Canada and Quebec : a few new straws in the wind?

Oct 22nd, 2004 | By | Category: Canadian Provinces

Someone at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation thought it would be useful for Neil Macdonald to interview US neo-con author Ann Coulter on his new “Face to Face” TV show recently. He did not seem to dent her conviction that she is right about everything. But he did annoy her visibly a few times. Finally Ms. Coulter complained that Canada used to be a sensible place but then fell into bad habits. The key to the regression, in her mind, was the increased influence of French-speaking politicians in the country’s more recent past.

Her views will only be confirmed if she ever notices the impending Mexican trade mission of Quebec premier Jean Charest and French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. But, according to a recent report in the Globe and Mail, this mission has not upset anyone of deep consequence in Ottawa these days.

Mr. Martin has simply observed that the planned event is a strictly “commercial mission.” And he has laid some perfunctory formal stress on how there “is but one voice on the international scene and that is the prime minister of Canada.”

His Quebec lieutenant Jean Lapierre has “said he sees no problem with a Quebec premier taking part in a joint trade mission with a French prime minister.” According to foreign minister Pierre Pettigrew, “the mission is in line with rules adopted in 1999 that allow premiers to meet directly with foreign heads of government.”

Not so long ago the Canadian federal government more jealously guarded a sense of its prerogatives in such matters. But a few new straws have apparently been tossed into the fresh breezes signaled by the separate Quebec side deal, in the September 2004 federal-provincial health care accord.

Paul Martin has never been as symbiotically attached to Pierre Trudeau’s aggressive one-country vision of the best future for Canada and Quebec as Jean Chretien. And in the minority parliament elected on June 28, 2004, the prime minister’s openness to thinking outside the Trudeau box on this issue seems to be shared by the assorted opposition leaders (if by no means all members of any party, beyond Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Quebecois).

NDP leader Jack Layton, the closest thing Martin has to a working partner in the minority parliament, has “said the Quebec-France mission doesn’t trouble him … The diversity of this country is something we should be celebrating.'”

During last spring’s federal election campaign Layton also – in the words of a recent Wikipedia contributor on the Internet – “suggested the removal of the Clarity Act, a piece of Legislation considered by some to be vital to keeping Quebec in Canada, and promised to recognize any declaration of independence by Quebec after a referendum.” (Though this “position was not part of the NDP’s official party policy, leading some high-profile party members, such as NDP House Leader Bill Blaikie and former NDP leader Alexa McDonough, to publicly indicate that they did not share Layton’s views.”)

Much more recently Conservative leader Stephen Harper has mused aloud, to a gathering in Quebec City, about certain vague prospects of making “Canada more like Belgium,” where “federal authority is shared not only by geographical regions, but also according to linguistic communities.”

Rather than “giving more authority to provinces in areas like culture or international relations,” Harper has suggested, “the federal government could, in concert with the provinces and especially Quebec, establish francophone and anglophone community institutions in areas of jurisdiction like telecommunications and broadcasting.”

Harper has similarly shown “some interest in a recent proposal by the Action democratique du Quebec to turn Quebec into an autonomous state’ within Canada.” The Conservatives will “take a look at the latest proposals from the ADQ,” Harper has said. “I don’t think we should dismiss them out of hand.”

Like Layton, Harper faces dissent within his own party on this continuing big Canadian issue (as oxymoronic as the phrase itself may be). Some of us are old enough to remember that John Diefenbaker from Saskatchewan was an aggressive early supporter of Trudeau’s One Canada.

Yet Diefenbaker never quite grasped the parallel importance of Trudeau’s bilingualism theme. And this was logically crucial in an age at last determined to remove all surviving vestiges of injustice towards French-speaking Canadians, in the post-colonial global village. If there was just going to be One Canada, in which both anglophones and francophones could anywhere feel at home, then a lot more people outside Quebec were going to have to speak French.

Conversely (and as Trudeau was always big and logical enough to stress), you couldn’t grant any form of special status to Quebec as a province, without undermining the pressure on English-speaking Canada to rise to the bilingual challenge, in some more or less realistic degree.

Either Quebec was not a province like the others, as a result of its unique French-speaking majority. Or it was a province just like the others, in all of which both English- and French-speaking Canadians were supposed to be at home. It couldn’t be both at the same time, without perpetrating a fresh injustice on the English-speaking majority in the country at large. (Which was, perhaps, one main problem with the failed Meech Lake Accord.)

As a sign that some sides of the Trudeau vision still have traction in Ottawa, the fall of 2004 has also seen federal official languages commissioner Dyan Adam urge that the Martin government “should exempt its $750-million bilingualism plan from the review of all government expenditures Revenue Minister John McCallum is undertaking.”

Yet as Ms. Adam has equally observed, the present Liberal government in Ottawa “has already been a a sputtering engine’ on moving … bilingualism … forward.” In a related Globe and Mail online readers’ poll, only 54% of more than 23,500 respondents answered Yes to the question “Do you believe Canada’s bilingualism policy is worthwhile?”

Here as elsewhere, various features in Trudeau’s flawed vision of the Canadian future will no doubt survive. Some degree of bilingualism will continue to play some role in Canadian public life. But a sovereigntist in Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Quebecois is equally entitled to observe that far more than 54% of Globe and Mail online readers would have to be supporting Canada’s bilingualism policy for Trudeau’s One Canada vision to be remotely realistic.

Canada and Quebec have had some interesting adventures since the 1960s. And no doubt their best future is together, as some kind of one country. But the past half-century also seems to have shown clearly that Quebec really is not a province like the others at all.

A person from Quebec who speaks only French (as a bare majority still only do) is never going to be able to travel anywhere in the country, from coast to coast to coast, and feel altogether at home. The overwhelming Canadian majority outside Quebec does not speak French and no doubt never will. In the global village of the early 21st century, it has even less interest in promoting the rights of the English-speaking minority inside Quebec than it has ever had in the past.

Just what these realities finally ought to mean is of course not at all clear right now. Stephen Harper’s speculations about Belgium as a model probably do not make a great deal of sense. (Why isn’t he thinking of all this in the context of Senate reform – which seems a much more elegantly simple framework for approaching the problem?)

The recent proposal by the Action democratique du Quebec similarly seems seem rather sophomoric, as some inside Quebec have suggested. The separate Quebec side deal in the September 2004 federal-provincial health care agreement is Kafkaesque at best.

There is nonetheless something refreshing about all these recent Canada-Quebec developments. They suggest that Canadian politicians in all parts of the country are starting to get a little more realistic about the Canadian future. This is just the kind of work – one might speculate – that we the people of Canada wanted our leaders to start digging into when we chose the present minority parliament in June.

It will no doubt be some considerable time yet before anything remotely definitive or even just more clearly defined can emerge. But there increasingly seems some intriguing evidence that fresh beginnings on a more realistic next Canada have actually begun. There are many sound reasons for being sceptical about almost everything. It would be wrong, however, to ignore the more optimistic messages altogether.

This is a geographically vast but otherwise small and marginal country. Yet regardless of what Ann Coulter thinks, it is also an interesting part of North America. (More interesting than she is, in any case, even in a short black dress.) When you look around the rest of the troubled global village, Canada’s current crop of democratic politicians could be a lot worse, whoever wins the really important federal election on November 2.

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