Two Tribes, Part 2
By Mark Wegierski
Many of Canada’s problems derive from the fact that the country consists of “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state”, to quote from Lord Durham’s famous Report of 1840. The “two nations” are, of course, English-speaking and French-speaking Canada. Oft times, English-speaking Canada tried to pretend that Québec simply did not exist; then it moved, probably too late, into a stance of extreme accommodation; and finally, when English-speaking Canada became ideologically liberal, it moved to oppose Québec in the name of so-called universal rights, and in view of Québec’s “illiberalism”.
In an attempt to have Québec accede to the new Canadian Constitution, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney negotiated the Meech Lake Accord in 1987. A strange kind of fury seized English Canada, in opposition to the legal recognition of Québec as “a distinct society”, albeit an obvious historical and social reality but a blow to absolute individual rights, as well as to the notion that so-called “group rights” are normally afforded only to visible minorities (a term of official usage), as well as to Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The Accord failed in 1990, when it was rejected by the recalcitrant legislatures of two smaller English-Canadian provinces.
In 1992, the Charlottetown Agreements were cobbled together by Mulroney and the ten provincial Premiers. They were in many ways similar to the Accord. They were put to a countrywide referendum. The Québécois nationalists opposed them because they did not offer enough to Québec, whereas TROC opposed them because they offered too much. The Agreements were solidly defeated across the country.
Jacques Parizeau’s Parti Québécois won the September 1994 provincial election with about two-thirds of the seats (but with only 44% of the popular vote, under the “first-past-the-post” system of geographic ridings). Also, in the October 1993 federal election, the Bloc Québécois, running candidates exclusively in Québec, won 54 seats in the federal Parliament, ironically becoming the Official Opposition. Together with a smaller party in Québec, the ADQ, the PQ and BQ launched a coordinated effort to win the Québec referendum of 1995. A “Yes” would have authorized the Parti Québécois government to begin negotiations towards Québec sovereignty. The referendum failed by an extremely thin margin.
One of the possible reasons why separatism is a major but not overwhelming force in Québec is that it receives substantial economic benefits for remaining in Canada, a process which has been ongoing for at least four decades. Robert Bourassa, a long-serving Liberal Premier of Québec, talked about “federalisme rentable” – a term which has sometimes been translated as “booty federalism”. Many non-separatist nationalists feel that the Québécois are already maîtres chez nous (“masters in our own house”), especially in terms of the now-current, mostly linguistic focus of identity.
Some exasperated English-Canadian right-wingers have argued that the interaction between the federalists and separatists in Québec is nothing more than a stratagem to maximize the amount of federal funds flowing to the province. The Québécois never seem to embrace nationalism overwhelmingly. Perhaps they want to maintain the pretense that, if English-speaking Canada does enough for them, they might just choose to remain in Confederation.
When Justin Trudeau told Québeckers that they should want to be a part of a country stretching to the Rockies, this was the classic Québec federaliste appeal. While this may sound like “Canadian patriotism” in English-speaking Canada, what this really means is that French-Canadians should be filled with the desire to dominate a continent-wide polity, rather just confining themselves to dominating Québec. Jean Chretien, too, once spoke of “our Rockies” to a French-Canadian audience.
The fact is that English-speaking Canada expends enormous political energy (as well as economic resources) just “to keep Québec in Confederation”. Indeed, English-speaking Canada has surrendered vast amounts of its own traditional culture, which is said to be the price. But Québec separatism does not seem to be going away. Perhaps this is because there really are two nations in existence, and all of English-speaking Canada’s sacrifices and efforts are going to be ultimately futile. Some English-Canadian right-wingers have suggested that a way to cut through this Gordian knot, is not to approach Québec as abject, groveling supplicants, but to actually threaten to expel the province from Confederation.
Some of the proposals of Québécois nationalists have been curious, indeed. For example, they have sometimes proposed to leave the armed forces under federal jurisdiction. This blatantly contradicts the notion of national sovereignty at its most basic. Could some kind of accommodation therefore be negotiated between Canada and Québec that does stand on notions of “hard sovereignty”?
