Quebec | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Quebec is the largest province in Canada. Its territory represents 15.5 per cent of the surface area of Canada and totals more than 1.5 million km2. Quebec shares borders with Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. The province also neighbours on four American states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. The name Quebec was inspired by an Algonquian word meaning “where the river narrows.” The French in New France used it solely to refer to the city of Quebec. The British were the first to use the name in a broader sense.


The province of Quebec is composed of three of Canada’s seven physiographic regions. These regions are the St. Lawrence Lowlands, the Canadian Shield and the Appalachian region. The St. Lawrence Lowlands is the most fertile and developed region. The majority of the population of Quebec lives here, mainly between Montreal and Quebec City. The Canadian Shield covers most of Quebec from approximately 80 km north of the St. Lawrence River valley up to the Ungava region. It is a vast region composed of thousands of lakes and thousands of square kilometres of forested area. On the south bank of the St. Lawrence River, between the Richelieu River and the Gaspé Peninsula, is the Quebec part of the Appalachian mountain chain which extends from Gaspé south to Alabama.

Within the province’s three physiographic regions are four distinct zones with different landscapes. These are the arctic tundra, the taiga, the boreal forest and the temperate forest (see Vegetation Regions; Forest Regions). All except the temperate forest are sparsely inhabited.

The arctic tundra is the natural habitat of the polar bear, fox and arctic hare. In the taiga the largest group of the deer family (Cervidae) is the caribou. Numerous species of animals like deer, coyotes, moose and lynx populate the boreal and the temperate forests. The lakes and rivers abound with fish, particularly trout, yellow perch, black bass and pike. Overall, 105 species of freshwater fish populate the rivers and lakes of Quebec. Other species, like salmon and smelt, live in salt water but spawn in Quebec’s fresh water. The St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers are also a refuge for sea mammals like seals, white beluga, killer, humpback and even blue whales.

Quebec is also known for its countless lakes and rivers. The province’s most important waterway and geographical feature is the St. Lawrence River, its estuary and the gulf. The main tributaries of the St. Lawrence River are, on the south shore, the Richelieu, Yamaska, Chaudière and Matapédia rivers. On the north shore, they are the Saint-Maurice, Saguenay, Manicouagan and Ottawa rivers. The two other main watersheds are the James Bay and Hudson Bay basin and; Ungava Bay. In the James Bay region, the Nottaway, Rupert and Eastmain rivers were dammed in the 1970s as part of the largest hydroelectric project in Canada. Large reservoirs, such as the Réservoir Manicouagan, on the Manicouagan River north of Baie-Comeau, and the Réservoir Gouin on the Saint-Maurice, were also targeted for major hydroelectric projects. (See also Geography of Quebec.)


Urban Centres

Montréal is the economic and cultural centre of the province. In 2021, it was Quebec’s largest urban centre with a population of 1,762,949, or 21 per cent of the Quebec population. Factoring in the Montréal metropolitan area, this number rises to 4,291,732, or 50 per cent of the Quebec population. After Toronto, Montréal is the second largest agglomeration in Canada. It is the largest francophone city in North America.

The province’s capital is Quebec City. In 2021, the city’s population was 549,459. The Historic District of Old Québec was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985. The next largest cities, in descending order of population, are Laval, Gatineau,Longueuil, Sherbrooke, Saguenay, Lévis, Trois-Rivières and Terrebonne.

Labour Force

In 2021, the sectors employing the most people in Quebec were health care and social assistance, retail and manufacturing. The unemployment rate was 7.6 per cent, or just below the national average. In 2016, approximately 36 per cent of the labour force was unionized, compared with 28 per cent in the rest of Canada. This high rate of union membership may be connected to the province's history of extremely militant Catholic unions. Formed in 1921, the Confédération des travailleurs catholiques du Canada was involved in many bitter strikes in the textile sector in the 1920s and in the famous Asbestos Strike in 1949. In 1960 the union was renamed the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) and continues to be active today (see Working Class History ‒ Quebec).

Language and Ethnicity

During the French colonial period, France was Europe's dominant power. Its population during the 18th century was between 20 and 25 million inhabitants while that of the British Isles was estimated at 7 million. Colonial rivalry between France and Britain was already global during the 18th century. Competition between the two nations had implications for all continents. But France, despite an impressive system of colonies, remained mainly a continental power during the 18th century while Britain was building an international system of colonies.

At the end of the 17th century, religious minorities in Europe sought to emigrate in order to build societies according to their religious beliefs. France's minorities, such as the Huguenots, mainly moved to Central Europe while religious minorities in Britain emigrated to North America. The refusal of the church to allow religious minorities to move to New France, and the fertile soil and temperate climate of the Atlantic seaboard, led to a great disparity in the populations of New France and New England. Between 1608 and 1713, despite the success of its expansion on the continent, New France's population had grown little. New England had a population of 400,000 in 1715 and more than 2 million in 1763. Between 1715 and 1763 the population of New France grew from 15,000 to almost 70,000 inhabitants.

It was under the English regime after 1763 that the remaining French-speaking population grew substantially, from 100,000 in 1784 to over 400,000 in 1825 and almost a million in 1860. By 1911, the French-speaking population in Quebec was about 2 million people, 4 million in 1951 and almost 8 million in 2013. Between 1840 and 1930 one million French-Canadians, most of them seeking jobs in the manufacturing sector in New England, left Quebec for the United States. Under the French Regime land was settled in a distinct fashion. The seigneurial system, finally abolished in 1854, was organized to create a sense of community through the close proximity of neighbours. Individual lots, usually built along a river, were very narrow, about 175.5 m wide, and extremely deep, about 1,700 m long. Some have argued that the seigneurial system and the parish were the key institutions of a rural society and encouraged a mentality opposed to urbanization and industrialization. Other observers have argued that the unique fashion of the seigneurial system in Quebec was the main cause of the rise of an early urban civilization.

