internal disagreement on what country we should belong to. It is a poisoned debate. Unless a question is clear, unless there is restraint in language in a debate, unless the minority in a vote accept the decision of that vote, the the whole basis of that society suffers and eventually becomes untenable.