PhD graduate Alex Rivard investigates the successes of separatist parties in Western democracies

Alex’s dissertation, A House but not a Home: The Determinants of Secessionist Party Emergence and Support in North America and Western Europe, documents the patterns of emergence and success of separatist parties in Western democracies. Rivard uncovers different forces driving emergence and success in national and subnational (provincial/state) arenas. The research uses time-series cross-sectional data from 1945 to the present, not just from places where secessionist parties have succeeded, but also places where they have not emerged but where it is plausible that they would have appeared.

We spoke to Alex Rivard some questions about his experience working on his dissertation–from the skills he developed and challenges he faced, to the key highlights of his research.

Dr. Alex Rivard

What was your dissertation about? 

My dissertation looked at separatist political parties in Western Europe and North America since 1945. More specifically, it looked at what encourages the emergence of separatist political parties in national and subnational elections. It then looked at what makes these parties successful once they’ve emerged.  

What are the main takeaways from your work? 

The main takeaway is that separatist political parties are electorally successful, form or participate in government, new separatist parties continue to emerge, and that they account for, on average, roughly 25 per cent of the vote in national and regional elections. While it’s true that these parties aren’t always successful, their success poses a considerable problem for the management of state harmony. 

What inspired you to investigate this topic for your dissertation? 

I was inspired to investigate this topic largely from a personal perspective. I grew up in Québec to a francophone father and an Anglophone mother from Nova Scotia. I’ve always felt the push-and-pull of Québec and Canadian nationalism and I was very interested in better understanding the nationalist dynamic. From there, I became interested in understanding how these nationalist sentiments manifest into independence demands and, specifically, figuring out where, and why, these demands are stronger (or weaker) in other regions.  

What was the most difficult part of writing your dissertation? What was the most satisfying? 

The most difficult part of writing my dissertation was, actually, writing the chapters/analyses that focused on Québec! Because I was so familiar with the area, it was extremely hard to pullback and not put everything I know on paper. Twelve to 13 pages later on the Meech Lake Accord, you ask yourself “does this really matter?”. 

The most satisfying part was defending it! It’s a great feeling to be told by your committee that the work has been well-done, that it’s ready to be rearranged into submission form for various journals, and that they think it’s a notable piece of work.  

 What skills did you develop or strengthen as a result of your work? 

I used the statistical knowledge I gained at UBC to further advance of knowledge on this project. Thanks to the level of knowledge I acquired, I was able to teach myself new statistical methods to better model my findings. I also learnt a new statistical programme, R, which aided me considerably for my dissertation and continues to be my primary coding language today. 

What was your experience working with Political Science faculty on this dissertation? 

My co-supervisors, Richard Johnston and Fred Cutler, were incredible to work with. Both were hands-off but attentive to my problems, willing to meet quickly, and helped me work through some tricky modelling and data problems. Carey Doberstein’s help with the qualitative aspect of my work was absolutely essential. The feedback I received from Kai Ostwald was extremely helpful and has helped me pushed by work by providing me with new research questions for future research. Overall, the experience was excellent.  

What is the next step for you in continuing the work you did on your dissertation? 

The next step is re-configuring the chapters so that they can be submitted to various journals. Some have already been submitted and are under review and others will be submitted shortly. Because I built a considerable database for this project, I have a series of papers and research projects lined up both directly and tangentially related to the overall project. 

Alex Rivard graduated in November 2021.