During the 19th century, large numbers of French-Canadians moved to urban centres throughout North America. Despite the official but sometimes ambiguous opposition of the Church on the subject of emigration, Québécois left their rural homes as early as 1840 and moved to urban centres in New England or to cities in the province of Quebec. From 1850 to 1930, the rate of the province's urban population grew steadily. In 1871, only 15 per cent lived in cities. Two decades later, the number had doubled until, by 1921, 52 per cent of the people were urban. This figure was above the Canadian average and comparable to that of Ontario. According to Statistics Canada, in 2016, Quebec’s urban population had reached 80.5 per cent, the fourth highest percentage in Canada after Ontario,British Columbia and Alberta.

At the end of the 18th century, people of British origins made up 12.5 per cent of the total population. Several thousand of these people had come to Canada after the American Revolution (the Loyalists). During the 19th century, the source of immigration shifted to Britain, particularly Scotland and Ireland. During the 19th century, 17 million people left Britain, 9 per cent of whom came to Canada. These included 53,463 Irish between 1825 and 1829, 185,953 between 1830 and 1834, and almost 200,000 during the Great Famine of 1845-1849. About 20 per cent of the Irish immigrants settled in Quebec. By the end of the 19th century, the predominantly Irish immigration was replaced by East European Jews and Italians. The Jewish population in Quebec grew from 1.5 per cent of the total population in 1901 to 5.7 per cent in 1941. The Italian population was only 0.5 per cent in 1901 and 2.3 per cent in 1941.

Since the Irish immigration of the 1830s and 1840s, Quebec society has been demographically and culturally diverse. According to the 2021 census, the most cited ethnic origins were Canadian, French and Québécois, and 16.1 per cent of the province was a visible minority. Within the visible minority population, Black, Arab and Latin American were the largest communities. Just over 74 per cent of the population has French of their mother tongue, compared to 7.6 per cent who report English.

In 2021, 2.5 per cent of the province’s population was Indigenous. The three most spoken Indigenous languages in Quebec are Inuktitut, Cree and Innu (see Indigenous Languages in Canada).


Since New France, the influence of the Catholic Church has been a major factor in the development of the province. After the Conquest, the British did not authorize priests from the Jesuit order and the Récollets, leaving the Sulpicians as the only major group of priests. There were also seven communities of sisters. By the end of the 19th century, however, there were more than 100 communities of priests and 200 communities of sisters. The Jesuits returned to Canada in 1842. The first Oblates arrived in 1844 and settled in the Ottawa region and in the James Bay region before sending missionaries to Western Canada. The Clercs de Saint-Viateur arrived in 1847. Communities of sisters were also active, particularly the Grey Nuns, an order formed in 1737.

Cathedral-basilica Notre-Dame de Québec

Many sociologists, political scientists and historians have argued that francophone Quebec was a society dominated by religion, obsessed with the maintenance of rural values and deeply opposed to modernity and its consequences, mainly urbanization and industrialization. Some facts are irrefutable. In 1900, the average number of parish members per priest was only 537. Overall, there was one member of the Church for every 109 Catholics in the province. This phenomenal bureaucracy probably had no equivalent in the Western world among Catholic countries ‒ not even Italy. But while the bureaucracy was immense, there remains the question of whether it frustrated the province's development or provided a different road to modernity. The Church ran a relatively complex school system, invested in real estate and financial markets. At the same time, Catholic unions opposed trusts and big business. Communities of sisters, like the Grey Nuns, managed hospitals. The role of the Church in the history of Quebec is a complex one and continues to be debated by historians and sociologists.

Results of the 2021 census show that 72.7 per cent of the Quebec population declared a religious affiliation, while 27.3 per cent declared no religious affiliation. By comparison, 65.4 per cent of the Canadian population declared a religious affiliation, while 34.6 per cent declared no religious affiliation. In Quebec, 54.8 per cent of the population identified as Roman Catholic. The other most commonly reported religious affiliations are Islam (5.1 per cent) and Christianity (5.6 per cent).

History: From New France to Confederation

French colonization started when Jacques Cartier landed in Gaspé in 1534. One year later the French came into contact with Iroquoian villages on both shores of the St. Lawrence River, for example at Stadacona near the location of the future Quebec City and Hochelaga (the future Montréal). But the real beginning of French colonization in the St. Lawrence Valley was in 1608, when Samuel de Champlain established a fort at Cap Diamant, the site of Quebec City today. By the beginning of the 17th century, the St. Lawrence Iroquoians had mysteriously disappeared from the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. The Innu (Montagnais-Naspaki) population on the north shore was then around 4,000 people. In 1666, the first census revealed a colonial, non-native population of only 3,215 people.

The French North American empire expanded considerably during the 17th century. In 1672 and 1673, Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette explored the Mississippi River and, in 1682, Robert Cavelier de La Salle reached the Gulf of Mexico by following the Mississippi River. Many institutions were established: hospitals like Hôtel-Dieu de Québec in 1639, Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal in 1657. In 1664, the Coutume de Paris became the law in the colony. In 1663, Bishop François de Laval opened the first seminary, the Grand séminaire de Québec, while the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice opened in Montréal in 1677. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht, following France's defeat by a coalition of European countries in the War of the Spanish Succession, demanded that France surrender Acadia (in the territory of Nova Scotia, excluding that area which is today Cape Breton Island), Newfoundland and the lands around Hudson Bay. Several thousand Acadians thus became part of the British empire in North America. Following the Seven Years’ War, Quebec City and Montréal were claimed by the British. It was the end of the French empire in North America.

