Embracing the nation in Quebec

There is a way to reconcile both ethnic and civic nationalism, says ANDREW STARK, and the next Liberal leader must do it

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

Andrew Stark
Michael Ignatieff enjoys a well-deserved global reputation as a writer and thinker on the topic of nationalism. One of his contributions has been to distinguish between two kinds of nationalism: ethnic nationalism, the racially tinged nationalism of blood, tribe, and roots, which he criticizes, and "civic nationalism," which Mr. Ignatieff says is open to anyone "regardless of race, colour . . . or ethnicity" who subscribes to a "nation's political creed." In Western democracies, of course, such a creed would centre on a core of democratic, pluralistic values.
So it is noteworthy that Mr. Ignatieff, both as a journalist and now as a politician, has never been able to decide whether Quebec nationalism is of the ethnic or the civic sort. Yet if Mr. Ignatieff is right when he predicted, some months ago, that "we're getting into another moment of storms" on the matter of Quebec sovereignty - and given the way the question "Is Quebec a nation?" recently caught fire - it seems as if the nature of Quebec nationalism is too important a matter to leave in a state of unaddressed confusion.
In a sense, Mr. Ignatieff's uncertainty on the question of Quebec nationalism's place on the ethnic/civic spectrum reflects that of the sovereigntist leaders themselves. All have stoked the fires of the province's ethnic nationalism, occasionally stepping way over any line of decency in doing so. But it's also true that there are few greater cosmopolitans than the men who have led the nationalist movement in Quebec: René Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard, Bernard Landry and even André Boisclair, each of whom, like Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Ignatieff - but markedly unlike the federalists Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper - has lived for periods outside of Canada. Their distaste for ethnic nationalism abounds on the record.
But these sovereigntist leaders faced a dilemma. To describe Quebec nationalism in ethnic terms would be to taint it with racial associations. But to depict it as the civic sort - given Quebeckers and Canadians share near-identical beliefs in multiculturalism, pluralism and democracy - would eviscerate the case for separation.
In the face of this ongoing ambiguity, there are two ways for a federalist leader to proceed in dealing with Quebec nationalism. The first is the Prime Minister's, whose strategy is to entirely sidestep the question, "Is Quebec a nation?" Mr. Harper has been criticized for being evasive on this matter, but in fact his avoiding the question coheres with his larger approach to the issue. He is, in essence, appealing to the one other notable trait almost all sovereigntist leaders share besides cosmopolitanism: They are public administrators who came to sovereignty more by thinking about problems of the Canadian state than by musing about the nature of the Quebec nation.
If it is true that nowhere else in the world of nationalisms do the words "manpower training" or "employment insurance" form rallying cries, it is because no other secessionist movement is so state-focused as compared with nation-focused. And it is this technocratic, bureaucratic impulse that Mr. Harper is now fully attempting to address, but in a new way. In effect, the Prime Minister is fiscalizing his constitutional policy - addressing Quebec's concerns through changes to the equalization and transfer framework, and not through recognition of its distinctiveness - while constitutionalizing his fiscal policy. Instead of continuing to annoy Quebec and the other provinces by intruding in their jurisdiction via the federal spending power, Mr. Harper seems determined to substantially hem in federal spending to its constitutional base. What remains for Liberals is a different way. It is to replace confusion with clarity, specify the ways in which Quebec nationalism displays both ethnic and civic elements, and treat each accordingly.
Here, Stéphane Dion's answer to the question "Is Quebec a nation?" is a good place to start: "There is no problem to recognize Quebec as a nation so long as it's the sociological definition of the word and not the legal one." In other words, from the perspective of what might be called "domestic" sociology - that is, from a Canadian perspective, by comparison with the rest of Canadian society - Quebec was, is, and will continue to be sociologically distinctive. From the perspective of international law, however, Quebec is not recognized as a distinctive entity; it is part of Canada, and only Canada is sovereign.
Mr. Dion's view is suggestive of another, not inconsistent but complementary, way to look at the issue. From the perspective of what might be called "international" sociology - from the perspective of the many countries around the world dealing with truly tribal ethnic nationalisms - Quebec, a multicultural society dedicated to pluralistic democratic values is, if a nation, clearly on the civic end of the spectrum. On the other hand, from the perspective of domestic law - from the perspective of the Canadian legal regime - Quebec's ethnic distinctiveness is not only acknowledged but enshrined, fortified and even constructed.
There are cues here for a new Liberal leader. He or she should say unambiguously to Quebeckers that, in sociological terms - in terms of the composition and values of their society - Quebec is and must continue to evolve as a civic, not an ethnic, society. Among other things, this would mean encouraging the view, within Quebec, that French should be regarded as part of the province's civic creed, the public language which belongs to all its citizens, and not simply the heritage of a particular ethnic group. A new Liberal leader should also resurrect, in the rest of Canada, the idea that in legal terms - that is, in the Constitution of the Canadian state - Quebec should be recognized as containing within itself a distinct ethnic heritage worthy of protection. This would mean encouraging the view that French is not only a civic language in officially bilingual Canada, but that those Quebeckers for whom French signifies not only a language, but an entire ethnocultural heritage, should have some constitutional guarantee that the Canadian state, in its lawmaking, will never jeopardize that reality.
Mr. Harper is saying neither of these things. Given his current political need to accommodate both Quebec nationalists and his Western base, he is unlikely to do so. The field is wide open for a new Liberal leader.
Andrew Stark, a former policy adviser in Brian Mulroney's PMO,
is a professor of management and political science at the University
of Toronto.


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Andrew Stark is a professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto and a former policy adviser in the Prime Minister's Office under Brian Mulroney.

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