Canada under attack

Historian Michael Bliss weighs into the debate on recognizing the Quebecois as a nation within a united country

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

Let there be no misunderstanding about concepts of nation and nationality. The only two meanings of "nation" are (1) a human group bound together by ethnic ties, i.e. ties of blood; (2) a territorial unit that exercises political independence. We call aboriginal Canadians "nations" in that racial or ethnic sense; they used to be seen as tribes. We call Canada a "nation" in the political sense because it is an independent country.
In what sense can Quebecers be considered a nation? Quebec is not an independent country. If Quebecers are a nation because they are of the French-Canadian tribe, the volk, as the Germans used to say, then we are legitimizing racial/ethnic concepts that are ugly almost beyond belief in the 21st century. We turn all Quebecers who don't have the right blood -- all the Schwartzes and Cohens and others -- into second-class citizens.
"Oh, no," say the politicians and Quebecers who know how offensive the old ethnic nationalism has become. "We're talking here about Quebec and Quebecers as a civic nation -- all those people who live in a territory with a distinctive mix of language, ethnic groups, culture and historical experiences."
The trouble with that redefinition of nation is that all other poliltical territories become nations because every jurisdiction has its own distinctive mix of language, ethnic groups, culture and historical experiences. If Quebec forms a civic nation, then the people of every province of Canada also form civic nations. So, perhaps, do most Canadian cities, towns and villages. The redefined term is meaninglessness and those who use it are spouting intellectual fraud that many of us think is a front for the covert racism of the old ethnic nationalists.
Oh, come on Bliss. Lighten up. Who cares if political games are being played here. Does it really matter? No one's proposing to reopen the constitution. No one's proposing to give Quebec special status. It's all just symbolism. It doesn't mean anything in the real world. If it keeps the Quebecers quiet and happy, why worry? Isn't Stephen Harper clever?
The near-criminal recklessness of this position lies in everything we have known about separatist/nationalist politics in Quebec over the last 40 years. Are Quebecers going to be happy to be recognized as a nation within Canada if that recognition doesn't mean anything? If it doesn't confer anything? If it's meaningless?
Of course they aren't. Remember the hypocrisies of Meech Lake and Charlottetown? What the rest of Canada will be told is meaningless symbolism, will be sold in Quebec as profoundly significant. Significant because it gives Quebec special recognition within Canada. Every Quebec premier will use the recognition of "nationhood" to argue for special status, special powers, and, in the case of separatists, to insist upon logical consequence of ethnic/civic nationhood, which is the right of self-determination leading to independence.
When Quebecers learn that their nationhood is actually meaningless, they will have another grievance, another humiliation, another reason to insist on concessions, to make demands. If Quebec's being a nation is to have any content, for example, shouldn't it mean that Quebec has its own sports teams, its own distinctive passport, its own customs and immigration controls, its own voice at the United Nations?

In the meantime, whether Quebec's national status is symbolic or substantive there is the very real possibility of an intense sense of grievance developing among millions of other Canadians. Now we have two different categories of non-aboriginal Canadians. We have the members of the Quebec nation -- a nation within a nation -- and we have rest of Canada. The premier of Quebec is the head of a nation. The premiers of the provinces are lesser. The provinces are no longer equal. Canadians are no longer equal.
The recognition of Quebec's national status within Canada will politically legitimize the mad notion of asymmetrical federalism and will eventually cause havoc in federal-provincial relations. Our federal politicians -- Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats -- have become the dupes of separatists, who have just made a great leap forward. Pierre Trudeau and his values have disappeared. The country slouches towards balkanization, incoherence and eventual dissolution.
Historians will ask how this has happened. Since the 1960s the agenda of Canadian politics has been steered by Quebec's demands. It has been perfectly natural for federal politicians to court the nationalist vote in Quebec. The old Progressive Conservatives had a long history of flirting with 'deux nations.' For some years Mr. Trudeau stood firmly, clearly, and almost single-handedly for the preservation of one Canada, and in doing this he managed to implement a vision of a country in which all citizens would be equal under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. No sooner had he left office than Brian Mulroney gave into the temptation to court Quebec with special status. The politicians opened Pandora's box they could not close it and the country barely survived.
By 2006 most sensible Canadian politicians seemed to believe you no more raised the "deux nations" issue in the 21st century than you waved bloody flags of racial and religious divisiveness in the 19th century. Responsible politicians simply didn't go there.
Then along came Michael Ignatieff and Stephen Harper. Prime Minister Harper seems to have thrown principle and common sense and what we used to call the Canadian national interest (you can bet that phrase will now disappear) to the winds in a naive effort to court Quebec votes. Exactly how and why this has happened is unclear. Maybe too many of the old Mulroney gang have too much influence on Mr. Harper. Possibly he thinks that he is actually bringing closure to the issue by saying that Quebec is only a nation within Canada. Silly man: If Quebec is a nation within Canada, then it would be even more of a nation without Canada.
None of this would likely have happened if Mr. Ignatieff had not deliberately fanned the embers of Quebec nationalism in his campaign for the Liberal leadership. Without Mr. Ignatieff's publicizing of the issue, it probably would have simmered harmlessly. He is a classic example of the irresponsible intellectual who advocates what seem like good ideas, and only afterwards comes to understand and regret the unintended consequences of the positions he has taken. He did not learn the lessons of his ghastly Iraq folly. After making mistakes that would have humbled and silenced most thoughtful men, Mr. Ignatieff instead chose to bring his carpet bag of ideas back to Canada. Millions pay the price of the Ignatieff ego.

Now that the damage is done, the political establishment in Ottawa, abetted by mindlessly cheerleading pundists, will complicitly close ranks. They'll try to put the lid back on, pooh-pooh, backpeddle, deny, obfuscate. Only a few extremists and unrepentent Trudeauites, you will be told, stand in the way of renewed national unity -- oops, another phrase that has to go!
It's not opportunistm, ignorance, recklessness at all, you will be told. No, it's just common sense and good politics with a dash of statesmanship. All the best men and women in Ottawa -- just ask them how smart and wise they are -- have agreed to declare that Quebec is a nation within Canada.
If you don't like it, if you feel that your province and your country are thereby diminished, if you think there should have been meaningful public debate about this issue, that's tough. There's nothing you can do, except raise hell with your Member of Parliament.
- Michael Bliss is University Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto. His books include: Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Chretien.
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