What's all this about Quebec nationhood?

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

You can't get much farther away from Quebec -- and still be standing in Canada -- than being out here in British Columbia. Moreover, living in this spectacularly beautiful province, we've traditionally looked southward and westward, rather than toward goings-on in Quebec and Ontario. So I expect that many of us have not been paying much attention to the proposal of the Liberal Party's Quebec wing to recognize Quebec as a "nation."

This controversial idea, advanced by Michael Ignatieff, will be debated at a party convention at the end of this month, prior to the vote to select a new Liberal leader. Mr. Ignatieff, the front-runner in that race, is supported by all four B.C. Liberal MPs, and he says that if he becomes prime minister he would eventually like to see the recognition of Quebec as a nation entrenched in the Canadian Constitution.

When British Columbians do turn their attention to his proposal, I suspect that many of us will be very reluctant to see our federal and provincial governments embark on constitutional discussions again. Who really needs another spectacular failure as we saw with the referendum on the Charlottetown accord in 1992? But I suspect there will also be considerable disagreement out here with the whole idea of recognizing Quebec as a nation, in whatever form.
Living beyond the mountains where French is spoken by very few people, including journalists, our elected MPs have begun to fudge the issue as the debate heats up. Only one B.C. Liberal MP, Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca's Keith Martin, has stated his position clearly: "I believe we have one nation and that nation is Canada." The Globe and Mail
On the other hand, Blair Wilson, the MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast, suggests that the brouhaha is all a problem of interpretation, as English-speaking Canadians tend to see "nation" as meaning statehood. That's the same position taken by Liberal leadership candidate Gerard Kennedy, and it's balderdash.

Looking at the first entry under "nation" in the Oxford English Dictionary, one finds the following definition: "An extensive aggregate of persons, so closely associated with each other by common descent, language, or history, as to form a distinct race or people, usually organized as a separate political state and occupying a definite territory. In early examples the racial idea is usually stronger than the political; in recent use the notion of political unity and independence is more prominent."

This definition corresponds perfectly to the two-part definition of the word nation that French-speaking Canadians will find in their Petit Larousse. However, listening to the discussion among Quebeckers, one often has the impression that they are not being clear about which part they are using.

Interestingly, Vancouver Quadra MP Stephen Owen, in supporting Mr. Ignatieff's proposal, relies on what the Oxford Dictionary suggests is the earlier definition by drawing an analogy between Quebec and native bands. More problematically, this ethnic- or racially-based definition has been explicitly rejected by Mr. Ignatieff as retrogressive. That's because Mr. Owens's definition would suggest that English-speaking residents of the province, of whom there are nearly a million, are not real Quebeckers, or that they are second-class citizens.

Of all the B.C. Liberals, Sukh Dhaliwal, the MP for Newton-North Delta, is the most supportive of Mr. Ignatieff's proposal. "Canada is a contract between different nations, not necessarily English and French. In fact, first nations as well," he says. Interestingly, Quebeckers, too, tend to see the rest of the country as a homogeneous nation called "English Canada." And, for many, the ideal arrangement in future would be some sort of sovereignty-association with "English Canada" -- an English Canada, by the way, in which Ontario would account for more than 50 per cent of the population.

It's understandable that Quebeckers would see our country this way today: Though our accents and even our vocabularies differ considerably, to them we are all speaking the same language: English.

That may be so, but the interests of the provinces vary considerably and, if constitutional negotiations were to begin, British Columbia -- with its booming economy, growing population and under-representation in Parliament -- would have its own agenda to pursue.

Most of us understand that many Quebeckers wish to live in an independent country. However, as this debate over nationhood progresses, we should be asking those who do not want to leave whether they are comfortable with the idea of being part of a nation called Canada, and whether they believe that the government in Ottawa is their national government too.

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