RUDYARD GRIFFITHS - Quebec City knows how to start a party right. First, rustle up $110-million in federal funding. Next, ditch dowdy Queen Elizabeth and, instead, invite presidential bad-boy Nicolas Sarkozy and his supermodel wife Carla Bruni. Cue Celine Dion, an international summit of la Francophonie, and multiple appearances by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and, by anyone’s measure, you are well on your way to doing justice to the 400th anniversary of the founding of your city.
If this is all news to you, don’t feel bad. According to a recent poll by Harris-Decima, a whopping 80 per cent of English-speaking Canadians are unaware that Quebec City is celebrating its landmark anniversary this year. The non-event that Quebec City’s big birthday is outside Quebec is just the tip of the iceberg currently lodged between the country’s two solitudes.
Whether it’s the steady decline of bilingualism, the bulletproof poll numbers of the Bloc Québécois, or our plummeting knowledge of Canadian history generally, French and English Canada are more culturally and politically remote from each other than at any time in the past half century. What’s especially frustrating for all who still believe in Pierre Trudeau’s vision of "One Canada" is that the entity most responsible for prying Canada apart in recent years is the federal government.
For successive federal governments trying to scrounge up votes in a post-referendum Quebec, the temptation to dole out more perks, onetime payouts and legislative exemptions has proven irresistible. The result is that Quebec’s already significant powers over immigration, language and social programs have been expanded and enriched by such newfangled inventions as the recognition of the "Québécois nation" and more restrictions on the ability of the federal government to enact programs in areas of shared jurisdiction. Fifteen years after the Quebec referendum la belle province has achieved sovereignty association in everything but name.
The upshot of this dynamic is that what happens in the R.O.C. (rest of Canada) matters less and less to an increasingly autonomous Quebec that is pursuing its interests and objectives through its own "national" institutions and an expanding international presence sanctioned by the Canadian government.
Quebec’s growing autonomy should worry every thoughtful Canadian. If left unchecked, the devolutionist fervour that currently grips Ottawa will eviscerate what little is left of the country’s civic core : the two-century-old idea that Canada is a work of two founding peoples who together created the institutions and values upon which the country’s strength and prosperity rests.
Quebeckers need not worry too much about the unravelling of the civic compact between French and English Canada. In the decades to come, the French language will ensure their province cum nation will remain a vital and interesting place with a strong sense of history and purpose.
The R.O.C., however, is courting a far more significant loss.
For starters, without Quebec nipping at its heels, English Canada risks succumbing to the ongoing temptation to remodel its political institutions and democratic values along U.S. lines. Ottawa’s mania for fixed election dates, term limits, an elected Senate and MPs quizzing Supreme Court appointees all foreshadow the Americanization of the civic culture of an English Canada left to its own devices.
Equally significant, an English Canada that is cut adrift from its French counterpart will be hard pressed to resist its own process of devolution.
In fact, by actively encouraging Quebec’s autonomy, the federal government has lost the momentum, if not the moral authority, to create the kinds of national programs and institutions that previous generations saw as essential to our sense of shared of nationhood. As the provinces move forward to address, on their own, key issues such as climate change, social welfare and trade barriers, the vast machinery of the federal government is becoming an ever more expensive, and not particularly useful, appendage of the body politic.
The country is fast approaching a watershed moment.
Without a public groundswell to assert new national projects and renewed institutions that champion Canada as a civic compact of two founding peoples, we risk losing touch with more than just an ingredient that went into the making of Canada. We stand to lose something that will affect all of us : the ability to imagine what it means to belong to a nation that is greater than the sum of its parts.
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS, Co-founder, Dominion Institute
Rudyard Griffiths steps down today as the executive director of the Dominion Institute.