Marx had it wrong: It's the second time that's the tragedy. Or perhaps history goes on repeating itself, farce, tragedy, farce, in infinite regress. At any rate, we are shortly to smash ourselves on the same rocks we have so often visited before. One of these times we may not survive the encounter.
There was no necessity for Michael Ignatieff to promise to recognize Quebec as a "nation" in the Constitution, nor was the Quebec wing of the Liberal party impelled by any great cause or moment to endorse the proposal at its weekend convention.
But the former would like to win the party, and the latter would like to win the province, and so an idea that once lurked on the margins of the national debate is now thrust front and centre. When Liberal delegates meet next month in Montreal, they will not only confront the issue in deciding which leader to elect, but as a formal resolution for adoption as party policy.
Of the nastiness that is about to ensue we have already had a foretaste. Watching Mr. Ignatieff's supporters shouting down Stephane Dion at the weekend leaders' debate in Montreal, it was impossible not to be taken back to another such occasion, in the same city, nearly a generation ago.
Then, it was Paul Martin's supporters, chanting "vendu" at Jean Chretien for his unwillingness to endorse the Meech Lake Accord. Now it is Mr. Ignatieff's, Mr. Dion having shown the same reluctance to constitutionalize "national" status for the province.
If it were only a matter of the Liberal party devouring itself -- again -- that would be one thing. But, as in the past, the worst damage is likely to be to the country. Already there are warnings from editorialists and senior Liberals in Quebec that the resolution must pass at the convention, or risk "affronting" Quebec. And, should the federal Liberals be bullied into submission, we may expect the same ultimatum to be delivered to the country.
Only it won't stop there. Mr. Ignatieff thinks he can contain this to "symbolic" recognition, without further transfers of powers? He is out of date. No sooner had columnists in the Quebec media finished congratulating him on his daring than the yardsticks began to move. The province's Liberal government insists the clause must have interpretive weight to meet with its approval; the separatist opposition, needless to say, goes still further. As Don McPherson writes in the Montreal Gazette, "even before the federal Liberal convention tears itself apart over the offers, Quebec has already rejected them."
It is all so drearily predictable: the same mix of naivete and opportunism that always fuels these episodes -- of credulous outsiders, anxious to show how much they "get" Quebec by swallowing whatever the nationalists tell them, and cynical insiders, knowing it's all nonsense but willing to play along, hoping to exploit the situation to their advantage.
Sooner or later every opposition party succumbs to the same temptation, each thinking it can ride the tiger of Quebec nationalism, feeding it bits of the country whenever its stomach rumbles too ominously. Already we are rehearsing the same language, of irreducible "demands" and propitiatory "offers." And as before we will discover that every offer only serves as the basis for still further demands.
And if, all history to the contrary, that were not to be the case this time? Suppose we entrenched a purely "symbolic" recognition of Quebec's national status, and somehow managed to leave it at that. How, first, would this be defined? If in terms of the language and culture of the majority, then what of all those soothing assurances of equal status for the province's minorities? If in pluralistic terms, in the purely civic sense of the word as an assembly of all-comers, how is this to be distinguished from the Canadian nation?
Mr. Ignatieff has, at least, answered the second question: "I will speak," he says, "for all those Quebecers who say 'Quebec is my nation, but Canada is my country.'" There is no Canadian nation, that is, to be distinguished from, at least at it might extend to Quebec. In its place, we have the nation of Quebec, and the nation of ... not-Quebec. So rather than conceive of the country -- as our founders did, as most federations do -- as a union of citizens, who delegate their sovereignty to one level of government or another, we should instead have a kind of contract between nations.
But here's a funny thing about contracts: They are struck between equals. As equals, neither may presume to govern the other. Quebecers could have no say in the government of the rest of Canada, and the rest of Canada could have no say in governing Quebec. That may not be the legal effect of the Ignatieff proposal, but it would surely, over time, be the political effect: to de-legitimize federal authority in Quebec, and marginalize the province's MPs in the bargain.
And here's another thing about contracts: They can always be cancelled, albeit usually with the consent of both parties. Or at any rate, what could be contained in a contract between nations that could not be negotiated in a treaty between sovereign states?
We are half way there already, of course. Mr. Ignatieff trots out the usual justification invoked on such occasions: that Quebec was "left out" of the 1982 Constitution, that without the government of Quebec's signature, the country is not whole. This is nonsense legally, and even as a political matter requires that we overlook altogether the "signatures" of the 74 out of 75 Members of Parliament from the province who voted in favour of it. I can understand why separatists would wave these away as unimportant, but it is an utter mystery why federalists should agree.
Worse, by conceding the legitimacy of the separatist "option" -- not just that Quebecers could leave the federation, but that they could take one-sixth of the land mass of Canada with them -- we instilled the notion that the soil on which this country was founded was not the sovereign territory of Canada, but rather belonged to Quebecers; that the laws of Canada did not apply to Quebecers, but could be renounced at will, together with any debts, treaty obligations or other encumbrances. Which would together suggest Quebec was sovereign already.
So we have done ourselves a great deal of harm. But never more so than when, in a bid to persuade Quebecers to spare us from destruction, we offer to turn ourselves inside out on their behalf, the sole effect of which is to declare that Canada is the problem -- that if Quebecers are dissatisfied, in whatever vague, inchoate way, it is up to Canada to satisfy them, and not up to the separatists to show how tearing the country to pieces would make their lives better.
Let me put it this way. If ever we wanted to turn decades of simmering Western alienation into a full-blown separatist crisis, the surest way we could find would be to send out a royal commission, with a mandate to ask: How can we make you happy? Immediately it would occur to a great number of Westerners that, indeed, they were unhappy, who had not realized it until then. Another faction would itemize the price of their happiness in the form of an ever-lengthening list of demands, while still a third would respond that nothing you could ever do would make them happy. And the conclusion all three would eventually reach is that, as it was Canada that had made them unhappy, Canada and they would have to part.
This is the heart of the problem, the mistake on which all others rest: the idea that Quebecers must be satisfied. Perhaps one day we will learn -- the condition of happiness in this life is not satisfaction, but resignation.