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A return to the national question in Canada and Quebec

By Mark Wegierski
web posted November 20, 2006

The federal Liberal leadership campaign of 2006, has, among other issues, raised important debate about whether Quebec is a "nation" – and whether (as prominent columnist Andrew Coyne discussed in the November 15, 2006 issue of The National Post) – Canada itself is a "nation"?

The federal Liberal leadership campaign has occurred in the wake of Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin's defeat by Stephen Harper's Conservatives in the January 23, 2006 federal election. Harper nevertheless won only a minority government in the federal Parliament (124 of 308 seats). This means he must depend on the support of one or another of the other parties, which include the separatist Bloc Quebecois (51 seats); the New Democratic Party (NDP) – Canada's social-democratic "third party" (29 seats); and the Liberals themselves (103 seats), to stay in power. In the Canadian Parliamentary system, the Prime Minister can call an election at any time of up to five years from the previous election.

However, as a consequence of the government falling to a non-confidence motion, or in the aftermath of the defeat of a major money bill, such as the federal budget, an election must usually occur, although in some circumstances a coalition of other parties may try to form a working government. Minority governments in Canadian history have usually lasted not much longer than a year.

It could be argued that one of the central reasons for the "dysfunctional politics" of current-day Canada is the effect over time of the irrefutable duality of the Canadian State, with its historically pre-existent English, and French (Quebec) "nations". After 1896, when the French-Canadians switched their vote federally en masse to the Liberal Party, the Liberal Party was almost always able to obtain a majority in the federal Parliament, by combining virtually every seat in Quebec, with a minority of seats in English Canada.

Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's opportunity of attracting more permanent Quebec support was squandered by the narrow-mindedness of the Progressive Conservative Party at that time. Diefenbaker held the prime ministership from 1957 to 1963, winning of one of the largest majorities in Canadian history in 1958. The name of the party had been officially changed in 1942 in an attempt to attract the Progressives, a large but briefly existing, Western Canadian-based populist party, but was also highly convenient in a society which had tended in a broadly liberal direction for many decades. Nevertheless the P.C. Party was in the earlier decades home to many varied factions – and Diefenbaker was a particularly staunch Tory – who cherished Canada's various connections to Britain. In any case, Quebec moved into a new era after the so-called "Quiet Revolution" – where the hold of the Roman Catholic Church on the population was largely excised, and ultra-traditionalism was annihilated from social and cultural existence. It had been somewhat of an earlier paradox that an ultra-traditionalist Quebec had in most cases supported the Liberal Party in federal elections. However, when there now was the chance that Quebec's social conservatism would come into conflict with the increasing social liberalism of the Liberal Party, much of that social conservatism had been removed from Quebec.

Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau received a majority of seats in English-speaking Canada only once (during the 1968 election) yet he remained in power from 1968 to 1984 (apart from nine months in 1979-1980). Trudeau used all the power of the office of Prime Minister to initiate immense social and cultural transformations, which he then placed virtually beyond the reach of any succeeding Prime Minister to undo (with the enactment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982). It is difficult to find any society in history which has been as impacted by one individual, as in the case of Canada and Trudeau.

Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney – who won two huge majorities in 1984 and 1988 – holding the prime ministership from 1984 to 1993 -- had the opportunity to assuage Quebec through the Meech Lake Accord (and then the Charlottetown Agreements), which both failed. The fact that he dealt so harshly with "small-c conservatives" within the P.C. Party meant that the arising of the Reform Party became virtually inevitable; and that few "small-c conservatives" in English-speaking Canada could bring themselves to support the Meech Lake Accord or the Charlottetown Agreements. The term "small-c conservative" arose because the "big-C Conservatives" – that is, the P.C. Party -- had become lackadaisical about, and often openly hostile towards, the more traditionalist-conservative residues within the party.

Quebec's disgust with the failure to ratify the Meech Lake Accord propelled the arising of the Bloc Quebecois – which was to represent Quebec's cause in the federal Parliament -- and the major electoral victory of the Parti Quebecois at the provincial level in 1994. The 1995 referendum to begin negotiations towards sovereignty failed by a very slim margin, and there was clearly an element of Liberal chicanery behind the "No" victory.

 It can now be argued that the whole justification of the Liberals as the defenders of Canadian federalism, has proven to be a massive imposition. English-speaking Canada was required to give up nearly all of its sense of real identity to supposedly assuage Quebec -- but Quebec separatism is today probably as strong as it ever was. This suggests that Quebec separatism arises from deep-rooted currents in that province, and is very difficult to quell.

Given the obvious authenticity of Quebecois nationalism -- whether of fully separatist or "non-separatist" shades -- serious, reflective "small-c conservatives" in English-speaking Canada must think clearly about how Quebec is to be accommodated. The Liberal "solutions" such as official bilingualism everywhere outside Quebec have manifestly failed to stem the rising tide of separatism.

It seems the path that Conservative Prime Minister Harper is now slowly working towards is a radically decentralized federation, where most facets of government would operate at the provincial level. (As a result of the evolution from Reform to the Canadian Alliance, and the eventual merger of the CA with the Progressive Conservative remnants – a federal party officially called the Conservative Party of Canada had been reborn in December 2003.)

It cannot be doubted that the now-abeyant Western Canadian alienation will reach a boiling point, if Stephen Harper is unable to find a middle path between separatist devolution and Liberal centralism. Why should Western Canada necessarily be subordinated to a hostile federal government elected by other regions? Western Canadians have certainly been extremely patient, waiting for long decades for a federal government more congenial to them to be elected. If Harper fails to expand towards winning a majority government, it could really be time to seriously re-think the current arrangements in a somewhat more radical fashion.

One possible idea is the original European Common Market model. The European Community had once been looked at as a "union of sovereign states" -- rather than what it is becoming today, a bureaucratic "superstate". It could be argued that the federal government in Ottawa -- insofar as it has been dominated by dogmatic "small-l liberals"  -- has come to resemble the structures of the E.U. in Brussels, which are despised by those clinging to their respective national and regional identities. Why couldn't the territorially vast Canada be conceived of as an economic union of sovereign states, rather than a single country? (It could still, for example, elect "delegations" to Ottawa.) Indeed, the less entanglements and forced integration there are between English-speaking Canada and Quebec, the more they will be able to enjoy a more normal social and cultural existence, with more normal politics of greater balance between Left and Right. Some have called this possible arrangement "the Swiss model" or "cantonization."

It is difficult to understand why, in a world that is supposedly dominated by "postmodern" ambiguity, Canadians and Quebecers wish to stand so strongly on what they imagine to be "hard sovereignty." Canada is today in many ways a "soft state" -- and it is this "softness" which might be used as an opportunity to create some kind of "postmodern"-seeming constitutional arrangements which will actually make it a stronger and more "rooted" federation or union in its constituent parts. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher, published in Alberta Report, Books in Canada, Calgary Herald, New Brunswick Reader, Ottawa Citizen, Review of Metaphysics, Telos, and The World & I, among others. His article about Canada was reprinted in Annual Editions: World Politics, 1998-99 (Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1998).




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