A few years after the Conquest, the remaining French population of the new British colony benefited from tension between the Thirteen Colonies and Britain with the Quebec Act of 1774. The Quebec Act enlarged the frontiers of the Province of Quebec, recognized freedom of religion for Catholics, the legality of the seigneurial system and the French civil code. After the American Revolution, the Constitutional Act of 1791 reduced the frontiers of the province for the purpose of establishing a new colony, Upper Canada (eventually Ontario), and guaranteed a legislative assembly, although with limited powers, in each colony (Upper Canada and Lower Canada).

French-Canadians were, during the years 1791 to 1867, extremely active both politically and in every aspect of economic life. Local markets, as revealed by recent research, were extraordinarily complex and diversified. At the international level some French-Canadians, like Augustin Cuvillier and Joseph Masson, were also involved in international commerce and banking. Both men were administrators of the Bank of Montreal while other French-Canadians opened French-Canadian banks like the La Banque du peuple in 1835.

In 1837-38, the rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada over the principle of self-government resulted in military repression and the Durham Report of 1839. Lord Durham recommended the application of the principle of self-government but suggested that the only solution to the French-Canadian problem was the union of the two colonies. The aim was to assimilate the French-Canadians. That plan was implemented in 1841 through the Union Act, voted in London in 1840 and enacted in 1841. Section 41 of the Union Act stipulated that English was the only language of the new colony. But, when Britain abolished the mercantilist system between 1846 and 1848, the principle of self-government was granted to the colonies as compensation for the loss of protected access to the British market.

Following that decision, a coalition of reformists led by Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hyppolite LaFontaine formed the first democratic government of the Province of Canada (the colony formed by the union of Lower and Upper Canada) in 1848. The right of the French language was recognized by the reformists. By 1864, during negotiations for a new federation of British North American colonies, it was clear that there was a growing recognition of the French reality in the proposed federation. (See also Quebec and Confederation; Quebec since Confederation.)


The economic history of Quebec can be divided into five major periods. The first period started with the arrival of the French and lasted until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The main economic activity was the fur trade. Under the mercantilist system imposed by France, colonies ‒ including New France ‒ exported their natural resources and in return received manufactured goods from the metropolis. The fur trade was the heart of New France's economy. Other economic activities in the colony that might compete with the home country were discouraged.

During the second period (1713-1812), the economy of New France remained dominated by the fur trade although an attempt was made to diversify the economy by improving farming and by encouraging projects like the Forges Saint-Maurice. The Conquest of 1760 did not fundamentally change the mercantilist system, at least for a while, as Britain was also a protectionist country. During the third period (1812-67), wheat and timber (see Timber Trade History) replaced fur as the main export products. This period marked the rise of commercial capitalism. The major event of the period, between 1845 and 1848, was the Britain's abolition of its protectionist laws and the abandonment of the mercantilist system.

This radical change caused the business elite of Canada and Quebec, Montréal being the most important commercial and financial centre of the colony, to alter its economic strategy. The solution was to transform Canada into an industrialized country. The political expression of that solution was Confederation in 1867 (see British North America Act). That year marks the beginning of the fourth period (1867-1945), which was characterized by the rise of industrial capitalism. Quebec, particularly the Montréal region and Montréal harbour, played a crucial role in the country's industrialization. In 1900, 51 per cent of Canada's manufacturing capacity was based in Ontario, compared to 32 per cent in Quebec. The main industries in Quebec were in the sectors of textiles, footwear, food, railways and timber. By 1900, hydroelectricity was the main source of energy while pulp and paper mills and aluminum factories were sectors of high employment and substantial foreign investment. The fifth and final period is from 1945 to today. It is characterized by the rapid development of modern communications and services. In contrast to previous periods, there has been a shift away from manufacturing. During the 1990s, the government invested significantly in the technology sector, and the province became an important international player with companies such as Softimage, CGI, CAE and Ubisoft.


In the 1990s, Quebec's portion of Canadian agricultural production was around 13 per cent. Quebec has 6.8 million ha of arable land. After a period of intense speculation and urban growth between 1972 and 1978, the government began protecting agricultural land. Quebec farmers have supplied public markets since the 1880s, if not before, according to historians. Recent studies have revealed the presence of a complex local economy during the 19th century. Pork and dairy products were a Quebec speciality by the end of the 19th century. Specialization increased the industrialization of agriculture and, as a result, the value of agricultural production in Quebec increased by more than four times between 1901 and 1921 (see History of Agriculture).

Combine Harvester

The Agricultural Land Protection Act (Loi sur la protection du territoire agricole ) was passed in 1978 and now protects Quebec's best farmland. Other measures to support the farming industry were also taken, including the introduction of crop insurance and stabilization insurance plans. There was also a substantial increase in allocations to various assistance programs. In 2012, agriculture revenue totalled $8.4 billion, compared with $4.6 billion in 1996. Dairy production remained the largest sector, with $2.1 billion in revenue, representing 26 per cent of agricultural production. Pork production followed at $1.3 billion (15 per cent). There were 29,000 agricultural enterprises in Quebec in 2012.