The 2007 provincial election gave a lot of play to the then-resonant message of ADQ leader Mario Dumont. The ADQ tended to see the notion of full separation as too chimerical – but wished to negotiate an “autonomous” status for Québec within Canada. It also attached great importance to notions of “cultural sovereignty”.
One of today’s ironies is the fact that secularization and modernization have given Québec one of Canada’s lowest birthrates and highest abortion rates — creating a demographic crisis (and a sense of psychological siege) in a society once known for its very large families, and for its “revenge of the cradle” against the English. It could be argued that Québécois nationalists will have to re-evaluate their relationships to TROC, to North American technological civilization, to their own traditionalist past, and to Third World immigration into Québec, if they are seriously interested in their survival as a people.
In the October 25, 1993 federal election, the Bloc Québécois, under the leadership of Lucien Bouchard, which was going to take the case for Québec sovereignty to the Parliament of Canada, won 54 seats. It thus became the Official Opposition in the federal Parliament. The Bloc Québécois, of course, ran candidates only in Québec. The Liberal Party won 19 seats in Québec, almost all of these from largely non-Francophone areas. However, the Liberal Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, was also a Québecker, although despised by the Québécois nationalists. One former Tory running as an independent (who had been forced to resign from the P.C. party over corruption charges) was also elected. Finally, Progressive Conservative leader Jean Charest won one seat in Québec, one of only two P.C. seats in the whole Parliament of Canada.
In the September 1994, provincial election in Québec, the main separatist party, the Parti Québécois, formed the government with a two-thirds majority of seats, although with about 44 percent of the popular vote, because of the “first-past-the-post” system of geographic areas called ridings. Again, most of the support for the provincial Liberal Party came from non-French-speaking areas of Québec.
The Parti Québécois set the stage for the critical referendum on sovereignty, which took place on October 30, 1995. A number of factors have to be considered when discussing the run-up to this referendum. First of all, the aforementioned fact that the famous French-Canadian “revenge of the cradle” has ceased to operate. The proportion of Quebec’s population in Canada is vertiginously dropping, and the demographic battle of the Québécois is clearly being lost, which constitutes a profound psychological blow. An article in The Globe and Mail, April 7, 1995, pp. A1 and A8, asserted “Québec population drop fuels talk of political weight loss: Province may not be able to reverse trend, demographers say”.
Throughout the run-up to the campaign, the Parti Québécois was faced with the obvious fact — which, however, could barely be discussed in public — that virtually all recent immigrants were going to vote overwhelmingly for Canada. The Parti Québécois did argue that 200,000-300,000 votes in the 1994 Québec election might have been cast illegally, and wanted to crack-down on this abuse. A prominent Bloc Québécois party member and M.P. even dared to suggest that recent immigrants should not be allowed to vote in the referendum. Bouchard, of course, repudiated him right away — relieving him of his special parliamentary functions. The PQ, however, did modify the procedure of compiling the electoral lists, which, according to the federalists, tended to work somewhat in the separatists’ favour.
Québec Premier Jacques Parizeau told the Canadian Club in Toronto, on November 22, 1994, “Your national will and ours no longer converge” (see the Toronto Star, November 23, 1994, p. A23). At the time it seemed like a forthright expression of nationalism, far more meaningful than anything to be found in English-speaking Canada in the 1990s.
The liberal English Canadian media indulged in such taunts to Québec as the Macleans’ cover with a Cree Indian chief, dressed in military-style fatigues, shouting “NO!” English-Canadian liberals anticipated with relish turning the Cree in Quebec’s north and all the other minorities in Québec, against the Québécois cause.
On September 8, 1995, the referendum question finally came out: “Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Québec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?” (Toronto Star, September 8, 1995, p. A1 and A28). The agreement of June 12, 1995 had included the Bloc Québécois, led by Lucien Bouchard; the Parti Québécois, led by Premier Jacques Parizeau; and a smaller sovereigntist party in the Québec National Assembly led by Mario Dumont.
