Sunday, January 20, 2013

Guest post: The Trudeau Paradox (Part Three)

In Part I of this essay, we discussed the origins of Quebec nationalism and how it developed into a desire by Francophone Quebecers to have their province recognized as a distinct society within Canada. In Part II, we saw how Pierre Trudeau sought to counter this as Prime Minister of Canada, how he fought subsequent attempts to recognize Quebec’s distinctiveness, and how the Trudeau Paradox emerged from it. In Part III, we’ll see a possible way around the Trudeau Paradox, as well as the fact that there’s a lot more common ground between Francophone Quebecers and their fellow Canadians than most people realize.

The Trudeau Paradox, Part III: Towards Reconciliation

Is there a solution to the problems raised by the Trudeau Paradox? Currently, we’re stuck in a polarized situation. Either one supports Trudeau’s vision and the reforms associated with it, or one supports the separation of Quebec. There doesn’t seem to be any room for the middleground anymore, one that recognizes the unique challenges Quebec faces and supports the recognition of that province as a distinct society, while also recognizing that the province is part of Canada and shares common values and challenges with the rest of us.

This middleground, so well described by the likes of Henri Bourassa, André Laurendeau and Claude Ryan, may in fact be the key to resolving the seemingly endless debate. Unlike Trudeau, none of these men, federalists one and all, saw any contradiction between constitutional distinctiveness for Quebec and the idea that it could be part of the larger country. As we’ve seen, this belief has extremely deep roots in Quebec, roots that continue to endure today, with continued strong support for Quebec’s language laws.i Newer immigrants to Quebec have also tapped into these roots, as evidenced by the presence of the “Children of Bill 101”ii or people from multicultural groups that have supported or even run for the Bloc or Parti Quebecois as candidates.iii While it’s obviously not feasible in the current political climate, it may be an option that we as Canadians should seriously consider for the future. Nor is Quebec the only part of Canada that would be recognized as such-New Brunswick, for one, deserves to be praised for being recognized in the Constitution as the only officially bilingual province in Canada.

For the last three decades, we have been doing things Pierre Trudeau’s way when it comes to the Quebec question, and all we’ve done is end up in a polarized, embittered situation. As we’ve seen, what Trudeau advocated was not what most Francophone Quebecers have been looking for, so maybe it’s time for a fresh approach. As Claude Ryan has pointed out, Quebec’s distinctiveness has been recognized implicitly already many times, ranging from Quebec managing its own pension plan and collecting its own taxes to as far back as the Quebec Act of 1774. Formally recognizing it in the Constitution would not exactly be breaking with tradition.iv

As we have seen, Pierre Trudeau had to make a number of concessions to the realities of language and disadvantaged groups in Canada, and justified such actions as a means of ensuring that everyone had an equal chance to exercise their talents, even if they were in a disadvantaged situation. If anything, this could just as easily apply to Quebec, the only province with a Francophone majority on a continent dominated by Anglophones. Stéphane Dion, the man who passed the Clarity Act so fiercely condemned by Quebec separatists, also noted that, if a province like Alberta or Saskatchewan were the only province with an Anglophone majority on a continent dominated by Francophones, it would probably have the same concerns about its Anglophone heritage and identity that Quebec does with its Francophone identity.v

Aboriginal leaders like Elijah Harper and Phil Fontaine have also indicated that they do not have any objections to Quebec’s distinctiveness. Although he helped derail the Meech Lake Accord, Elijah Harper has specifically stated that he was not saying “no” to Quebec. Rather, he was saying “no” to a constitutional process that, yet again, ignored Aboriginal peoples’ concerns and left them on the outside looking Fontaine, for his part, pointed out that his people were looking for much the same recognition as Quebec was.vii

Nor is this a new trend in Canadian history. The Americans constantly refer back to their country’s founding fathers for wisdom, and we could benefit by doing the same thing. We have already seen how Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Charles Tupper acknowledged the need for a federal system due in no small part to the presence of Francophone Quebecers. Richard Gwyn notes that Macdonald said if that if Francophone Quebecers are treated “as a nation, they will respond as a free people-generously. Call them a faction and they will become factious.”viii Macdonald also fiercely condemned the repression of Francophone language rights on the Prairies and the attempt to eliminate or assimilate the Francophone communities in that part of the country. He asked his fellow Anglophones if they would be less supportive of the Francophone communities than were the earliest Anglophone communities, words that led Henri Bourassa to speak glowingly of him as the man who “best understood the spirit of Confederation.”ix

What’s often overlooked, in the claims that the differences between Quebec and the rest of the country cannot be reconciled, is in fact how much common ground there really is between Quebecers, both Francophone and Anglophone, and other Canadians. For one thing, while many Francophone Quebecers may not like the way the Charter was patriated, they share other Canadians’ strong support for the actual content of it. A 2002 poll found that 45% of Quebecers “strongly agreed” with the statement that the Charter had a positive effect on the protection of the rights and freedoms of Canadians, and 41% of Quebecers “somewhat agreed” with that statement.x Five years later, a 2007 poll found that 61% of Quebecers had a favourable view of the Charter, as compared to 67% of Atlantic Canadians and 54% of Western Canadians.xi Even in 1991, at the height of the Meech Lake/Charlottetown debate, Stéphane Dion pointed out just how much the values of Francophone Quebecers meshed with those of other Canadians.xii In 1995, less than a year before the fateful referendum, Claude Ryan noted that Quebecers were just as devoted to universal rights as were other Canadians.xiii

