Thursday, September 15, 2005

Reactions to Misconceiving Canada

This was originally a series of posts the Canada forum of Café Utne. It was written in June of 1998.

I don't suppose anybody here has read Misconceiving Canada: The Struggle for National Unity by Kenneth McRoberts?

The basic thesis is that "the Trudeau vision" of a Canada, bilingual irrespective of territoriality, never met the needs of Quebec society and was pushed not by the bulk of Quebeckers (and thus should not be perceived as "doing what Quebec wanted" even though English Canadians often see it this way) but by minority francophones in other provinces and Trudeau and his followers.

English Canada's failure to acknowledge this, failure to acknowledge that language *is* territorial and that Quebec is different from the other provinces because it is the only French one, is the problem. Without an asymmetrical federalism of some sort or other, says McRoberts, the country will not survive.

One idea presented is that language rights are meaningless when applied to individuals -- that since language is about communication, only in groups does it have any meaning to promote a language. People will lose a language if they do not have a society to speak it in, and governments don't make any difference on that score.

I think this is all very interesting and somewhat disturbing.

(The question was asked: what kind of asymmetrical federalism?)

He is deliberately unspecific about the form asymmetrical federalism could take, anywhere from opting-out of federal programs (the offer of which could be extended to all provinces, but probably only Quebec would bother) to a more formal asymmetrical federalism, with an English-Canadian formal structure of some kind. That's not crucial for him -- the point I think he's making is that Canada should clearly break away from the idea that all provinces are equal and that Quebec has no special place. He believes that the Quebec government, and not the federal government, can reasonably represent the French society in North America.

Again I am not taking the position of the book, but I thought it clearly stated its assumptions and from there was very well-reasoned if one accepts those assumptions.

I come at this with a clearly outside perspective -- my take on language issues is Californian, my take on nationalism is as someone who regards the jingoist excesses of his home country as repugnant. This probably strikes everybody in Canada irrelevant at best and more likely nosy and meddling. So, this can be taken as a disclaimer -- don't take *my* view too seriously. I don't have to live with the result of all this.

I think my own conflict comes from my admiration for the goal of "the Trudeau vision" to eliminate cultural/ethnic nationalism, which is at the root of the vision of Quebec nationalism -- with the recognition that in the Canadian context, the attempt at getting francophone Quebeckers to identify with the civic nationalism of Canada has failed utterly. The book basically dismisses the idealism of the civic nationalists (using the term "Trudeau vision" for it, which it seems to me implies that the many who share this view are merely Trudeau- maniacs, in the '68 sense).

And yet I find this idea of patriotism -- a reasoned (the book's term) commitment to civic rights and values, symbolized by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, unifying all Canadians -- much, much more attractive than the mythologized, traditional ethnic nationalism that Quebec shares with European countries, or the ignorant mythological patriotism, essentially the same as sports fanaticism, that is common in so much of the United States.

I see nationalism in all its forms as fundamentally, deeply divisive, a profoundly evil thing -- even in its best "we don't want to hurt anybody else, we just want our day in the sun" form, it's based on exclusion of others. For every case where unification, secession or irridentism (transfer of land from one state to another) was peaceful, there are a dozen counterexamples -- Catalonia, the Basques, Kurdistan, Ireland, the whole Balkans including Bosnia, Rwanda, Biafra, Algeria, Germany after 1871, India/Pakistan in 1947 and Kashmir up until the present day... the list is endless. Nationalism kills.

What hope have we as a world? I'm not an expert on multiethnic states. Africa's multiethnic states are not, as a rule, good examples, although perhaps there are one or two that have been peaceful. The European Union is still a collection of nation-states, and ethnicities within the nation-states have no reason to take comfort, as they are still primarily in a Spanish or British or whatever state (although, the EU has given minorities in places like Scotland a counterargument to the "it would hurt too much economically" argument, much as NAFTA has done for Quebec, although even more strongly). Most of the other multiethnic states are more or less explicitly partnerships between particular ethnicities -- in Belgium you can be Flemish *or* Walloon, in Switzerland German, Italian, French *or* Rumansch. And in the United States, a person of any nationality (at least in theory) is free to lose all of their national characteristics, except cuisine, and assimilate. (It just hit me that cuisine is, for the most part, the most easily commodified of national characteristics. I wonder if that's why it's the one attribute that's allowed to remain.)

This book advocates the return to the "two founding peoples" view of Canada, or at least its formal recognition, with perhaps some ancillary recognition of the First Nations as "founding" as well.

This essentially puts Canada in the same situation as Switzerland or Belgium. This is just nationalism tempered with pragmatism, a recognition of the small size or power of the French-Canadian and First Nations. Changing perceptions of the power or size of the French-Canadian nation have changed this calculation. (If Creeland could be a state, would it not wish to be?)

And yet, if Canada goes this direction, what happens to the vision of civic patriotism instead of ethnic nationalism? The world *needs* a vision of a multiethnic, multinational state, because the continued strength of the idea of the uniethnic state is killing us. I don't think "the Trudeau vision" was perfect but it was a huge step forward toward the day when we can look back at nationalism as another discarded idea of the past, like feudalism.

And yet .. and yet I write all this hundreds of miles from the nearest Canadian territory. To some extent it's all an academic exercise for me. (We have language problems in California, but they have no real parallel to the French-English problem in Canada. By the end of the 19th century there was no unassimilated remnant left of the original Californios.) Does Canada have the responsibility to be an example for the world, or should it solve its own, very real, problems first?

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