The principal industries in Quebec are manufacturing, generation of electric power, mining, pulp and paper. The Quebec manufacturing sector represents 25 per cent of the Canadian total. Five groups of industries account for 65 per cent of the factories and over 50 per cent of the manufacturing jobs: clothing and textiles, food and beverages, paper and related products, metal products and wood products.

Noranda Copper Mines
Canada ranks fourth in the world in copper mining. This operation is located at Murdochville, Quebec (photo by Bob Anderson/Masterfile).
Logging, Gatineau River
Quebec harvests around 35 million cubic m of wood each year (Masterfile).


Quebec has the second-largest area of forest land in Canada after the Northwest Territories. Most of this land, 825 000 km2 of forests, is provincially owned, although many land claims by Aboriginal peoples are currently being contested in the courts. Accessible productive forests total 540 000 km2, three-quarters of which is located in the Saguenay‒Lac-Saint-Jean, Abitibi and North Shore regions. Around 33 million m3 of wood is cut each year, 80 per cent of which is conifer. Most of the cut wood is used for lumber and pulp manufacturing. For the last 20 years, a vast reforestation program has been underway. However, the number of trees planted annually has diminished since 1989 due to the adoption of new practices such as timber harvesting that protects advance regeneration. Consequently, in 2011, 140 million seedlings were planted, compared with 251 million in 1989. More than three quarters of these trees were planted in public forests and the majority were softwood.

The pulp and paper industry in Quebec is among the 10 leading producers in the world and the second-largest exporter of newsprint in Canada. Over 23,000 workers are employed in this sector, producing about 42 per cent of Canada's paper. Timber, wood pulp and newsprint together constitute 20 per cent of Quebec exports, 80 per cent of which goes to the US. The lumber industry is another active sector. There are over 1,300 lumber processing plants, and the wood industry alone employs over 36,000 people.


Quebec has around 4,200 full-time fishermen located in several regions, notably in the Gaspé Peninsula, where industrial fishing is a major part of the local economy. By 1997, this number had been reduced to 1,200 fishermen. Most owned boats that are less than 10 m long. Quebec's annual catch is only a fraction of that taken by the Atlantic Provinces. The main catches are groundfish and various molluscs and crustaceans. The fishery now relies more on shellfish, which make up two-thirds of the catch. Groundfish now account for only 10 per cent of the catch and pelagic fish (e.g., herring and mackerel) make up the rest.


Quebec is the largest producer of electricity in Canada. Its installed generating capacity is 36,068 MW, or more than 30 per cent of the Canadian total, more than 99 per cent of the production is hydraulic. In the 1970s, the province tried to reduce its dependency on petroleum products. In 1970 petroleum accounted for 74 per cent of all energy used in the province. In 1998, it was 31.9 per cent. The hydro main project of the 1970s was the James Bay project. It produces over 10,000 MW of electricity. A large portion of this electricity is exported to Ontario, New Brunswick and the northeastern United States. Quebec’s energy production is expected to increase by 1,550 MW when the Romaine complex in the Côte-Nord region becomes active; this is scheduled for 2020.

Since the 2000s, Quebec has explored the possibility of developing oil and gas resources (see Fracking), namely in Gaspésie and Île d’Anticosti, where high-potential deposits have been discovered.


French and English merchants dreamed of a commercial empire along the St. Lawrence River. Although the North American commercial empire never materialized, the St. Lawrence River and Montréal played a fundamental role in the history of transportation in Canada. Head offices of many transportation companies, including Air Canada, are in Montréal. At one point in the 1990s, 50 per cent of the head offices of the Canadian aeronautics and space industry were in Montréal.

The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway was not beneficial to the Montréal harbour as the harbour lost its privileged position. The opening of the seaway in 1954, while contributing to the development of North Shore ports, also led to the rapid growth of Ontario ports on the Great Lakes. Quebec has 28 ports, the most important of which are Montréal-Contrecoeur, Québec-Lévis and Port-Cartier and Sept-Îles-Pointe-Noire. In the mid-1990s, 73.7 million tons of cargo were being handled annually in these 28 ports.

In the 19th century, Montréal was the base from which Canada's railway system was constructed. The Grand Trunk Railway in the 1850s, the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s and, in the 1910s, the Canadian National Railways, are all an important part of Quebec and Montréal history. The railway network was mainly developed in southern Quebec, though the National Transcontinental Railway was an expensive, failed effort to open up frontiers in the north.

The construction of the Mirabel airport in the 1970s was very controversial. For 20 years, intercontinental flights were dispatched to Mirabel, while Dorval was the Montréal airport for continental flights. Today, in retrospect, it seems that the detractors of the project were right: in 1997, international flights were all dispatched back to Dorval airport, leaving only air freight to Mirabel. In the 1990s, the two Montréal airports handled about 11 per cent of Canadian passengers, compared to Toronto's 35 per cent, while 14 per cent of all air freight was handled in Montréal and 38 per cent in Toronto. Almost 85 per cent of the 10 million passengers who annually used Quebec's airports passed through Dorval and Mirabel. With the announcement of Mirabel’s official closing in 2004, all air traffic, passengers and cargo were directed through Dorval, newly renamed Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport. As of 2014, Quebec had two international airports : Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (Montréal) and Jean Lesage International Airport (Quebec).

The province has 55,700 km of roads and 2,300 km of superhighways. More than 3.6 million vehicles are registered. Approximately 2,400 trucking firms employ more than 38,000 workers and share about $2 billion in annual revenue.

