With the Liberal party busy tying itself in knots over whether Quebec is a nation, speculation in certain media quarters has turned to the opening this presents for Stephen Harper to campaign in the next election on a One Canada message.
Fat chance. No Canadian political leader has crafted such an appeal in decades. Either they don't believe it, or they don't dare say it, but it is a strange fact that among Canada's political class, it is considered provocative, even outre, to suggest that Canada is a nation. There is a certain irony in this, to say the least. Over the years, the "national unity" industry has invested a great deal of time and effort in the proposition that native peoples are nations, or that Quebec is a nation. The one group it hasn't occurred to them to recognize in the same way is the people of Canada.
So perhaps we have been asking the wrong question. The question is not: Is Quebec a nation? The question is: Is Canada?
It cannot have escaped notice that, in all the time Quebec has been acquiring the trappings of nationhood, the government of Canada has been discarding them. The lexicon of nationhood has slowly slipped from official use. There remain certain vestiges, of course -- the Department of National Defence, the National Capital Commission -- but they stand out as oddities. What once was known as the "Dominion" government has been downgraded to the "federal" government, when it is not derided as "Ottawa." In Quebec, it is not Canada that is defended, but "federalism." There's a line to stir the heart: there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever federalism.
Perhaps at its origins this was rooted in an association of nationhood with Empire. To say that "Canada is a nation" risked implying that it was an English (or English-speaking) nation. But if that were ever true, it is not true now. While such an assumption might have lurked somewhere within John Diefenbaker's invocation of One Canada, it plainly could have no part in Pierre Trudeau's. Nor, certainly, was it the vision of the Fathers of Confederation.
But somewhere on the way to rediscovering their vision of a "political nationality," independent of race or language, we stopped believing that Canada was a nation at all. In the political science faculties, the idea is considered quaint. Ambitious politicians soon learn that careers are made by appealing, not to a shared, pan-Canadian nationhood, but to regional chauvinisms. Quebec nationalism, in particular, is forever to be given deference. We might entrench recognition of Quebec as a nation in the constitution. But Canada? "The Constitution of Canada is to be interpreted in a manner consistent with the recognition that Canada is a nation." Try to imagine the response.
Actually, we don't have to imagine. There was an attempt, once, to refer to "the people of Canada" in constitutional form, albeit safely in the preamble. It was in 1980, in an early draft of the patriation bill. "We, the people of Canada," it began. As Trudeau himself related, in his famous appearance before the Senate committee on the Meech Lake Accord, "it did not get beyond the fifth word ... There was one great scandal, because we started the preamble with the words, 'We, the people of Canada.' The outrage of [the] Quebec intelligentsia and the Quebec media was enormous."
Well, of course. Because whereas the idea of the Canadian nation, being civic and inclusive, can withstand competing ideas of nationhood -- you can identify, if you choose, with the Quebec nation, or the French-Canadian nation, as well as the Canadian nation -- the idea of nation that underlies Quebec nationalism, being language-based and exclusive, is necessarily a rejection of Canadian nationhood, at least as it applies to (francophone) Quebecers.
This is true not only of hard-line separatists, but their softer, provincialist cousins. For Quebec nationalism, in whatever form, is based on the idea that Canada is built, not on the bedrock of a broad, pan-Canadian nation to which every citizen belongs, but as some sort of compact between Quebec, on the one hand, and the rest of Canada, on the other. It is understandable that Quebec nationalists would try to make that argument. What is inexplicable is why federal political leaders would do the same. Somebody has to make the case for Canada.
This is no mere semantic point. That single, declarative sentence -- Canada is a nation -- implies a whole set of ideas about the country and how it works. It implies that every Canadian is tied to every other Canadian, directly, without the intermediation of province or other affiliation. It implies that they combine to make up a single political entity -- not a "marriage" or a "partnership" or a "compact" between sub-entities -- even if they choose to govern themselves federally. And it implies a direct relationship between those citizens, individually and collectively, and the one government that answers to them all: the national -- or if you prefer, federal -- government. That's critical. Federalism, as such, is impossible without it.
So let's say it, out loud and without apology: Canada is a nation. Le Canada est une nation. And let's ask our national political leaders to say it, too.