A nation by any other name

According to linguists, Quebec might be better suited to statehood, writes Tony Atherton.

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

Tony Atherton

The debate over what to call Quebec -- province, nation, not-the-rest-of-Canada -- comes down to a question of semantics. And what better way to resolve a dispute over meaning than to consider what the words were meant to mean when they first came to mean anything at all.

In short, we should take the question away from politicians, an undisciplined lot, and turn it over to etymologists, the deep-rock miners of linguistics, who are far less fickle.

Etymologically speaking, it's no wonder Quebecois are not fond of the term "province." It is derived, word-source dictionaries tell us, from the Latin word, provincia, referring to a conquered territory beyond the civilized boundaries of the conquering nation. Most Canadians are technically "provincials," of course, but one could see how the word's antique implications might be particularly galling to Quebec.

"Nation," however, is not much of an alternative, given roots that would undoubtedly upset Quebec's large immigrant population. The word comes to us through Old French from another Latin word, nationem (literally "that which has been born"), and refers to race or stock. Common ancestry of a population within any significant chunk of geography is rare anywhere these days, but particularly so in countries founded on immigration, like Canada.

Calling Quebec "a nation within the nation of Canada" merely compounds an existing problem. Canada itself is not a nation in the sense originally intended.
Former prime minister Jean Chretien's weasely phrase "distinct society" was roundly rejected by Quebecois some years back, and rightly so. The word society, in its most pristine from, refers to comradeship and fellowship, nothing too serious. The Elks, the Lions and the Knights of Columbus are societies. Quebec, which doesn't hold weekly meetings or expect its citizens to wear fezs, plumes or vests, imagines itself something more.

The word that history most recommends to Quebec is probably "state," originally meaning position in community (as in "status," for which a modifier like "special" would be superfluous). State was soon broadened to mean "the condition or fact of being," according to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology. Its use predates that of nation by about a century.

Quebec's shared conditions, or characteristics, are what make it a state. And how do we measure the State of Quebec? Why, by statistics, of course, which is derived from the same root and refers to data detailing the condition of being -- or statehood.

Even a cursory glance at Quebec statistics would convince most that is a state unlike its fellows. Forget that 81.5 per cent of the population claim French as their mother tongue, that 82.2 per cent use French at home, that 94.6 per cent understand French. Consider these other singularities (collected from federal and provincial statistic agencies and private and public surveys):

- Quebec has the highest abortion rate in the country.
- Quebec has fewer births to single mothers than any other part of the country.
- Quebec toddlers are more likely to live in a family with two parents than their counterparts anywhere else in Canada.
- By age 10, Quebec children are more likely to be living in a single-parent home than children elsewhere in Canada.
- Quebec has the highest smoking rate -- and the highest lung-cancer mortality rate -- among all provinces.
- In Quebec, more people identify themselves as regular alcohol drinkers than in the rest of Canada.
- Quebec has the smallest percentage of at-risk dependent drinkers and the fewest number of alcohol-related traffic offences, hospital admissions and deaths.
- Quebec university students, when compared with students in the rest of Canada, are the largest consumers of wine and the smallest consumers of spirits.
- Quebec university tuitions are the lowest in the country, less than half that of most provinces.
- Quebec has more hospitals and doctors per capita than the rest of Canada.
- Per-capita spending on public health in Quebec is the lowest of all provinces and territories.
- Almost 30 per cent of Quebecers can't find a family doctor, nearly twice the national average.
- Quebec has the highest union density in the country and had the largest share of strikes and lockouts in 2005, 45 per cent of the national total.
- Quebec businesses are much more likely to be family owned than in the rest of Canada.
- Quebecois work fewer hours on average than any other Canadians.
- People in Quebec suffer more from stress than other Canadians.
- Homosexuality is more acceptable in Quebec than any other province.
- The percentage of Quebecois unfazed by unmarried sex exceeds the number who speak French.
- Quebec has more Roman Catholics than any other province, considerably fewer of whom attend church regularly compared with their co-religionists in the rest of Canada.
- Quebec has more naturist clubs than any other province.
Quebec, in other words, is already in quite a state.
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To view a video report on reaction to the 'Quebec as nation' motion, go to Today's Videos at www.ottawacitizen.com

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