Government and Politics

The political institutions of the province of Quebec have not fundamentally changed since 1867. Initially a French colony, Quebec was later administered directly by British authorities. In 1841 it became part of a legislative union, and in 1867 a member of the Canadian federation. In 1982 Quebec did not sign Canada's repatriated Constitution, although it did sign an accord in 1987 to enter into Canada's constitutional agreement (see Meech Lake Accord; Meech Lake Accord: Document) and another, the so-called Charlottetown Accord (see Charlottetown Accord: Document), in 1992. However, neither of these was ratified and the latter was overwhelmingly rejected in a national referendum. The evolution of Quebec's institutions has thus not been marked by any legal discontinuity. The most important institutions are the central political institutions.

Provincial Government

Quebec Parliament.

Quebec, like all constitutional regimes with a British tradition, has no rigid division of legislative and executive functions among its various agencies. Its political system is based on co-operation rather than on a separation of powers. The Legislative Assembly, renamed the Assemblée nationale or National Assembly by the Maurice Duplessis government of the 1950s, represents Quebec citizens and is composed of 125 members representing the same number of ridings. In the 1960s, efforts were made to ensure an equal number of voters per riding (around 34,000 voters). The National Assembly has the power to pass laws in areas defined as provincial jurisdiction by section 92 of the British North America Act. The political party with a majority of seats in the National Assembly forms a government. The leader of the party becomes the premier of the province (see Quebec Premiers: Table).

Government Structure

The Queen's representative in the province is the lieutenant-governor. He or she is appointed by federal authorities in consultation with the province. The role is mainly symbolic, but in some situations the lieutenant-governor may be called upon to settle a parliamentary issue. As the sovereign's direct and personal representative, the lieutenant-governor ensures the continuity of government. Although technically a federal public servant, the lieutenant-governor's actions are in fact governed by the directives of Québec's conseil executif, also called the Conseil des ministres, which is composed of the premier ministre (premier) and his ministers. It is the Conseil executif that decides on the general orientation of government action. It expresses its will through draft bills and décrets. The 27 or so Cabinet ministers are appointed by the premier and are bound by the principle of ministerial solidarity.

Since the 1970s, major reforms have transformed the operations of these central bodies. The National Assembly's rules of procedure were modernized and adapted to Quebec's circumstances: a total of 11 parliamentary standing committees have been established and debates are now televised. The Conseil executif is operating more and more with the assistance of departmental standing committees, each headed by a minister of state. A priorities committee provides better planning, and a treasury board, headed by a minister, is responsible for formulating and implementing the government's financial policies.


From the Conquest of 1760 and the Royal Proclamation of 1763, and basically until 1867, Quebec was a British colony. In 1791, with the Constitutional Act, the frontiers of the colony were reduced to what is essentially southern Quebec today. The colony was also granted an elected Assembly. But the territory, like any other British colony, was directly and undemocratically governed from the metropolis through a governor named by London and a body of Councils also composed of non-elected members. The Assembly had limited powers.

Because French-Canadians had developed a distinct identity by the end of the 18th century, the struggle for democracy became, at least for half a century, synonymous with nationalism. After the Rebellion of 1837-38, Quebec was amalgamated with Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1841 and became part of a legislative union. After the failure of that union, Quebec became in 1867 a province of the Canadian federation.

For many French-speaking Canadians who supported the British North America Act of 1867, Confederation was based on the principle of a federation of nations, namely the British and the French (both the French and the British excluded the First Nations.) But that interpretation of Confederation was never shared by a majority of English-speaking Canadians. They tended to see Canada as a homogeneous nation composed of different regions represented by the provinces. This unresolved debate about the nature of the federation has been at the core of every political and constitutional crisis in Canada and the province of Quebec since 1867.

In 1980 the first referendum on Quebec's independence was defeated with a majority of Québécois voting to remain within Canada. Two years later a major crisis in Quebec-Canada relations occurred when Quebec did not sign Canada's repatriated Constitution initiated by Pierre Elliott Trudeau government. The second crisis occurred between 1987 and 1990 during the debate about the Meech Lake Accord. In 1992 the Charlottetown was rejected, although for different reasons, by both Quebec and the rest of Canada. In 1995, a second referendum in Quebec on sovereignty was barely won by the federalist side (49.42 per cent in favour of sovereignty, 50.58 per cent against).

After the Conquest and during the 19th century, the French referred to themselves as "les Canadiens" and described the "others" as "les Anglais." The strong French-Canadian perception that the 1867 Act reflected a federation of nations was constantly refuted by a large component of English-speaking Canadians. This contributed to the emergence of a separatist movement and a "Quebec only" identity. The Métis Rebellions of 1870 and 1885, the hanging of Louis Riel, the illegal and unconstitutional abolition of the French language in Manitoba in 1890, the conscription crises in 1917 and 1942, the constant marginalization of the French language at the federal level until the Official Languages legislation of 1969 ‒ these events contributed to a negative perception of the Canadian federation.

Political Parties

The history of political parties in Quebec reflects both the evolution of the identity of Québécois and, as in all societies, contradictions in that identity. From 1867 to 1897 provincial politics were dominated by the Conservative Party. The conservatives ruled for all but five of those years, 1878-1879 and from 1887 to 1891. The power of the Conservative Party symbolized the alliance between the Church and business, and a commitment to a socially conservative society led by private enterprise. Wilfrid Laurier's victory at the federal level in 1896 propelled the provincial Liberals to power in 1897. They remained in power for half a century, except between 1936 and 1939, until 1944. The Liberals maintained the alliance between the Church and private enterprise. The Church was given a free hand in social affairs and education while the political and economical spheres were left to politicians and businesspeople.

