The British North America Act of 1867, the basis for Canada’s constitution, is premised on a doctrine of "two founding nations" in which the English-speaking and French-speaking cultures are recognized as equal partners.
Because the two national identities exist in a country that has traditionally favored Anglophones, Quebec (Québec), the heart of Francophone Canada, and its leaders have tried to assert their nationalism as a distinct cultural community within Canada.
The modern sovereignty movement is a product of the 1960s. It is a demand for political independence for Quebec combined with economic association with the rest of Canada. It was introduced by René Lévesque, a former Liberal cabinet minister and popular broadcast journalist who organized the Parti Québécois (PQ) in 1968. PQ gained support when the 1969 Official Languages Act seemed to trivialize Quebec’s demand for special status.
In the October Crisis of 1970, a radical fringe group called the Front de Libération du Québec kidnapped James Cross, the British trade commissioner in Montreal, and Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s minister of labor and immigration. Quebec soon asked the Canadian armed forces to intervene, and the next day the federal government banned the FLQ under the War Measures Act.
Laporte’s body was found October 17, and a group holding Cross released him in return for safe passage to Cuba in early December. A federal inquiry later ruled that the suspension of normal civil liberties had been illegal.
In 1976, the PQ gained control of Quebec’s government and promised to consult the people of Quebec before taking any steps toward independence and secession. Four years later, majority-French provincial voters soundly rejected a referendum to authorize sovereignty negotiations with Ottawa.
Even so, the PQ was reelected in 1981, and in 1982 it refused to accept the new Canadian constitution. When the PQ removed sovereignty-association from its party platform in 1985, the Liberal Party regained control of the Quebec assembly.
Reorganized under the leadership of former finance minister Jacques Parizeau, the PQ again promised to declare Quebec independent after the voters of Quebec voted oui in a referendum.
The Meech Lake Accord, which agreed to conditions that Quebec had placed on its acceptance of the national constitution, collapsed in 1990 due to opposition. A subsequent package of constitutional reforms, presented to voters in a 1992 national referendum, was also defeated.
By 1994 the Bloc Québécois, a national party devoted to Quebec sovereignty, had won enough votes to become the official opposition party in Ottawa. Another sovereignty referendum in 1995 lost narrowly.
Canada was startled in November 2006 when Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper proposed a resolution, passed overwhelmingly by Parliament, stating that the 7 million "Québécois form a nation within a united Canada". Although this recognition was called "symbolic", it was unclear whether it might spark a renewed push for Quebec’s independence.