Jean Chretien, for most of the campaign, managed the federalist side abominably. When the federalists led in the early polls, he thought the issue settled, and said little about it. On September 18, 1995, he said he would not accept a “Yes” vote for sovereignty as valid, because he considered the referendum question to be too ambiguous.
On October 15, 1995, Lucien Bouchard, who had been recently nominated as the chief representative of the “Yes” side, was considered by many to have made a monumental “gaffe”, when he said that the Québécois were “one of the white races whose birthrates were very low, and that it would be a good idea if Québécois women had more children”. He was immediately assailed for being both racist and sexist. Interestingly enough, his condemnation by feminists was probably more vociferous than that by anti-racists. Some typical comments were that he was, “telling women to have babies”, and “trying to force women to have children regardless of their own preferences”, etc.
The October 30, 1995 referendum in Quebec was “a turning point that failed to turn”. In a remarkably close result, with only a fraction of a percentage between them, the federalists won. (It might be pointed out that there were two other extremely close results in 1995 — the striking down of the anti-divorce law in Ireland — which has been interpreted as a signal for massive secularization of that society; and the election of the former Communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, over former Solidarity hero Lech Walesa, in Poland.)
In a remarkably rapid development attesting to the prevalent left-liberal climate of Canada, Jacques Parizeau was forced to resign in ignominy a day after his speech on the evening of October 30, when he said that “60% of us [i.e. French-speakers] voted ‘Yes’”, and that the defeat was due to “money and the ethnic vote”. For this, he was called a “fascist”, an “Adolf Hitler”, and an “ethnic nationalist”, in a massive wave of denunciation that swept the media countrywide, and he was even attacked by members of his own party.
Another casualty of the referendum defeat was Bernard Landry, Québec’s Deputy Premier, and the minister responsible for immigration. He was forced to resign from his duties after railing in private against immigrants on the night of the defeat — which was apparently reported to the media by two immigrant hotel-workers.
Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard, who was widely acknowledged to be Québec’s most popular politician, then headed for the Premiership of Québec and leadership of the Parti Québécois.
Because of the tightness of the race in the last few weeks of the campaign, Jean Chretien hastily promised some five days before the vote, to try again to push through the constitutional recognition of “Québec’s distinctiveness” — the issue on which two previous constitutional agreements, the Meech Lake Accord (signed 1987; failed 1990) and the Charlottetown Agreements (1992), had foundered. After appearing to first renege on his promise, he then introduced, in the Parliament of Canada, a recognition of this distinctiveness. However, note that the latter is no longer a sovereign body — all of its acts are referred to the Canadian Supreme Court in accordance with the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Some jaundiced English-Canadian traditionalists might well have thought that the “No” vote (i.e., no to Québec sovereignty) was probably actually worse for English-speaking Canada, as a “Yes” vote might well have begun a salutary process of shock-therapy in this country. To see that perennial self-satisfied smirk wiped off Chretien’s and Liberal party-hacks’ faces the day after a “Yes” victory would have been hugely satisfying. Whatever else it was, the “No” victory was implicitly a vindication of the last thirty years of Canadian history, and of the Liberal vision which has so thoroughly dominated it. Chretien did indeed coast to another majority in 1997, in the afterglow of the “No” win.
From a historical perspective, a “Yes” win could have been the catalyst for the restarting of history in North America — which would have been preferable to the status-quo. The success of Québec separatism might have had some unexpected impacts on the U.S. While, on the one hand, it might well have strengthened Hispanic separatism in the U.S. South-West, on the other, it might have led to a questioning by the long-marginalized hinterlands of the U.S. as to just what kind of benefits they derive from being under the control of the centralizing, bicoastal elites.
Québec’s possible re-association with France and Europe might also have strengthened Europe, in its perennial attempts to resist North Americanization. At that time, it was not as clear as today in which direction the European Community (as it was called then) was heading. Perhaps such a triumph for the EC might have positively altered the whole trajectory of Europe’s future development.
