Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Quebec, Canada and the Scottish Question


The English language Canadian press is in a tizzy over comments former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff made to BBC Scotland in a recent interview. Many are outraged by the statements - which Ignatieff via press release has decried as being taken out of context - as essentially giving comfort to the sovereigntist cause. No doubt the Parti Québécois will be delighted with the statements as proof of the inevitability of an independent Quebec. This would hardly be surprising as the PQ - and indeed it's federal cousin the BQ - will contort any statement to conform to their plans.


Certainly, some of Ignatieff's assertions are somewhat off - his causal link between devolving of powers and referenda for instance - but, by and large, his comments are an accurate picture of the state of the relationship between 'English Canada' and Quebec. Moreover, the comments are heavily hedged and entirely context dependent, facts which the media and politicians - eager to settle scores or further attack the former party leader - ignore completely.

First, the comments are made in the context of referendum on Scottish independence and entirely within that context. Second, the comments are made in light of the current political dynamics in Canada. These two points are vitally important. The referendum in Scotland will be closely watched and, as he suggests, have global repercussions. The impacts of this will go beyond Quebec. Indeed, in Britain there could be impacts on England's relationship not only with Scotland but with Wales and Northern Ireland. In Europe - as he again suggests - a successful Scottish vote could embolden nationalist feelings in a host of countries, particularly in a heavily divided Belgium, but also in Spain (the Basques) or even France (Corsica). Further movements could be fueled as far away as Central Asia and Africa. The point is that a successful vote may embolden these movements to push for independence and could render the international realm much more amenable to the breakup of existing states as it already is. As such, it provides a permission and enabling factor for independence writ large.

Ignatieff also accurately analyses the current dynamics within Canadian federation which make the revival of separatist feelings possible. Like the Americans in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, the Conservatives and New Democrats - in the wake of the crushing defeat of the Bloc Québécois - are are acting as "End of History" triumphalists, misreading the electoral defeat of a party as a permanent defeat for a nationalist movement. They act as if a revival is impossible. Ignatieff has no time for this. He correctly reads the situation through less rose-tinted glasses: Quebec and Canada have very little to say to one another. Indeed, this is evident by Ottawa's policy and ideological orientation. It's gaze is firmly planted to the West, paying very little attention to the Quebec file. It is evident in it's lax commitment to official bilingualism - appointing a unilingual Auditor General - and its opposition on files close to Quebec - namely culture and the gun registry.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest, joining in the chorus against Ignatieff, actually proves the point fairly well. "What I will tell you is a strong majority of Quebecers believe in Canada", Charest noted, extolling the virtues of our highly decentralized federation. Yet this is a conception of Canada fundamentally at odds with the rest of Canada - and 'Conservative Canada' in particular. It is a Canada of isolated provincial compartments, with little sense of pan-Canadian solidarity. It is a Canada, as described by Ignatieff, of massive devolution of programs where the provincial and not federal government has more to offer citizens. Indeed, the 'Canada' Charest extols is the very one that Ignatieff sees: two states in one, with a Quebec "Maîtres chez nous".

Note that Ignatieff is not saying that sovereignty is an inevitability on its own - that an independent Quebec is something preordained and unstoppable - but rather something that is likely given to two factors discussed above: the impact of the Scottish question on global dynamics and the internal dynamics of the Canada as it presently stands. In no way is this a normative evaluation or an endorsement. Rather it is an analysis of a political reality. It is the confluence of these two forces that Ignatieff sees as making Quebec sovereignty in the near future a reality. A Scottish vote could reawaken nationalist feelings and provide a permissive international environment for the emergence of new states. The distant relationship between Quebec and the Rest of Canada (ROC) means there is little in the way of a strong link, a force of attraction, binding the two solitudes to one another.

The vitriolic reaction and unthinking rejection of Ignatieff's thesis - and a distortion at that - is little more than a denial of political reality. Simply ignoring the continued potency of Quebec nationalism - a force that has not receded, even if the BQ has - does not make it disappear. Yet Canada's so-called 'federalist' leaders are content to take the ostrich approach to national unity. They bury their heads and hope the status quo remains in place. Indeed, the premium once attached to dealing with the political reality of Quebec has been replaced by a recalcitrance to confront the issue in an intellectual honest way - just ask Justin Trudeau. Ignatieff has drawn attention to a problem - indeed, the problem of Canadian politics - and a potentiality that is merely one political future. It has not yet been written. It's the job of our current leadership to figure out how to attenuate the forces of nationalism, something they seem loathe to acknowledge, let alone confront.

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