Stubborn separatism in Quebec, Alberta etc .. just fix Canada and move ahead

Oct 24th, 2005 | By | Category: Canadian Provinces

Whatever else, he believed in a strong CanadaSunday, October 30 will mark the 10th anniversary of the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum. And the Globe and Mail and CTV News have commissioned the Strategic Counsel to conduct a poll on how Quebeckers and other Canadians see the issue today.

The results? “Ten years after the referendum that almost broke Canada in two, Quebeckers say they would vote to remain in Confederation if asked clearly whether they want to secede. But the survey also finds a stubborn attachment to sovereignty despite the breathing space of a decade.”

A day before this report, the Globe and Mail ran a column by Gordon Gibson from Vancouver. His point was that right now the “secessionist forces in Canada are stronger than ever” – in Quebec but also in Alberta, and the region from the Pacific Ocean to “(say) the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border.”

Just what are those of us who still believe in a strong Canadian future supposed to make of all this? Over the past generation the country’s internal problems have been talked to death. We need to just get on with some kind of practical solutions, in the very challenging new era of the global village that the 21st century has now brought upon us, like it or not.

The new Strategic Counsel poll on Quebec …

The week before its release, the new Strategic Counsel poll on Quebec sovereignty was prefaced by some jagged but finally quaint remarks from the party leader and parliamentary house leader of the federal Bloc Quebecois in Ottawa.

(The bare fact that there has been such a thing as a federal wing of the Quebec sovereigntist movement in Canadian politics since the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1989 ought to be telling the rest of us that Canada’s current federal system just isn’t working well enough. But leave that aside for the moment.)

The poll results themselves report on the opinions of “1,000 Canadians between Oct. 6 and 13” – 500 from Quebec and 500 from the rest of the country. Among the Quebec respondents: “When asked whether they would vote to secede from Canada to become an independent country,’ 53 per cent said No, compared with only 43 per cent who said Yes. Another 4 per cent didn’t know.”

This is the good news, sort of – though 43% is still quite a lot, even allowing for the small sample size of 500 respondents.

The bad news is that: “Asked how Quebeckers would vote if they faced a question similar to the one posed in 1995, 48 per cent said they would opt for the Yes side, compared with 47 per cent who would vote No. The other five per cent didn’t know.”

(Where the quite ambiguous question asked in 1995, following the earlier theme of 1980 as well, was “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership.”)

An “appetite for finality right now”

Pollster Allan Gregg has made two apt and provocative remarks on these and other results from the poll. First, “the sad part, from someone who is an unrepentant Canadian, is that after 10 years, we have not created one scintilla of a greater bond with Quebeckers than we had when we were on the verge of near-death.”

And second, “I think there is an appetite for finality right now … An appetite not simply in English Canada, but even in Quebec.”

It can’t be too surprising that we in the rest of the country have “not created one scintilla of a greater bond with Quebeckers” over the past 10 years. “Canada” in this sense has done almost nothing at all to build such a bond – unless you think that the sideshow which led to the sponsorship scandal Justice Gomery will soon report on somehow qualifies.

At the same time, those outside Quebec who still visit the province can see with increasing clarity that over the past generation it has already become its own predominantly French-speaking place, which is certainly not a province like any of the others. And the Strategic Counsel poll suggests that even many who seldom visit Quebec are coming to appreciate its deep-seated will to be what it will be.

“In the rest of the country,” e.g., “49 per cent of Canadians believed a majority of Quebeckers would vote Yes in another referendum while 44 per cent said they would vote No.” Moreover, “the Canadian voting public appears sanguine about the possibility of a breakup, with 76 per cent telling pollsters they’d be willing to negotiate a new partnership with an independent Quebec.”

(Whether this is 76% of the 500 respondents outside Quebec, or of all 1,000 respondents inside and outside, seems a bit unclear. But the point is no doubt striking enough either way.)

One practical action all this finally suggests is some form of offer from the rest of the country, before any future third sovereignty referendum, to recognize officially what Quebec already is on the ground – the main present-day focus of the historic French fact in Canada, with its own unique national characteristics (many of which have already been recognized in Canadian law). All this no doubt remains somewhat tricky, as jaded memories of the Meech Lake Accord and all that do show. And it is not going to suddenly come together overnight.

Yet times do change. As Allan Gregg’s remarks suggest, there nowadays does seem to be a growing constituency in English-speaking Canada for a more realistic approach to the longstanding problems of Quebec in Canadian federalism. It is at least time for all the various English Canadian federal and provincial political establishments, coast to coast to coast, to start catching up with the growing popular wisdom about Quebec.

The parallel problems in the rest of the country …

For many east of “(say) the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border,” the prospect of Western Canadian secession that Gordon Gibson has just raised again has never seemed at all as realistic as Quebec secession. What finally makes Quebec a seriously unique case is that at least the bare majority of its residents still only speak French.

(Any version of a Western Canada that were “to secede from Canada to become an independent country” could probably only survive on a North American continent that also included such other independent countries as Texas and California. The secession of BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan from Canada could only be what the secession of both Texas and California from Mexico was more than a century and a half ago – a prelude to joining the USA.)

What Mr. Gibson more realistically seems to be getting at in his Globe and Mail article is another proposition that has already had quite a lot of airing too, at least in Canadian political science circles. If there is going to be some unique new deal for Quebec in the federal system, then, in principle at least, Western Canada wants the same deal for itself as well. That is what equality seems to look like in the New West.

Yet in practice, when you look at the deals that are actually getting made in Canada’s current transitional federal system, even when Quebec does get its own arrangement, BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan turn out to want the same deal as the other six provinces outside Quebec. (Last fall’s federal-provincial health care agreement is just one case in point.)