The domination of the Liberals was interrupted in 1936 when Maurice Duplessis and the Union Nationale party took power. That party resulted from the 1935 merger of the provincial Conservative Party and a group of young Liberal dissidents active during the Depression. The name of the group was l'Action libérale nationale and among its aims was nationalization of the private hydroelectricity companies. Once in power, however, the leader of the former provincial Conservative Party, Maurice Duplessis, who became leader of the Union nationale coalition in 1936, did not implement any of the reforms proposed by the Action libérale nationale, ruling the province the same way the Liberals had.

It was the new leader of the provincial Liberal Party, Adélard Godbout, re-elected in 1939, who applied those reforms. The Godbout government was perhaps the most socially progressive provincial government of the century in Quebec. Among its reforms were the right to vote for women at the provincial level (1940), the formation of Hydro-Québec and reforms in education. But its accomplishments were overshadowed by Second World War when the federal government used its special wartime powers to intervene in provincial affairs. In 1944 the domination of the Liberal Party since 1897 really came to an end. With only 35 per cent of the popular vote, Maurice Duplessis was re-elected and this time governed until 1959.

The Duplessis government was characteristic of the Cold War, right wing and vehemently anti-Communist. Opposition to his extremely conservative style of government in the 1950s prepared the field for the reforms of the 1960s. When a group of young liberals led by Jean Lesage took power in 1960 it was the beginning of a new era and the period of reforms known as the Quiet Revolution. The Church was replaced by the provincial state in social affairs and the state intervened in the economy to promote the interests of French-speaking business. The emphasis on the provincial state corresponded with a change in the self-identification of many French-Canadians in Quebec. Historians still debate the nature and effects of the Quiet Revolution. For some experts, the Quiet Revolution was a period of immense change that at last brought Quebec into the modern world. For others, the alliance of the Church and business, beginning from at least the second half of the 19th century, was a typical contradiction of modernity. To these observers, the changes of the 1960s, despite their magnitude, were simply a realignment of political and social forces in an already modern society.

René Lévesque, politician

Formed in 1968, the Parti Québécois (PQ) came to power only a few years later in 1976. Ironically, a few months before the 1976 provincial election in Quebec, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau had proclaimed the death of'separatism' in Quebec. When René Lévesque became premier of Quebec in 1976, it was not only a wake-up call for Trudeau but also for the entire country.

The Parti Québécois was elected in 1976 with a clear social-democratic platform. Indeed, between 1976 and 1980, the government of the Parti Québécois initiated many reforms, some of them very controversial, like the reform of the automobile insurance system and the Charte de la langue française (the famous Bill 101) on the regulation of the French language in the province. In 1980, as promised by René Lévesque, the Parti Québécois organized a referendum on the mandate to negotiate a new partnership with Canada referred to as "sovereignty-association." Many commentators have argued that this new partnership was in fact a proposal for a new confederation, a system where the central state has very limited powers. Others have argued that it was a form of secession. Despite the fact that the question seemed moderate, the federalist No side won convincingly by almost 60 per cent to 40 per cent. However, in 1981, the Parti Québécois was re-elected, mainly because the Quebec voters were in the majority satisfied with its performance as a responsible government. It was thus a government of the PQ in power in 1982 when Pierre Elliott Trudeau patriated the constitution from Britain.

In 1983, the Parti Québécois took a real switch to the right in its conflict with unions of the public sector and abandoned some of its social-democratic approach. That played a crucial role in the Parti Québécois defeat in 1985. Robert Bourassa, who had patiently rebuilt his control over the provincial Liberal Party after his astonishing defeat in 1976, became once again the premier of Quebec in 1985. Caught in the debate and eventually the failure of the Meech Lake Accord between 1987 and 1990 and, in 1988-1989, the controversy of Bill 178 (Loi modifiant la Charte de la langue française) on language regulation in Quebec (that Bill allowed the use of the French language and other languages for signs inside stores or public buildings but imposed the use of the French language only for signs outside buildings), Robert Bourassa managed his way to victory again in 1989. But this second mandate was also very controversial, with the Oka crisis in the summer of 1990, just after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, and the no less catastrophic failure of the Charlottetown Accord in 1992. Robert Bourassa was replaced by Daniel Johnson, and in 1994 the Liberal Party was defeated by the Parti Québécois, now led by Jacques Parizeau. One year after this victory, the Parti Québécois, in a second referendum on sovereignty, lost narrowly when the Yes side finished with a surprising score of 49 per cent. Parizeau resigned, and Lucien Bouchard was sworn in as leader. Bernard Landry became the province's leader in 2001.

Jacques Parizeau, politician
Former Parti Québécois leader Jacques Parizeau, September 1989. In 1994, he became the second leader of the separatist PQ to become premier (photo by Jim Merrithew).

On 14 April 2003, the Parti Québécois was defeated and the Liberal Party leader, Jean Charest, was elected premier of Quebec. Charest remained in power for nine years and was re-elected twice. In the spring of 2012, a proposal to increase tuition fees was met with outrage by students, who took to the streets in protest. They were joined by other groups of citizens in a general expression of frustration with the government. On 4 September 2012, the Parti Québécois won the general election and Pauline Marois became the first woman to serve as premier of Quebec. Her term, however, lasted only 18 months. Marois called an election in early March 2014, seeking to secure a majority mandate; instead, the Parti Québécois found itself ousted from power. On 7 April 2014, Philippe Couillard became the 31st premier of Quebec after 13 months as Liberal leader.

