How many nations are there in Canada?
This question merits a response in light of the debate within the federal Liberal Party about whether Quebec should be recognized as a nation in the Canadian constitution.
The issue of such recognition for Quebec is rooted in Canada's political history. In the early 19th century, the infamous Lord Durham contended that there were two nations warring within the bosom of a single state.
While Confederation represented an agreement among provinces, some contended that it entailed an arrangement between British and French Canadian peoples.
In the early 1960s the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism proposed that the Canadian federation be redefined on the basis of an equal partnership between English and French Canadian founding peoples. But while Canada adopted a policy of two official languages it did not legislate official cultures.
During the 1980s, Quebecers and other Canadians attempted to have Quebec's special nature acknowledged in the constitution. These efforts ended in failure. In the next decade some intellectuals modified the two-nation theory and, on the basis of what they described as the European model, insisted that Canada was a multinational federation.
However, the proponents of this idea realized that they overlooked the aboriginal peoples and so added the other founding partner to the two nations. The threesome did not detract from the desire for the Quebec nation to interact on a nation-to-nation basis with the rest of Canada (usually referred to as the English Canadian nation). Hence it would presumably negotiate as one of two equals as opposed to one in 10 in the case of interprovincial discussions.
The problem with this equation was that neither English Canadians nor aboriginals are easily defined as a single nation. Nor is it certain that Quebec could be cast in such singular terms. If such recognition implied reducing their own political weight in Canada, it was clear that several provinces would reject it. Moreover, based on the logic of the three-nation idea, francophones outside of Quebec and anglophones within the province might also seek similar recognition within each "nation." Despite these problems, the severely-flawed idea continues to be trotted out at conferences in Canada and abroad.
When, in 2003, the National Assembly declared that Quebec was a nation, it became the 12th entity to secure such status. In 1985, the same assembly accorded such recognition to the Abenaqui, Algonquin, Attikamek, Cree, Huron, Micmac, Mohawk, Montagnais, Naskapi, Inuit and Malecite nations. The Parti Quebecois invited them to negotiate nation-to-nation with the Quebec nation which in turn sought to negotiate with the rest of Canada on the same basis.
During the 2006 federal party leaders' debate, Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe declared that prime minister Paul Martin recognized the Acadian nation, and that he did, too.
"He is recognizing the First Nations. I do agree, also. I'm just asking him why he doesn't recognize the Quebec nation. I'd like him to say Quebec is a nation."
Martin replied that he never had any difficulty with the word "nation" in terms of the Acadians and went on to add the Metis to the growing list.
According to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, there might be as many as 60 aboriginal nations in the country. But given the estimated numbers of nations in Canada, there might be more political clout in being a province than a nation. In this debate, however, Quebec does not appear to consider itself as a nation comme les autres.
Indeed, after the National Assembly declaration that the province constituted a nation, it did not demand negotiation with Ottawa as one nation to another. Rather, it continued to participate in interprovincial discussions and was at the very forefront of the creation of the Council of the Federation that promotes greater provincial influence in federal decision-making.
As a declaratory measure, the affirmation by the National Assembly that Quebecers constitute a nation had little impact on the institutional arrangements of the federation. In short, it was well understood that the Quebec Liberal declaration was largely symbolic and yet the Parti Quebecois enthusiastically endorsed it.
In the Canadian context, the use of the term "nation" profits from a certain ambiguity that has been carefully nurtured by its advocates. Constitutional recognition of the Quebec nation raises numerous questions about Canadian federalism, not to mention the issue of whether aboriginal nations should be entitled to the same status. The political party that introduced the Clarity Act to deal with any future referendum process should be intellectually rigorous in the terms it employs on matters regarded as so vital to the future of the country.
If ever a dose of clarity was needed, it is in this debate.
Jack Jedwab is a lecturer at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
How many nations are there in Canada?
Declaring Quebec a 'nation' would open the door to aboriginals and many others