Many Canadians have difficulty with the idea of recognizing Quebec as a nation. A solid grasp of history certainly helps to understand why this is a legitimate aspiration. Equally important are crystal clear definitions that we can all agree upon -- a Promethean challenge that requires a willingness to accommodate and a great deal of goodwill.
My own views about this issue have evolved significantly over time. One event in particular helped me to focus on it more than I had before.
During the last federal election, I ran in a riding held by the Bloc Québécois. I lost that contest but in the process learned a great deal, most notably, that I was not quite on the same wavelength as my fellow Quebeckers.
First of all, I had been out of the country from 1992 to 2000 training as an astronaut and had not had the opportunity to appreciate the profound changes taking place in Quebec, including Canada's near-death experience in the 1995 referendum.
Secondly, my perspective of Canada and of Quebec was shaped by English national newspapers and from watching English television, which I believed, gave me an encompassing sense of my country. In reality, I was living inside a bubble.
And finally, like most of us, I was not immune to my own biases. For instance, in 1970, I met James Cross when he hosted me and other winners of a scholarship program funded by the British Board of Trade. Just days later, he was kidnapped. A year later, I and the other Canadian students he had hosted, were invited to a lunch and he was the guest of honour. I sat immediately to his left during the lunch and did my best to converse with him. However, when I saw how the man appeared to have aged 20 years, I felt tremendously disturbed by what had happened to him. Clearly, we are all profoundly shaped by our past experiences.
It took my personal involvement in a federal election to get back in touch with Quebec's reality. And today, I can say without hesitation or shame that I had not realized to what extent Quebeckers had evolved in a new direction. I'm referring to all those French Quebeckers who are both federalists and nationalists, that is to say Canadians with a strong sense of their own distinct culture, language and what makes them feel unique within our country. They had moved away from the federal parties because of repeated failures to recognize Quebec's unique status within our confederation. Today, they still feel profoundly wounded by this lack of recognition. And I've come to recognize the legitimacy of their grievance.
As it stands, I believe Canadians think they understand each other and that when it comes to recognizing Quebec, it's just a matter of disagreement rather than of misunderstanding. I no longer agree with this viewpoint. I very much think that we remain two evolving solitudes.
But what concerns me at this point is our inertia. Yes, we needed a cooling off period after so many failed attempts at constitutional reform by so many people of goodwill. Now, however, we must not be gripped by paralysis or by the hope that if we concentrate on other things, the problem will go away.
Or perhaps even the belief that there will be a more favourable time in the future to face this problem.
This problem will not go away by itself. The longer we wait the greater the risk.
We must find a way to recognize Quebec's legitimate aspirations, not for independence but for recognition and reconciliation. I love my country and I love the province in which I was born and currently live. If I could say one thing to my fellow Canadians who do not agree with or understand what they view as an unjustified or irrational obsession coming from Quebec, it would be this: Please take some time to try to understand the issue in all of its historical and cultural dimensions.
The time has come to recognize the sociological and historical reality of the Quebec nation and the enormous power of this symbolic gesture. It won't change your lives, but it will surely make Canada a stronger country.
Marc Garneau, former astronaut and former president of the Canadian Space Agency, was a federal Liberal candidate in January in the Montreal-area riding of Vaudreuil-Soulangers.