All this having been said, who can now doubt that Western Canada is not at all happy with its current role in Canadian federalism? (Neither is Atlantic Canada, for perhaps somewhat different reasons, but again set that aside for the moment.) And assorted ancient Ontario establishments – in both Ottawa and Toronto – have as yet not risen to this challenge very well at all.

This is no doubt partly because some Western Canadians have seemed to be saying that they just want to take over the federal government, and run it strictly from a Western Canadian point of view (insofar as such a thing does exist, on both sides of the Rocky Mountains). But the challenge also points to the need for a New Ontario in the New Canada that, as another Globe and Mail columnist, John Ibbitson, has already told us “will not be denied,” in the wake of the last federal election. On the other hand, such a thing is arguably even now taking shape – in the midst of much current internal confusion about the destiny of Canada’s most populous province.

One way or another (and as sceptical as many Western Canadians have understandably become on this subject), practical solutions here still seem to depend quite crucially on at last creating some kind of federal parliamentary institution in Canada that realistically represents the vast diversity of Canadian geography, through some workable version of Canadian Senate reform.

(Just as they no doubt also depend on the obvious enough proposition that any recognition of how Quebec really is not a province like the others must be fair and equitable for all the other provinces who do remain the same. Quebec cannot be both more independent from the federal government than the other provinces and more influential in federal institutions – which was at least the popular perception that doomed the Meech Lake Accord.)

Oh … and while we’re at it …

In the midst of all this as well a growing plethora of details about the arcane subject of federal-provincial financial relations in Canada needs to be addressed. The potential problems of Alberta’s increasing oil-wealth that dominate Gordon Gibson’s latest western secessionist speculations, e.g., can readily enough be resolved within some reformed version of the federal-provincial revenue equalization system prescribed in section 36 of the Constitution Act 1982, that also takes account of the so-called “fiscal imbalance” in the present confederation.

Fortunately or otherwise, the current array of federal and provincial political establishments inside and outside Quebec is already well prepared for this kind of debate – and it would even seem to have more or less begun.

As any quick review of the desultory and premature attempt at reforming Canadian federalism in the first half of the 1990s will remind us, at last coming to effective practical grips with such problems will also have to address assorted longstanding grievances of what section 35 of the Constitution Act 1982 calls “the aboriginal peoples of Canada.”

Here again, this seems an area where the present Martin Liberal minority government has already begun to move in more constructive directions – with the dimly apparent broad support of all of the Conservatives, New Democrats, and even the Bloc Quebecois in Ottawa today?

There is, however, another more light-hearted theme in the new quest for a workable New Canada at last that has not really been addressed in the past. You can see it in a yet another Globe and Mail column – this time by the current dean of anglophone Ottawa journalists, Jeffrey Simpson, just after the September 27 official installation of Mme Michaelle Jean from Quebec as the new governor general of Canada.

“With Michalle Jean’s investiture as Canada’s 27th Governor-General yesterday,” Mr. Simpson wrote on September 28, “the country now has about five years, the normal term for the job, to prepare for cutting the institution’s tie to Britain … The Governor-General is the Queen’s representative in a country that no longer needs the British royalty. We can now use the time of Madame Jean’s tenure as Governor-General to resolve how to make the position into Canada’s head of state, in law, as well as fact.”

The New Canada, to start with, is increasingly multicultural, as well as linguistically and geographically diverse. It now quite remarkably includes people with ancestors in almost every country of the world today.

To growing numbers of Canadian citizens nowadays, it seems that the only practical function of Canada’s rather quaint lingering constitutional attachments to the British monarchy is to give people of British ancestry a special status in Canadian society, that finally contradicts the modern democratic impulse. (Which is also of course what the British monarchy in Canada has long seemed to symbolize for the French-speaking majority in Quebec.)

Remember the French Foreign Legion … “March or Die” … ?

It would seem clear enough as well that a Canada which is at last going to pull itself together and get down to practical solutions for the assorted longstanding problems of Canadian federalism, after the decline and fall of the old British Empire, will no longer need the symbolic crutch of the British monarchy, to guide its 21st century fortunes on the North American continent.

It could similarly make some down-to-earth sense to apply Jeffrey Simpson’s proposed five-year deadline for a democratic reform of the office of governor general to such less light-hearted but more practically urgent tasks as reforming the role of Quebec in the Canadian federal system, and more effectively representing Canadian regionalism outside Quebec in the federal parliament.

Many will of course urge that all this is just impossible. Canada is a country whose fundamental problems are never solved. Just get used to it, etc. But it does seem increasingly clear that the challenging new era of the global village in the 21st century is bringing many new and rather different political and economic calculations into play. The old worlds of John A. Macdonald (and Georges Etienne Cartier) and William Lyon Mackenzie King (and Ernest Lapointe) have vanished forever.

A country that cannot finally come up with at least a few practical solutions to some of its most fundamental problems just may not have much of a future left. And why shouldn’t Canada have its own strong future after all?

Canada Day todayWhat kind of a future can a Canada that has no attachments at all to Quebec (or Western Canada, etc) in the 21st century realistically hope for? And, just as important no doubt, what kind of a future can a Quebec (or Western Canada etc) that has no attachments at all to Canada hope for?

In any case, what such recent public opinion surveys as the new Strategic Counsel poll on Quebec sovereignty seem to be suggesting is that the people of Canada increasingly do have the stomach to look such questions square in the face and move ahead. It may just be the political and other leadership that remains a bit queasy? And if the country did actually at least start to dig into such longstanding conundrums in the imminent next federal election, whenever it may be, the results could even prove almost seriously interesting, for a change. However you look at it, Allan Gregg’s conclusion that “there is an appetite for finality right now … An appetite not simply in English Canada, but even in Quebec” has finally got to be good news.

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