Nor does the Parti Quebecois’ re-election suggest that separatism is making a comeback. The PQ was elected with just under 32% of the popular vote, lower even than it got in 2008, when the Quebec Liberals were re-elected.xiv A poll released during the election campaign suggested that support for separatism had fallen to 28%.xv As Stéphane Dion notes, the PQ’s victory can most likely be attributed to voters being tired of Jean Charest and the Liberals, and voting for the PQ as an alternative.xvi The PQ was also likely seriously hurt by abhorrent policy positions such as its Charte seculaire, which drove longtime separatist Jean Dorion away from the party. As Dorion noted, chickens tend not to want to vote for Colonel Saunders.xvii Some Anglo-Quebec commentators, including those who are exceptionally vocal in advocating for Anglophone rights in their province, have specifically noted that the vast majority of Francophone Quebecers are no more bigoted or racist than the vast majority of Anglophone Canadians.xviii

Critics might reply that this is all well and good, but Quebec continues to mooch off the rest of Canada via transfer payments, receiving more money than any other province. What many people don’t realize, however, is that the main reason Quebec receives so much money is because its population is so much larger than most of the other “have not” provinces. On a per capita basis, Quebec actually receives less money than smaller provinces.xix If Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island had the same population as Quebec, they would be receiving far more money than Quebec would. And for a province that’s supposedly content to leech off the money provided by things like Alberta’s resource extraction, the province has an active movement to develop its own natural gas resources. No less a figure than Lucien Bouchard, former Premier of Quebec, now serves as president of the Quebec Oil and Gas Association, and has sharply criticized the Marois government for not taking steps to develop the province’s natural gas.xx

Things like equalization and the Constitution attract a lot of attention, but they distract from the more common, everyday ways that Quebec interacts with the rest of the country. As a former Quebec Liberal Cabinet minister, Claude Ryan described the many positive interactions the Quebec government had with the federal government and the other provinces even during the constitutional wars of the 1980s and 1990s.xxi While the province is typically seen as leaning more to the left, in classic Canadian fashion it’s moved back to the centre when necessary. Both René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard showed themselves capable of cutting provincial spending to balance the provincial budget, moves that reduced their support among their own political base.xxii

More generally, programs like “J’Explore” and “Encounters With Canada” give young Francophone Quebecers the opportunity to interact with other Canadians, to say nothing of the countless regular interactions Quebec Francophones have every day with other Canadians in business, tourism and just general friendship. Historically, Quebec has also played a significant role in the development of Canada itself as a nation, from its role in ensuring that Confederation gave us a federal system of government to its contributions to Canadian democracy and identity, helping to give Canada its own unique character as we adapted British institutions to suit our own needs.xxiii

The Trudeau Paradox has led us into a polarized situation with no apparent solution. Either one supports Pierre Trudeau’s approach to Quebec, or one supports Quebec separating from Canada. Neither approach is or has been capable of solving the seemingly endless dilemma we now find ourselves in. These approaches overlook a very long and rich tradition of Quebec thinkers who’ve striven for the middleground in their province’s relationship with Canada, most of which are sadly unknown to Canadians in other parts of the country. They also overlook the common values Francophone Quebecers share with all other Canadians, Quebec’s own efforts to balance its books and develop its resources, and the unique challenges Quebec faces in trying to maintain its Francophone majority on an Anglophone-dominated continent while also supporting its own Anglophone minority.

Quebec and Francophone Canadians in general have often been accused of perpetrating a double standard in demanding that French be given what they consider “special treatment” in other provinces, even as Anglophones in Quebec are supposedly stripped of their rights. What this overlooks is that such an argument could easily be turned around. One could ask why Quebec should be the only province that has to be bilingual and provide support to its linguistic minority. Couldn’t that, in itself, be considered a form of double standard? If Quebec’s Anglophone minority receives particular treatment, based on its own unique situation in Quebec-as well it should!-what is the basis for not doing so for the Francophone minorities in other parts of Canada?

This is the positive role that bilingualism can and should play in Canada. Rather than simply being used to try and fight Quebec nationalism, it can and is an extremely useful tool for Canadians to communicate with one another, and build understanding across the country. More practically, it also serves as a useful way to attract a larger variety of immigrants. Not all our immigrants speak good English, but some of them do speak good French, and they often integrate into Francophone communities across Canada.

Pierre Trudeau’s vision of the country has much to offer Canada. Bilingualism and the Charter of Rights have immeasurably enriched our country and provided a solid foundation for our future development. Trudeau was quite right when he pointed out that Quebecers have a government in Ottawa as well as in Quebec City, and that their interests are closely tied to Canada’s as a whole. He was also right when he noted that secession would not solve Quebec’s problems.

