The definition of a nation

Recognizing Quebec as a 'nation' is not to be feared : the rise of a 'nation state' within Canada certainly is

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

Par Gar Pardy
Looking for ideas in the context of a political party leadership race is akin to looking for elephants in spruce trees. Experience shows that neither is likely to happen.
It was thus a surprise when Michael Ignatieff a month ago declared that the "future of Canada includes the recognition of Quebec and aboriginals as nations in our Constitution." Apart from in Quebec, the reaction among the country's pondering pundits was as if Mr. Ignatieff had broken wind at the Governor General's. The "n" words were again out and about in the land.
A few years ago, following the Charlottetown and Meech Lake imbroglios, and the near-death experience in 1995, the country, again except for Quebec, gave a collective shudder and there was a silent consensus that "not in our lifetimes" would we open Pandora's constitutional box again.
What has been surprising, and it has again surfaced in the reaction to Mr. Ignatieff's comments, has been the division over the current status of national unity. One editorial in a national paper stated without equivocation that "the current approach to national unity is working" and "national unity is not threatened."
Commentators from Quebec do not share that breezy view from Toronto. There, the reality is closer to home and the view is common that the next national-unity crisis is no further away than the next provincial election. Independence has not gone away and remains a favourable option for more than 40 per cent of the Quebec population.
A victory for Andre Boisclair and the Parti Quebecois and we are all on the referendum road again. Most agree that Premier Jean Charest and his Liberals are a very thin defensive red line, and the political confusion in Ottawa does not offer a soupcon of comfort either.
The Clarity Act offers as much protection as a fig leaf in downtown Baghdad. The Supreme Court has already ruled that a clear majority in a referendum in Quebec for separation requires the federal government to begin negotiations for the break-up of the country.
And does all of this hinge on a six-letter word that spells the same in English as it does in French? "Nation" and its associated culprits "nationality" and "national" approach nails-on-blackboard intensity for many English Canadians while in Quebec, nation may be simply another way of saying "distinct society," and perhaps we love you.
In the minds of many English-speaking Canadians, "nation" is the equivalent to "state" or "country" or, if you want in a political sense, "kingdom." It is not so in any legal sense, as is readily evident from any sense of history, particularly European history, from which we all sip on such matters.
Confusion is intensified when nation is combined with state to give us, in English, the Nation State. In its idealization, the nation state combines both a geopolitical and an ethnic/cultural/religious/
linguistic unity. As is readily apparent, even with a modest understanding of this phantasmagorical world, there are few true nation states, and migration and immigration ensures that there will be even fewer.
Iceland is often cited as the only modern nation state. Whether more existed historically is hotly disputed by sociologists and political scientists and, as usual with such matters, they also dispute what came first, the nation or the state.
A word analysis of the works of Shakespeare illustrates how recent the word "nation" is in English. Writing in the late 16th and early 17th century, Shakespeare only used the word "nation" 27 times in his works, which more often than not involved issues of governance. On the other hand he used "state" 237 times, "country" 144 times and "kingdom" 102 times. This in a land that today acknowledges at least four nations (without getting around to Yorkshire, the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands) within its bosom. There would appear to be little reason for the rest of us to get upset about such a matter.
All modern states are an amalgam of peoples with widely varying cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds. Most are becoming more so.
The modern era of the state that is largely European originates out of the Peace of Westphalia, which in 1648 bought a negotiated end to the Hundred Years War. (There may be some lessons for a Middle East peace from that era now that we are beyond six decades of war in that troubled region).
The 1648 peace by no means gave Europeans peace for very long, but it did give them the outlines of an international system that provided recognition for each country's sovereignty and territory and allowed for the emergence of "national" independence movements and the creation of states such as Italy and Germany.
Once the philosophers and propagandists had a go it was not long before the mythical and destructive concept of the nation state emerged. It emerged more on the basis of the need for rulers to deliver large messages or as an attempt to create national unity. In all of this, racism was never far from the centre.
Europe, which has suffered the most from the extreme application of nationalism and the concept of the nation, is today on its way to becoming the world's first supra state. In the European Union the concept of nation is beating a retreat in the face of liberal labour mobility laws, as was epitomized recently by the "Polish plumber in Paris" drama. A flag, a national anthem, open borders and a common currency and passport illustrates what reasonable leaders can achieve.
Compared to many countries, Canada has less diversity than most. Here, however, the fog of political debate allows obscurantism and bigotry to get in the way of reasonable compromises and political bargains. We should know better than to expect that by ignoring and avoiding the problems and the issues surrounding national unity there will be anything more than short-term and false comfort.
The ugly old bear of national unity, when out of sight, does not become less fierce. Rather, time and the increasing success of the Quebec nation is simply adding to the magnitude of the problem and could easily lead to the need for a passport to travel from Ontario to New Brunswick.
It is hoped that these are the considerations that led Mr. Ignatieff to stick his finger into our eye a few weeks ago. It is uncharacteristically bold for a leadership candidate to do so. Perhaps 30-odd years of travelling other roads and seeing Canada from a distance provides for some measure of vision and perspective and the courage (some would say foolhardiness) to act.
Those who stayed at home have no particular claim to wisdom or understanding on this issue and so far, collectively, they have adopted the sunny view from Toronto.
Gar Pardy retired from Canada's foreign service in 2003 following tours of duty in India, Kenya, the United States and Central America. Not a 'nation state' in the lot.

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