Notion of Nation

Master stroke? Muddies the waters? Those who accept are dupes of separatists? Another roll of the dice? Symbolic? Meaningless? Race based?

Canadians are rightfully confused about the intent of motion that overwhelmingly passed in the House of Commons last Monday recognizing the Quebecois as a nation within a united Canada. 

The confusion mounts as Canadians ask themselves why it was necessary to introduce the motion in the first place. Quebec was already recognized as a “distinct society” within Canada by a motion of the former Liberal PM Jean Chretien’s government. That should have been enough.

Apparently, a motion declaring Quebec a nation by the Bloc Quebecois caused Prime Minister Stephen Harper a lot of grief. He thought that the “master stroke” would be to pre-empt the BQ and its Leader Gilles Duceppe by tweaking the motion and placing the phrase “within a united Canada” after the mention of the Quebecois “nation.”

How can this be a master stroke? It is more of a concession to the BQ as Duceppe so readily demonstrated by gleefully rubbing his hands; perhaps believing that the Conservative government had provided another stage in the Bloc’s plan to eventually pull Quebec out of Canada. If it’s so acceptable to Duceppe, one has to wonder why it could be acceptable to anyone outside of Quebec.

So what if Duceppe was planning to introduce his own motion. The MPs from the other parties could simply have voted against it. It wouldn’t have passed and the House could have returned to more pressing issues. Duceppe could have ranted and raved about Canada not accommodating Quebec’s aspirations and that would  have been just fine. After all, Duceppe is leading a party whose expressed purpose is to take Quebec out of Canada. Why should the other parties in the House pander to his whims, even in the name of supposedly heading him off at the pass?

But politics makes strange bedfellows, especially when a party realizes that forming a majority requires votes in Quebec, which likely was the prime motivation of Harper and the Conservatives, as well as the Liberal and NDP MPs who followed their lead. The prime minister also likely wanted to ensure that the Conservatives could hold onto their 10 seats in Quebec that were threatened by flagging support for his party.

Common sense prevailed only in the case of 16 MPs — 15 Liberals, one Independent and one Conservative. Conservative MP Inky Mark from Manitoba was the only member to abstain. He also offered praise for Michael Chong, the Conservative defector from the cause who probably best articulated the reason why the motion should not have even come to a vote. Chong, MP for Wellington-Halton Hills in Ontario and, until Monday evening the Tory Intergovernmental Affairs minister, explained in a press conference following his resignation that granting special status to one ethnic group even though that group is one of the country’s two founding peoples does not take into account the changes that have occurred in the Canadian nation in recent decades.

Canada is not inhabited solely by those who came to its shores 400 or 300 years ago, but a montage of people from every country on the face of the earth. Canada has outgrown the two founding peoples concept to become a multicultural nation with no single group having precedence over another. Put simply, it has evolved into an egalitarian society.

“I believe that recognizing the Quebecois as a nation, even within a united Canada, is nothing less than the recognition of an ethnic nationalism,” Chong said in the press conference as reported by Canadian Press. “It cannot be interpreted as the recognition of a territorial nationalism for it does not refer to a geographical entity but a group of people.

“I believe in this great country of ours and I believe in one nation, undivided, called Canada, based on civic and not ethnic nationalism,” added the 35-year-old MP.

Those watching the live coverage of the press conference held by Senate Leader Marjorie leBreton and Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon can be forgiven for being outright confused about the translation of Quebecois. Both Tories contradicted themselves when trying to explain the ethnic implications of the word Quebecois.

“I know anglophones Quebecers (term not used in motion) who call themselves Quebecois,” LeBerton said.

When pressed, Cannon said the motion didn’t apply to all residents of Quebec. Presumably, he meant it referred to only those whose ancestors came over by boat in the 1600s and 1700s and were French-speaking — people originally called Les Canadiens.

Pressed further, Cannon told reporters that those supporting the motion were not playing semantics with the words.

But, that’s exactly what everyone is doing and is the cause of the confusion. The motion could be meaningless, but it could also usher in profound change. And it’s unlikely to be meaningless given the past history of the whole Quebec debate.

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tried to pander to soft Quebec nationalists through the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. He boasted of rolling the dice to bring Quebecers back into the fold with dignity simply because separatist Parti Quebecois Premier Rene Levesque had refused to sign the repatriated Canadian Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Levesque’s refusal didn’t mean that Quebec was no longer a part of Canada. That was a myth. Quebec has been a part of Canada since our nation was founded in 1867. With or without Levesque's signature, Quebec remained — and remains to this day — a province of Canada as stated in the British North America Act (Canadian Constitution). 

What Mulroney managed to do with his gamble was to throw the nation into turmoil and breathe new life into a separatist cause that had been waning since losing the 1980 referendum. He opened the proverbial can of worms and it was a disaster that led to the 1995 referendum and only a narrow victory for Canada.

No wonder Duceppe, BQ MPs and the PQ in Quebec are rubbing their hands in glee that someone has once again decided to tinker around the edges of the Constitution.