Is it too late at this point for some kind of “dualism” as a path to save Canada? This “dualistic solution” would be predicated on the recognition of “two nations” in Canada, the English-speaking and the French-speaking. It could be argued that the interests of Québec have for a long time had an undermining effect on English-speaking Canada. An absolute requirement for this “dualism” would be the establishment of separate Parliaments for English and French Canada. It might be something like the “sovereignty-association” proposed in the 1980 referendum by the Parti Québécois. Whatever the commercial and economic arrangements, Québec would under no circumstances send elected representatives to Ottawa. (Any joint institutions would consist of government boards and commissions.) At that point, almost for the first time since 1963, there would be a considerable chance of forming a majority, small-c conservative government representative of a more traditional English Canada.
Although Québec remained socially ultraconservative until the 1960s, it has, throughout the Twentieth Century, generally voted in federal elections for the Liberal Party (apart from some exceptional elections), which has generally prevented any long-term, continuous period of Conservative government emerging from English-speaking Canada. Under Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister, the Liberal Party was mostly “traditionalist-centrist” or “centre-traditionalist” so it was not so important whether the Liberals or Conservatives held power. However, from 1963 onward, the successive elections became of absolutely vital importance as to the kind of society that Canada would become.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who was Canada’s Liberal Prime Minister from 1968-1984, apart from a brief, nine month, Tory interregnum in 1979-1980, was able to convince English-speaking Canada (at least in his first critical election victory of 1968, during which the term “Trudeaumania” was coined) that he would – so to speak — “put Québec in its place”; but also to convince Québec to vote for him because he was the native son who would enhance the status of French-Canadians in Confederation.
For Trudeau, the common ground on which French and English Canada would meet would be the rights of the individual. Ultimately, of course, it could be argued that the Trudeau regime had highly negative effects on both French and English Canada. Early in his career, Trudeau had written: “There is some hope that in advanced societies, the glue of nationalism will become as obsolete as the divine right of kings”. (Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Federalism and the French-Canadians. Toronto: Macmillan Press, 1968, p. 196.)
A possible alternative to “dualism” would be some form of general “provincialization” or regionalization in Canada. It is the Liberals that have usually held a majority in the federal Parliament. Especially in the 1990s, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien blocked whatever sensible measures the provinces attempted to introduce. For example, in that time period, the government of British Columbia, which was at that time an NDP government, attempted to impose a three-month waiting requirement for welfare for persons coming to that province. Since B.C. had some of the highest welfare payments in Canada, persons seeking welfare were coming there in massive numbers from the rest of Canada. The Federal Government threatened to cut off much of its funding to the province if these measures were enacted in B.C.
In Alberta, likewise, when Progressive Conservative Premier Ralph Klein attempted to introduce private healthcare clinics outside of the official public system, the Federal Government also threatened to cut its funding. The primary objective of the Liberal federal government at that time appeared to be to prevent any commonsense initiatives to improve Canada’s fiscal situation. Eventually, the federal budget was successfully balanced, thanks mainly to the revenue from the GST – Goods and Services Tax — (the Canadian equivalent of a value-added tax or VAT), which Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had enacted virtually in the last year of his government, but which only the Liberals benefited from. Chretien had explicitly promised to get rid of the GST in the 1993 election campaign – but he was not excessively censured for reneging on that promise.
Given Western Canadian provinces’ insistence on “the equality of provinces” in Canada, and their unwillingness to recognize Québec’s distinctiveness (the distinct nature of Québec is simply a historical and sociological fact), perhaps they would be more satisfied as an independent country or countries, where they would no longer have to worry about entanglements with Central Canada (Ontario and Québec). In Western Canada, the term “Eastern Canada” usually refers to Ontario, Québec, and very secondarily, the Atlantic provinces. So-called “Easterners”– meaning mostly Ontarians — are frequently disparaged in Western Canadian political rhetoric. In Ontario and Québec, so-called “Westerners” are also frequently criticized. In Ontario, the term “Eastern Canada” is frequently taken to mean the Atlantic provinces. People in the Atlantic provinces also apply the term “Eastern Canada” to themselves.
