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In search of Canadian identity: The National Question in Canada and Quebec

By Mark Wegierski
web posted May 31, 2004

The federal election campaign in Canada is in its second week, but we have seen little departure from the rather banal, surface-level debate which characterizes most political discussion in Canada today. For example, there is no debate around the issues of a more traditionally-conceived Canadian identity. It is manifestly clear that the traditional and British roots of Canada have been mostly forgotten, with hardly anyone lamenting their passing.

It could be argued that Canada is a society which, before the 1960s, was largely more conservative and tradition-minded than the United States, but which, in the aftermath of the 1960s, has become far more liberal and progressive-minded (except for some residues of civility and politeness which should properly be credited to Canadian social conservatism).

It is important to ask how Canadian nationhood was traditionally defined. This is a question which many persons in Canada today are unwilling or unable to ask. Indeed, Canadian identity is today seen as a kind of conundrum or puzzle.

Up until the 1960s, Canada was conceived of in far different ways than it is today. At the most basic level, Canada was conceived of as a British country. This was a combination of both the British political traditions (Monarchy, Parliament, the British Common Law), and the fact that, for the last two hundred or so years, persons originally from the British Isles had formed the main cultural core of the population. The obvious exception to Canada's Britishness was the province of Quebec, with its large, French-speaking, Roman Catholic population. As Lord Durham had presciently warned in 1840 (although his proposed, fanatically anti-French solution of complete assimilation turned out to be unworkable) this has led to a situation of "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state." As a kind of response to the prevalent, dynamic, English-speaking culture, French Quebec had largely turned inward, centered on its Roman Catholicism and a largely rural existence.

However, in the 20th century, nascent Québécois nationalism expressed itself in federal elections mainly in support of the Liberal Party, rather than what were characterized as the "Tory Orangemen" of the Conservative Party.

Once thought as solid as the rock of Gibraltar, the British imperial concept has melted away like snow during a spring heat-wave. It has turned out that this notional system was more-or-less coterminous with the reign of Queen Victoria, and quickly dissipated thereafter. For Canada, the decline of the British Empire, the British Imperial idea, and increasingly now, even of the stature and place of the British Monarchy in England itself, has exacerbated the onset of a permanent identity crisis in English Canada.

Furthermore, the support the federal Liberal Party commonly received from Quebec after the federal election of 1896 (since the end of the nineteenth century) has ultimately allowed the Liberal Party to undertake a thoroughgoing reconstruction of Canada, in opposition to "the British connection." Beginning in 1965 with the repudiation of the Red Ensign (Canada's traditional flag, on which the Union Jack figured prominently), the Liberal Party was able to take Canada through a series of radical restructurings, culminating in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. The submission of all Parliamentary legislation to judicial review based on an absolutized written rights document is largely alien to British constitutional principles. The result is the undermining of the cornerstone of the British (and Canadian) system -- the Sovereignty of Parliament. Indeed, the influence of the Charter -- driven by an activist judiciary and legal apparatus which political scientist Ted Morton has called "the Court Party" -- has unleashed a massive tide of multifarious social and cultural change in Canada that has yet to abate.

The question for an English-speaking Canadian traditionalist invariably becomes -- to which Canada is he expected to hold allegiance? Interestingly enough, the current Canadian Citizenship Oath refers only to allegiance to the Monarchy. However, this is increasingly seen as a "dark relic" of the past, and will probably soon be replaced with an oath which will most likely call for allegiance to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and to "Canada's diversity." An English-speaking Canadian traditionalist, although a person who sees himself as the most ardent Canadian patriot, would have difficulty holding such an allegiance in good conscience. And, indeed, Canadian left-liberals would label persons ambivalent about the very latest aspects and interpretations of the Charter -- those who refused to accept this newly-imposed Canadian identity -- as "un-Canadian."

The situation for the Québécois nationalist is rather different. Certainly, he holds little respect for the institutions of the old Canada. Much like the case of Irish nationalism, Québécois nationalism is invariably republican. At the same time, the Québécois nationalist also probably holds the legal framework and institutions of the new Canada in contempt. Ironically, the Canadian system of provinces has allowed an enormous degree of autonomy for the province of Quebec, in which the French-Canadians are today guaranteed a large majority of power. Indeed (as Peter Brimelow has argued in his seminal book on Canada, The Patriot Game
(Toronto: Key Porter, 1986)) apart from the Anglophone (English-speaking), "Allophone" (non-English, non-French-speaking), and aboriginal minorities in the province, there is no"pro-Canada faction" in Quebec. Rather, there are, generally-speaking, fédéralistes and "non-separatist nationalists," who think French Quebec's interests are best served by remaining in Canada, and the Québécois separatists or nationalists or sovereigntistes, who think that Quebec can do better outside of Canada.

The attitude today of what could be called "Canada's left-liberal ruling elites" to Quebec separatism is clear -- it is close to "enemy number one." To the typical member of these elites, Quebec nationalism is today seen as a dangerous tribalism, an atavism, "the fly in the ointment" that threatens to disrupt the dream of the multicultural, new Canadian state. These elites are even not averse to enlisting some of the traditional disdain of English Canadians against Quebec, as a weapon to be deployed against the Québécois. On the other hand, the congenital squeamishness of these elites in regard to upholding any serious definition of Canadian nationhood, has meant that many actions that would have traditionally been considered treasonous, e.g., the circulation of written materials by a member of Parliament urging military personnel to join a secessionist cause, have met with only a very tepid response. According to English-Canadian ultra-traditionalist criteria, a Quebec separatist party would in all likelihood not even be permitted to sit in Parliament. Indeed, the standpoint of most of the English Canadian right wing is to stand strongly against Quebec. They are often the ones who are the most likely to fling the accusations of treason against the Québécois separatists.

Yet, a more thoughtful English-speaking Canadian traditionalist would be able to see that enlisting oneself in the "war" against Quebec separatism, might well be supportive only of the left-liberal elites. As a result of the processes of fundamental transformation carried out since the 1960s in Canada, there appears to be a situation where -- as Ray Conlogue argues in his book, Impossible Nation: The Longing for Homeland in Canada and Quebec (Stratford, Ontario, Canada: Mercury Press, 1996) -- French Quebec is a manifestly real nation -- without a state; whereas Canada has mostly descended into being merely a state -- a soulless apparatus -- without a solid national definition.

It has been suggested by a variety of persons that a positive resolution between the current over-centralization of the Canadian federal regime, and the complete break-up of the country, might well lie in a major regionalization or "provincialization" -- the devolution of many powers to the provinces. Even though typical English-Canadian right-wingers had been strongly opposed to the recognition of Quebec as "a distinct society" (during the battle over the Meech Lake Accord in 1987-1990) they typically also favor massive devolution of federal powers to the provincial level, which might prove a lasting, workable solution to keeping Quebec in Canada. For Canada today, the province or the region might be the best place to build a sense of identity simultaneously more respectful of Canadian tradition, and distinct from the American.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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