Intergovernmental Relations

Quebec has 75 representatives in the federal House of Commons and 24 members in the Senate. The federal and Quebec authorities coordinate their activities, not without difficulty, through about 100 joint committees and a number of federal-provincial conferences. It is in international relations, however, that Quebec has asserted itself. In 1871 Quebec opened two offices abroad and, in 1882, a trade officer was appointed to France. Later, in 1961, the first Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs (now Relations internationales) was created. Since then Quebec delegations have been established in the US, Latin America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. Cooperative agreements link Quebec to a number of countries, particularly France. Quebec is represented in many international francophone institutions, including the International Organisation of La Francophonie (Organisation internationale de la Francophonie) and UNESCO.

Legal Institutions

Quebec's legal and judicial system is based on the French Civil Code while the rest of Canada uses Common Law. Quebec's judicial system has two levels: lower court powers are shared by a number of courts, but there is only one Court of Appeal. Quebec courts interpret and apply Quebec law, and a large part of federal law. The federal Parliament has not fully exercised its constitutional right to create courts in order to ensure that its laws are implemented. The lower court hierarchy has four components:

1) Municipal court, i.e, 86 courts whose jurisdiction is primarily limited to tax claims and offences under Quebec laws such as the Highway Safety Code;

2) The Court of Québec, composed of 270 judges in three divisions: the Civil Division, the Criminal and Penal Division, and the Youth Division;

3) The Superior Court, composed of 144 judges, with jurisdiction namely over serious cases such as murders, as well as appeals on decisions delivered by the two lower courts;

4) The Court of Appeal, which is, as its name suggests, a general appeal court for Quebec; it is the highest court in the province, composed of 20 judges.

Municipal Institutions

The BNA Act (subsection 8 of section 92) stipulates that each province may exclusively make laws in relation to matters such as municipal institutions. The Constitution Act of 1982 reiterated that the provinces have the authority to organize and administer their municipal institutions. In 2013 there were 1134 municipalities in Quebec. All municipalities fall under the Municipal Code and the Cities and Towns Act.

Most of Quebec's municipalities are loosely organized into 100 regional county municipalities (municipalités régionales de comté ‒ MRC); MRCs are administrative bodies encompassing all local municipalities within a given area. Two urban communities, Montréal and Quebec City, enjoy additional powers. In 2002, the Act to reform the municipal territorial organization of the metropolitan regions of Montréal, Québec and the Outaouais (Bill 170), amalgamated certain municipalities and changed the province’s toponymy; Hull became Gatineau, while Chicoutimi and Jonquière amalgamated to become Saguenay. Rural county municipalities have been established to pool community services outside the larger urban centres.

Public Finance

All provinces, including Quebec, have two sources of revenues: provincial taxes and transfer payments from the federal government based on established programs. For fiscal year 2011-2012, the annual revenues of the province of Quebec were around $66 billion, of which 44 per cent came from income and corporate taxes, 22 per cent from various taxes on consumer goods (tobacco, retail sales, fuel), and around 7 per cent from transfers from Crown corporations. The annual transfer payments from the federal government roughly totalled $15 billion. Annual expenditures by the provincial state of Quebec for the same period averaged approximately $69 billion, with roughly half going to health, social services and education, and almost $625 million to culture.

In 1980, the accumulated deficit in Quebec was around $8 billion, rising dramatically to $67 billion by 1995. This was a serious problem that the government of Premier Lucien Bouchard tried to solve by following the example of other provinces, like Alberta, which drastically cut expenditures in order to reduce its deficits. Although the government regained fiscal balance in the 2000s, its debt continued to grow, and by 2013, it had reached $191 billion.

Social Institutions and Health

Quebec has a provincial charter of human rights (Charte des droits et libertés de la personne), a consumer protection act, a provincial automobile insurance system, and separate income security and family allowance systems. Quebec also has a complex network of more than 800 social institutions. Among them are hospitals, community centres and long-term care facilities for the elderly. Since 1965, an agency of the Quebec government has managed Quebec's social benefits programs. Several institutions such as Régie des rentes du Québec, Régie de l'assurance-automobile and Commission à la santé et au bien-être invest their funds in the Caisse de dépôt et de placement du Québec. As of 31 December 2013, the Caisse had $200.1 billion in assets and a four-year annualized return of 10 per cent. The Caisse de dépôt et de placement is arguably the most important achievement of the 1960s reforms that gave the Quebec government a greater role in the province's economy.


Education in Quebec dates back to the mid-17th century with primary schools run by religious orders in major cities of New France, including Quebec City, Montréal and Trois-Rivières. Secondary education also began during the 17th century with the establishment of the Séminaire de Québec (Seminary of Quebec) in 1635. After 1680 the Séminaire offered more advanced courses, notably in law, mathematics and surveying. With the arrival of the Loyalists and British immigrants in late 18th Century, a complete English-language school system, from nursery school to university, was gradually established. McGill University, for example, opened in 1843. Section 93 of the BNA Act stipulated that, in the province of Quebec, the school system would be organized on the principle of religion. The system for English-speaking Québécois was financed by the provincial state in the same way and according to the same criteria as the French-language system.

Until the 1960s the French-language education system was decentralized. Local school boards were responsible for day-to-day operations while the Roman Catholic Church and the provincial state, through their representatives and the office of the provincial secretary, decided on programs and curricula. In the 1960s a commission led by Bishop Parent recommended several changes. Education became a higher priority and a growing consensus arose about the need to increase the general level of education and provide better technical training for specific jobs. The educational reform based on the conclusion of the Parent report produced four major innovations:

1) Universal access to secondary education through a better network of high schools and a better regional representation through regional school boards.

