Beware Belgium's example

Belgique - des leçons à tirer...

Three years ago, when he was still leader of the opposition, Stephen Harper singled out bilingual, bicultural Belgium as a fine example of successful federalism. Harper held up Belgium as the model he personally would be emulating for renewed federalism in Canada if he took power.
Well, he did take power, with a minority government. And today it's more than a little embarrassing that just as he is to announce a key component of his renewed federalism - formally restricting Ottawa's spending to federal jurisdictions - the Belgian model shows signs of being about to fission after 176 years of existence.
Fortunately, Canada is not Belgium. That country's French-speaking Walloons in the south and Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north lead quite separate lives. The few contacts between linguistic groups tend to be antagonistic. They know, and apparently care, little about one another. They watch separate television programs and vote along linguistic lines.

Belgians have nothing in common but "the king, the football team, some beers," prime-minister-designate Yves Leterme recently told The Economist. He is the PM "designate" because for the past three months, with its voters split along linguistic lines, Belgium has been unable to form a new government. More than 40 per cent of voters in the Flemish north favour independence.
The sounds at first a little like Canada. A country split along linguistic lines, with nothing in common but a mutual antagonism.
But it isn't really so. Canadians have stronger central institutions, for one thing. Belgium, with 10.5 million people, has 11 parties in parliament. It has two distinct party systems and two electoral colleges, one French-speaking, the other Dutch.
There are another five parliaments set up by language and geography. No national political party speaks for the whole country. The political system has incorporated linguistic differences into its actual structure. There is no sense of common nationhood. Power is so devolved that the country essentially operates as a city state, Brussels, surrounded by independent fiefdoms.
Fortunately, this could not serve as a description of Canada, despite our vastly greater expanse on the map and the diversity of our regions.
But the Belgian case serves as a warning note to all who call themselves federalists.
Inter-penetration of language groups is substantial here, but needs to be encouraged, which means official-language minorities need defending. Parliament needs parties represented in every region. Public and private bilingualism is an asset, to be encouraged in every part of the country. Quebec does not need its own national anthem. And Canadians could profit from incentives - student exchange programs, perhaps even holiday tax breaks - to get to know their neighbours in other regions.
As for the Harper government's desire to clarify the separate roles of the federal and provincial governments, he should beware mollifying the Quebec political class at the expense of retaining genuine national scope for Ottawa.
A country has to be careful not to devolve itself to death.

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