Americans, to the extent they are ever interested in Canadian politics, are often quite intrigued by the issue of Quebec separatism. This contrasts quite greatly with Canadians, who are, by and large, thoroughly sick of the topic. We’re so sick, in fact, that we’ve pretty much lost our ability to discuss or analyze the phenomenon in any sort of rational or calm way, and instead continually lapse into tired chauvinistic tropes.
Today, most English-Canadians can only muster up the energy to react to French-Canadian separatism in one of two ways:
1) In the East, knee-jerk opposition based on the idea that Quebec separatism poses some existential threat to “Canada” as a country. Easterners are taught to conceive of Canada as a nation whose main purpose is to create a unified state where French and English citizens live together in harmony. If the province of Quebec abandons the Canadian federation, Canada has thus failed its founding purpose. Separatists therefore hate Canada, the country you and I love so very much.
2) In the West, knee-jerk opposition based on a general dislike of Quebecers. In other words, separatism is opposed not because it threatens some Utopian manifest destiny ideal of what Canada is “supposed to be,” but rather because it’s something Quebecers seem to want, ergo something we should vindictively prevent them from getting. That’ll show those whiny frogs what for.
The political manifestation of philosophy number one is concession, which has been the defining theme of Canadian policy towards Quebec since at least the late 1950s. It’s in large part a product of Canada’s Montreal-Toronto-Ottawa-centric political establishment, which for reasons particular to its members’ own bi-cultural backgrounds, takes the thesis of Canada as a French-Anglo Eden far more seriously than the rest of the country. If the Canadian constitution is changed enough, they say; if more English Canadians learn to speak French, if the Quebec legislature is granted certain unique powers and symbolic trinkets to safeguard its distinctions, then maybe Quebecers will learn to like the federal government, embrace their inner Canadian, and stop voting for separatist parties and separation referendums.
This strategy has not proven successful. Last week, Canada marked the 20th anniversary of the first Bloc Quebecois member of parliament, the separatist political party that has, in every federal election since its 1993 debut, managed to win the majority of Quebec’s seats in the House of Commons. On the provincial level, the similarly separatist Parti Quebecois seems poised to regain control of the provincial government, as it has already done twice, for two lengthy terms, since 1976. Though there has not been a formal secession vote in well over a decade, and separation may indeed have taken on a mushy, pragmatic quality rather detached from its historically ferocious, uncompromising roots, it remains a tremendously successful ideology in terms of sheer organized longevity. Canada’s political graveyard is littered with passing fancies — prohibition, farmer militancy, Social Credit, etc. — but separatism is not one of them.
The political expression of the second philosophy, the philosophy of spiteful denial of Quebec’s nationalist ambitions, is unwavering vindictiveness and stubbornness. At one time, a young Stephen Harper earned great acclaim for his rock-ribbed embrace of this line of thinking. An outspoken Reform MP in the era leading up to the 1996 referendum, Harper’s line basically held that Quebec separation was illegal under all circumstances, that the Canadian government should never recognize the legitimacy of any referendum, and that no concessions of any sort should ever be made to any openly separatist government (which are basically unconstitutional anyway). No one says this sort of thing in Canadian politics these days, but the sentiment, with its brazen lack of sympathy, is probably far closer to mainstream public sentiment than philosophy #1.
Amid all this, the question that has long ceased to be asked in English Canada is whether or not the inclusion of the province of Quebec actually provides any sort of tangible benefit to the country’s non-French majority. No one takes it for granted that it does, mind you; there’s just a complete lack of interest in cost-benefit analysis altogether. Quebec retention is considered a goal that is so supremely self-evident as to be beyond discussion, a quixotic mission of Ahabian proportions.
At some point, however, the unthinking zealotry of the goal allows the cause to quickly descend into farce. As Quebecers continue to send clear signals at the ballot box, Ottawa’s drive to maintain their loyalty becomes some hopeless act of imperial missionary work, like some poor Belgian Jesuit still desperately trying to convert the souls of the Congolese, now in their fifth decade of independence. The act itself becomes so patronizing and ahistorical that it’s almost quaint — and of course, hilariously ineffective.
My own position is that Quebec has already achieved practical national independence, in the sense that it has evolved into a thoroughly foreign entity within the North American continent, and shows no interest in reversing the outcome. As the more culturally self-confident partner in the marriage, Quebec can now either choose to exploit and assimilate the rest of Canada for its own benefit, or negotiate a respectable exit befitting a fully-matured nation. It bothers me that many Quebecers are cynical enough to pursue the first strategy, but more so that the Canadian ruling class has demonstrated themselves such willing enablers, such you-can-live-in-the-basement-forever parents. If Canada’s hesitancy to abandon the British monarchy speaks volumes about the country’s self confidence, then just as much immaturity can be gleaned from Quebec’s refusal to make its own final step, and deal with Canada on the state-to-state basis that its history has ordained.
The rest of Canada needs to stop regarding such an outcome as apocalyptic. From the perspective of the conservative west in particular, if Canada’s English-speaking majority desires a country that is less tainted by the socialism and elitism Quebec’s unique political culture imposes on confederation — and the evidence suggests they do — then it’s dumb to believe that anti-separatist schadenfreude will really accomplish anything of use. But to paraphrase Golda Meir’s famous phrase about the Palestinians, English Canadians have decided they hate separatists more than they love each other. Everyone knows what defeat for the PQ or BQ will look like; far fewer have any idea what sort of prize the rest of Canada will bring home from the fight.
This is the single greatest achievement of the Canadian political system, however. Not federalism, not separation of powers, but a national ideology that defines perpetual frustration as heroic survival, and national unity as misery equally distributed.