Surprisingly, even NDP provincial governments in Western Canada sometimes have appeared to be more conservative than the Liberal government in Ottawa. For example, the NDP government in Saskatchewan in the 1990s balanced its budget. The Maritimes (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island) and Newfoundland (now frequently referred to as “Newfoundland and Labrador”, all of these together constituting Atlantic Canada) have traditionally tended to vote Liberal, both provincially and federally, but their Liberal governments have usually exhibited a degree of fiscal prudence. Atlantic Canada is also probably the most socially conservative region in Canada, with genuinely rooted local cultures. Atlantic-based “Celticism” is perhaps the last bastion of authentic identity in English-speaking Canada. The Atlantic provinces, however, are tied to the federal government because of its fiscal support. An intriguing hypothetical possibility for the future of the Atlantic region would be to join the EU.
It is possible to perceive that (at least until 2006) the federal government – despite occasional Conservative electoral victories – was effectively “owned by” the Liberal Party. After 1968, this was the Trudeau and post-Trudeau Liberal Party, and emphatically not the Liberal Party of (for example) Mackenzie King. The Conservative Party under Stephen Harper made strenuous efforts to be “ultra-moderate” and finally won a majority government in 2011. But because of the massive social and cultural transformations in Canada since the 1960s – many of them carried out by the federal Liberal Party — the combined percentage of Liberal and NDP votes will always be significantly larger than the Conservative vote. In the October 2015 federal election, the Conservatives decisively lost their majority and the Liberals under Justin Trudeau returned to power. Under the “first-past-the-post” system (with three main parties), a strong majority can usually be won with about 40% of the vote. Jean Chretien won decisive majorities with about that percentage in 1993, 1997, and 2000.
In the 1990s, when Ontario elected virtually 100% Liberals federally, the province also had (after 1995) a Progressive Conservative government that was more discernibly right-leaning than the Liberal government in Ottawa. However, as the social and cultural transformations in Ontario have continued, even the “ultra-moderates” like John Tory have been hard pressed to make any inroads in Toronto and other highly urban areas. For example, in a by-election on September 6, 2012, the Progressive Conservatives were routed in a riding, Kitchener-Waterloo that they had held for 22 years. (The NDP won that riding, and the Liberals were in second place.) During the 1950s and earlier, Toronto was considered so conservative and British-focussed and was nicknamed “Tory Toronto.” In the June 12, 2014 provincial election, the Liberals, led by Kathleen Wynne, won 58 seats; the Progressive Conservatives, 28; and the NDP, 21. Territorially, however, the Liberals were concentrated almost entirely in the Greater Toronto Area, and Ottawa – virtually all of their seats were urban or suburban.
What is the essence of “Canadian nationalism” today? It is typically expressed through such institutions as “our vaunted social programs”, “free healthcare”, multiculturalism, as well as the state-funded “cultural industries.” Yet most of these so-called “cultural industries” – as far as the putatively Canadian element in them goes — have virtually no authentic existence outside of a few narrow Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa “arts cliques.” Indeed, large sectors of the general public are either indifferent or openly hostile to most current-day products of the “official” Canadian culture. Having deliberately cut itself off from its traditional roots, such a culture can exist only through massive state-subsidies. Regionalisation could therefore be a clarion call for the re-discovery of authentic roots and the curtailing of an artificial system. It might constitute a move towards cultural and social renewal in Canada.
What will be the long-term effect of Québec’s particularism in Canadian history: will we witness the coming triumph of an integral Québec and the dissolution of English-speaking Canada into “North America”; or the eventual cultural attenuation of both founding peoples? Perhaps Québec, which has frequently been such a problematic presence in Canadian Confederation, could eventually point all of Canada towards a better future.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and researcher