We are what we are, but it's not united

Criticism about semantics focusing on wrong word

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

MONTREAL - It is not clear what the economic effects are when our parliamentarians spend their time debating and passing resolutions on sociological facts. Given the silly things they sometimes do when addressing themselves directly to the problem of economic growth, perhaps we are all better off to have them distracted by semantics and philology. In fact, the more intricate and obscure the debate, the better.

On the other hand, though there were several reasons why the early 1990s were an economic write-off in this country, one surely was our constitutional and existential wars, first over Meech Lake and then Charlottetown.

Foreign investors may not mind if a country's legislators behave like so many professors, elaborating sociological facts and parsing the precise meaning of simple declarative sentences. But if the seminar deteriorates into constitutional proposals that threaten the country's existence, the economic consequences can be dire.

Still, if a columnist spends just 1,000 words or so on semantics and sociology, perhaps the cost to the economy will not be too great.

The resolution causing all the fuss is itself only nine words long: "The Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada." There has been much debate over many decades about what the word "nation" means. In French it supposedly connotes something like "my big, warm extended family," while in English we tend to associate "nation" with "country" or "state," so Quebec as a nation gets our backs up. It's silly and narrow of us, but there you go.
The word "Quebecois" is also subject to interpretation. (More on that in a moment.) But the one word that clearly does not belong in this nine-word sentence is "united." Canada is many things. Perhaps next week our MPs will work on a resolution enumerating them. But if there is anything Canada most certainly is not, it is "united." We are recognizing Quebec's nationhood only because we are not united.

The Prime Minister said this summer he'd prefer not to get into semantics. He is only doing so now because a party dedicated to the breakup of Canada has 50 members in Canada's national Parliament -- one-sixth of all the seats -- and has forced the issue. And because he hopes to prevent an avowedly separatist party from returning to power in Quebec next spring and provoking another unity crisis.

Even more to the point, though the country's federalist political parties are united on whether Quebec is a nation, the country itself almost certainly is not. In including "united" in this resolution, what federalist MPs really mean is "united if just one more concession to Quebec's soft nationalists will finally put 'the national question' to rest, put separatism back into quiescence, put an end to perpetual whining and at long last allow us all, English, French and Multicult alike, to begin to develop the feelings about our country that most other people, especially Americans, obviously feel about theirs."

"The Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada." The mischievous Bloc Quebecois motion that prompted the Prime Minister to act said, "Quebec is a nation..." If pushed, Mr. Duceppe would have said Quebec is a "civic nation." Anyone who lives in Quebec, of whatever ethnic background, is a member of that nation. By that elastic definition, of course, anyone who lives in Ontario is part of the Ontario nation, anyone who lives in Alberta is part of the Alberta nation, and so on. If you've got a jurisdiction, you can be a nation. If you think 500,000 Newfoundlanders aren't just as much that kind of nation as Quebec is, try going there and telling them that.

But the Prime Minister's motion doesn't say "Quebec," it says "The Quebecois." The word has been chosen carefully. Although this is the English version of the resolution, it doesn't say "Quebecers." (The section of Hansard that reports on the debate, in English, is headed "The Quebecois.") "Quebecers" are simply people who live in Quebec. "The Quebecois" are something different, more ethnic. I'm a Quebecer. My mother was born here. My father had the farsightedness to emigrate from Scotland at two and half years of age. My kids are going to school in French. But I doubt I'm a Quebecois.

Maybe the Prime Minister is buying into the civic nation myth. Maybe he would say "The Quebecois" include everyone who has agreed to live by the rules of the game here since 1977, when Bill 101 made Quebec officially French. Or maybe he wants "The Quebecois" to mean just French Quebecers. That would be a kind of sociological fact.

English and allophone Quebecers don't really feel Quebec is their nation. By and large, Canada is our nation (except, that is, when Lebanon is our nation). We often support recognition of Quebec's nationhood within Canada in sympathy with our French-speaking co-provincialists. If they want it, well, they're our neighbours and we'll go along with it if it makes them happy and at home and, above all, gets them over the need to legally separate us from Canada.

Since Wednesday afternoon I find myself hankering for a hyphen. We used to talk about French-Canadians and English-Canadians in this country until John Diefenbaker railed against hyphenated Canadians. But hyphens surely are better than official separateness: the Quebecois and the Canadians. If we have separateness, why not separation? We were two nations, two heritages, "French" and "English," that came together to be one nation made up of two and then more peoples. Now it seems we are two nations again. Having two peoples attached by hyphens to the same nation was better, I think.
But official recognition of "the Quebecois" means there are no longer any French-Canadians. There is the Quebecois nation. There are the First Nations -- 600 of them, they claim. There are Franco-Ontarians, Franco-Albertans, Franco-Manitobans, and so on, but no Franco-Quebecers (though there are Anglo-Quebecers) and now no French-Canadians (though there are still English-Canadians). The only French-speaking people with official status in this federation are "The Quebecois."

For men not blessed with eloquence, both Stephen Harper and Bill Graham gave surprisingly stirring speeches about Canada on Wednesday. But the speech I liked best was Gilles Duceppe's. "We are what we are, period," echoing the show-stopping "I am what I am," from -- what could be more appropriate? -- La Cage aux Folles.

When our own cage aux folles reconvenes next week, I hope MPs will consider the following philosophically impeccable substitute for Mr. Harper's motion: "Resolved, that this House recognize that Quebecers are what they are, period, and so is everyone else in the Canadian nation."

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