2) Establishment of the CEGEP system (Collèges d'enseignement général et professionnel). This is an intermediate level between secondary school and university that provides post-secondary students with a two-year preparation for university or three years of advanced, job-related technical training.

3) Establishment of a new university, which became the Université du Québec system. The new university offers programs in all regions of Quebec.

4) Establishment of a Department or Ministry of Education, which became the ultimate authority in education.

In 2007-08, Quebec school boards consisted of 60 francophone, 9 anglophone and 3 special-status boards. Of this last category, two school boards served children from Aboriginal communities (the James Bay Cree and the Inuit of Nunavik). The province’s school boards represented a total of 2,362 schools, not including 300 private schools (351 in 2014). Adult Education services were also offered. The passage of Bill 107 in December 1988 reorganized school boards from denominational to linguistic lines. Because of opposition by Catholic groups, however, implementation of the bill was postponed until 1993 when a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the constitutionality of the law. Then, in 1997, after a very long process, Quebec and the federal state agreed to change section 93 of the former BNA Act in order to guarantee the constitutionality of linguistic boards and to remove the religious criteria. In the 1990s the annual enrolment in the primary and secondary system averaged a little more than a million students.

At the post-secondary level, there are 43 francophone colleges or CEGEPs and 5 anglophone colleges. The university system consists of 18 institutions, including 8 private universities and one public university network. Four universities are francophone (Université de Montréal, with two affiliated institutions; Université du Québec, incorporating ten institutions; Université Laval; and Université de Sherbrooke) and three are anglophone (Bishop’s University, Concordia University and McGill University). The largest campus is the Université de Montréal. At the beginning of the 2010s, enrolment stood at over 180,000 students at the college level and more than 200,000 at the university level.

Cultural Life

Technically, Quebec is a province. Others claim that Quebec is a nation in the sense that it is the home of the French-speaking nation in North America and other Québécois of non-French origins. Others, although they are more and more a rarity, believe that Quebec is the territory in which the most important component of the French-Canadian nation resides.


French-Canadian cultural roots can be traced to the beginning of the 19th century in literature, painting and sculpture. Debate about the significance of the arts in the francophone community has been passionate since the 19th century. In literature, Father Henri-Raymond Casgrain in the second half of the 19th century and Bishop Camille Roy in the first half of the 20th century both sought to create literature that would reflect what they defined as the essence of French-Canadian society. They were challenged by the universalists who wanted a universal literature. After the Quiet Revolution, many writers, despite their claims that they were expressing a new identity, were, like Casgrain and Roy, exploring the identity of the French-speaking society now referred to as Québec society.

One of the paradoxes of the last three decades is that the complexity of French-Canadian society in Quebec, before and after the Quiet Revolution, has been understated to the point that it has become a cultural stereotype. One of the consequences is that great French-Canadian artists from the past are almost forgotten today. A century ago one of the greatest divas was Emma Lajeunesse, known as Emma Albani. Her fame was comparable to that of Céline Dion today.

The cultural infrastructure in Quebec is impressive. There are 150 theatre companies, nearly 100 summer theatres and at least five important theatre festivals. The province has a dynamic music scene with over 100 musical organizations, including the Club musical du Québec and the Ladies' Morning Musical Club, which started their activities in the 19th century. The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal is ranked among the top orchestras in the world while a large number of music schools, in universities and conservatories, provide musical training. In dance, Quebec enjoys an international reputation with companies like Les Grands Ballets canadiens and La La La Human Steps. There are 59 institutions or schools of dance in the province. Montréal has around 230 commercial cinemas and is the host of the prestigious Montréal Film Festival. Directors such as Denys Arcand, Denis Villeneuve and Jean-Marc Vallée have won a number of international awards. No wonder that even Mordecai Richler, the prominent English-language novelist, once described francophone Québécois as the most cultivated people in Canada.


Francophone television networks in Quebec include Radio-Canada, TVA, V Télé and Télé-Québec; its all-news channels include RDI and LCN; and its anglophone networks include CBC, CTV and Global. Additionally, there are some 40 specialized francophone channels and many (mostly American) anglophone channels. A high proportion of the television watched by francophone Québécois is French-language programming produced in Quebec. It is estimated that Québécois spend 70 per cent of their total viewing hours watching made-in-Quebec television shows. Quebec has approximately 60 private FM radio stations that broadcast during peak hours, as well as the public stations Radio-Canada and CBC. The province has 10 French-language and 2 English-language daily newspapers, more than 200 weeklies, more than 300 periodicals and more than 30 publications in languages other than French and English.

Historic Sites

Quebec is home to 190 of Canada’s national historic sites, approximately 30 of which are managed by Parks Canada. Some of its best-known sites are Chambly Canal, Joly-de-Lotbinière Estate, Forges Saint-Maurice, the Fortifications of Québec, the Lévis Forts, Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial, Jardins de Métis, Étienne-Paschal-Taché House, Sir Wilfrid Laurier National Historic Site, Manoir Papineau, Pointe-du-Buisson (Musée québécois d’archéologie) and the Pulperie de Chicoutimi.

On 19 October 2011, Quebec’s National Assembly enacted the Cultural Heritage Act to replace the Cultural Property Act (1972). This new legislation broadened the notion of heritage and the government’s sphere of action in heritage protection. Like its predecessor, the Cultural Heritage Act promotes knowledge, protection, enhancement and transmission of cultural property (immovables, sites, documents and objects), but it also includes heritage cultural landscapes, intangible heritage, and historic figures, events and sites. Finally, the new Act grants more powers to municipalities and Aboriginal communities, including a greater role in ascribing legal status to cultural heritage elements located in their territory.