However, his vision is by necessity incomplete. Samuel La Selva perhaps put it best when he noted that Trudeau and a separatist leader like René Lévesque each only understood what the other did not.xxiv Because of the Trudeau Paradox, many Francophone Quebecers now feel like they’re forced to choose between being Quebecers and Canadians.xxv It’s not something that they particularly want, and it’s undermined our national unity. Many Quebec thinkers, ranging from Cartier to Bourassa to Laurendeau to Ryan to Dion, have shown that there’s a better way, one that’s deeply rooted in Canadian history. This way, one that takes Quebec’s unique situation into account while also recognizing that it is part of a greater whole, may well be the solution to the Trudeau Paradox.

Of course, there are some serious questions that would have to be answered. If Quebec’s distinctiveness were to be recognized in the Constitution, exactly what form should it take? If we’re going to change things to better reflect Quebec’s place in Canada, we obviously also need to know how this won’t simply lead to separation. What areas would Quebec continue to participate in with the rest of the country, and follow along with the rest of us? However, we won’t know unless we actually ask these questions.

Recognizing Quebec’s distinctiveness is not simply a matter of “appeasing” that province. If that is the reason for recognizing Quebec’s distinctiveness, then it is not worth doing. Rather, it should be to acknowledge the very real challenges Quebec continues to fact because of its unique situation. It can and should be part of a larger effort to address many of the longstanding problems facing Canada today. My own home province of Alberta has long criticized the current form of the national equalization program. Perhaps, even as we’re addressing the issue of Quebec’s distinctiveness, we should also be re-examining equalization to make it fairer for “have” provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan!xxvi

Changes like these may well be the key to reconciliation, providing a stronger basis for Canadian unity and building mutual understanding between the various parts of Canada, one that does justice to the spirit of Macdonald and Cartier and the wonderful legacy they have left us.

i Licia Corbella, “Lougheed’s Greatest Legacy Is Canadian Unity.” Calgary Herald, September 15, 2012. Available online at

ii Wikipedia article on the Children of Bill 101.

iii Jean Dorion, “Quand un séparatiste se sépare: La Charte de la laicité.” Le Devoir, September 22, 2012. Available online at

iv Ryan, pages 229-233.

v Straight Talk, pages 141-142.

vi Elijah Harper, “A Time To Say No”, in Justice For Natives: Searching For Common Ground, edited by Andrea P. Morrison. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997. Pages 219-226, quoted on page 225.

vii Quoted in Olive Patricia Dickason and David T. McNab, Canada’s First Nations: A History Of Founding Peoples From Earliest Times. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pages 399-400.

viii Richard Gwyn, Sir John A. Macdonald, His Life, Our Times: Volume II, 1867-1891. Toronto, Ontario: Random House Canada, 2011. Page 13. See also Gwyn, “Canada’s Father Figure.” Canada’s History Magazine, Volume 92: 5, October-November 2012. Pages 30-37, especially pages 36-37.

ix Sir John A. Macdonald, His Life And Times, pages 550-552.

x Jack Jedwab, “Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms Seen As Having a Positive Impact On Rights and Is A Positive Symbol of Canadian Identity.” Association for Canadian Studies, January 1, 2002. Available online at

xi Graeme Hamilton, “At 25, Charter Is Misunderstood.” National Post, February 8, 2007. Available online at

xii “Le nationalisme dans la convergence culturelle”, page 305.

xiii Ryan, pages 174-178, 227.

xiv “The Nanos Number: The PQ’s Slim Victory.” CBC News, September 5, 2012.

xv Denis Lessard, “L’appui à la souveraineté recule.” La Presse, August 31, 2012. Available online at

xvi Stéphane Dion, “The PQ’s Secessionist Agenda Cost It A Majority.” IPolitics, September 6, 2012.

xvii Jean Dorion, “La charte de la laicité: Quand un séparatiste se sépare.” Le Devoir, September 22, 2012.

xviii Author by the screen name of “Anglo Montreal”, “Xenophobes And Racists: If The Shoe Fits…” No Dogs Or Anglophones, September 24, 2012. See also a blogger by the screen name of “OlmanFeelyus”, “How To Be A Successful Journalist In Canada Today.” Briques du neige blog, September 5, 2012.

xix Author by the screen name of “Radical Centrist”. “Equalization Questions and Misconceptions.” On Procedure and Politics blog, April 24, 2012. See also Michael Holden, “Are Albertans Really Paying For Quebec’s Social Programs?” Canada West Foundation website, April 20, 2012.

xx Canadian Press, “Lucien Bouchard Criticizes PQ On Shale Gas.” IPolitics website, September 21, 2012.

xxi Ryan, pages 15-112.

xxii Couture, Cardin and Allaire, pages 284-285.

xxiii David Watts, “Canada’s Unlikely Champion of Federalism.” Edmonton Journal, October 29, 2008. Available online at

xxiv Samuel La Selva, The Moral Foundations of Canadian Federalism. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996. Page 118.

xxv Dufour, pages 61-67, 71-79 and 96-99.

xxvi “Equalization Isn’t Equal.” Calgary Herald, October 16, 2012. Available online at

No comments: