Saturday, October 28, 2006

The slippery slope of "nation"

There's a very interesting editorial in today's Montréal Gazette (HT to fellow Liblogger (*) Braden Caley) that attempts to parse the recent resolution of the Québec provincial wing of the federal Liberal Party that calls upon the national convention later this month to recognize that the province is a "nation" within Canada. This is also one of the keystones of the leadership campaign of Michael Ignatieff -- who argues Québec is no less a subnational unit within a country than, say, Catalonia and Euskadi (the Basque region) are within Spain; or Scotland and Wales are within the United Kingdom. It's an interesting argument, because since King Juan Carlos of Spain restored democracy to Iberia in the 1970s, Spain has gradually evolved into a relatively strong federal state. In the UK,where it's called devolution, Edinburgh has the Scottish Parliament while Cardiff has the Welsh National Assembly.

Québec, after all, also calls its legislature the Assemblé Nationale, and no one in the province seems bothered by it -- it only raises hackles among some quarters outside the province, especially those in the so-called diaspora who left after the Parti Québécois came to power in 1976. Its civic holiday, June 24th, is now called National Day -- no longer is it just St. Jean de Baptiste.

The editorial points out that the idea is full of holes, and it raises a whole new realm of possibilities. What exactly is a "nation"? Is Québec exclusively a nation, or are French Canadians, including those outside the province as well as within, the French nation? What about our Aboriginal People, who we've come to call the First Nations? (This may be patterned after the States, where for 170 years the US Supreme Court has recognized natives there are "nations within a nation.") Newfoundland and Labrador was once its own country. It has a national anthem (the Ode to Newfoudland), and nearly half of the people there still are separatists. Is it a nation? And what of our broad ethnic makeup -- are each cultural group "nations"?

There is no question that the province of Québec holds an interesting place within Canada. Even within Montréal, for example, one sees both the clash and the coming together of the French and English "facts." There is a definitive French façade of course, but the presence of the English-speakig community and its continued influence can't be denied. They fought long and hard to get back some of the rights that were thought to have been taken away after the passage of the Charter of the French Language. But in common, they share pride in some things that sets the province apart -- a much greater social conscience, a civil code and what may be the continent's only law that compels Good Samaritanism, just to name three.

The big question that has to be asked is, if Québec is a nation, does it follow the Anglophile population in the province and natives are also nations?

Trudeau's "one nation" vision where all Canadians would be treated the same is frankly as dead as his idea of a Just Society. So is the "two nations" of Robert Stanfield. But a nation within a nation? It opens up a whole can of worms.

Compared to many other countries, where ethnic minority communities are suppressed with impunity (consider, for instance, the Tamils in Sri Lanka or the Tibetans in China), Canada has been comparatively very accomodating to Québec. At our founding in 1867, the civil code was preserved; and with its revision during the 1990s federal law was recently amended to make sure the civil law and common law (in the other provinces) were harmonized. Québec provides many of the services that the federal government provides for the other provinces -- a fact reflected in that federal income taxes are lower in the province than elsewhere in Canada.

Québec collects its own income taxes -- so efficiently in fact and working towards its purpose of providing services for all, that other provinces are thinking about withdrawing from the tax collection arrangement they have with the feds. Québec also has its own pension plan and its own maternity leave program -- which have been so successful other provinces want to follow suit, eventually. The province also, and significantly, collects the GST for the feds, unlike the unharmonized provinces where retailers must file two remittances to two separate authorities -- and it's the retail end where the paperwork burden is the greatest.

Would any of that change if Québec was recognized as a nation? Probably not. But it's the sliding slope that is truly worrisome. And it's Stephen Harper -- not Michael Ignatieff -- who got the ball rolling by saying the province should have its own seat at UNESCO just as Puerto Rico, a part of the States, has its own chair. PR is a territory without taxation by or voting representation at the US federal government. Québec is and does by the Canadian counterpart -- and that's a key difference. If Québec should have a seat, why not all the other provinces?

Personally, I have always thought Canada is a "community of communities" which Joe Clark once spoke of, that every province and every community within a province tries to assert itself -- but at the same time, there is a common purpose to provide all Canadians with the best standard of services and ultimately to create a common sense of nationhood, the Canadian nation.

An argument can be made, for instance, that each province should get somewhat more autonomy to create a positive business environment, as long as the federal government isn't completely neutered. But a "community of communities" also has a common market, and for that reason should also have a national securities commision like most other federal countries do -- banning someone in one province only to see him or her set up a shingle in another and commit insider trading all over again is something that should be repugnant to all Canadians and not stop at a provincial boundary.

A nation isn't created just because someone says so. It's created because of a common language, a common sense of ideals and a shared sense of values. A nation is also created most times because of a sense of persecution or alienation from a parent country. Canada's history is far from perfect, but one can hardly suggest the people of Québec were stamped upon the same way the Japanese were in Canada during World War II.

Québec certainly holds a particular, some even would say peculiar, spot in the Canadian fabric. Are Canadians ready to make the kind of leap Michael Ignatieff is calling for? I doubt it very much. There must be a way to recognize the Québec "fact" but not at the expense of understanding other provinces also deserve acknowledgment for what they do for their people -- and what their people do for Canada. I rarely agree with The Gazette, but on this one they're right. It's all French Canadians, both in and out of Québec, that are a nation -- not the province itself.

And on a personal level, I think any future reforms to the Senate (which must become elected, and by a real constitutional amendment and not the farce Harper is trying to shove on Canadians) as well as the House of Commons should recognize that there will be Francophone Senators and MPs from outside Québec; and their votes should count on issues of culture and language as much as those from the province. That's the proper way to recognize the French "fact," in my opinion.

* P.S. After numerous futile attempts (and after at least one blog roll implied that I might be delisted if I didn't put the "accepted" logo on my blog), I finally managed to figure out a way yesterday, albeit by the back door, to add graphical links to the rolls I'm on. To fit in with the format of this blog, I slightly altered the sizes of the links but I hope those will be acceptable to the respective administrators of those rolls.

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