Quebec has its own divisions

This article was written in the wake of Lucien Bouchard’s move to the leadership of the Parti Quebecois and his vow to continue the long march toward Quebec independence. It was first published in the New Brunswick Herald Telegraph, January 17, 1996 as it appears below and again in The Gazette, Montreal, Monday, January 22, 1996 under the headline: Partition answer to irreconcilable differences.

Faced with the imminent arrival of Lucien Bouchard and his vow to complete the long march to independence, more and more Quebecers are coming to accept that they live in a deeply divided political society. Two radically different dreams are trapped in the confines of a single territory called Quebec.

The dominant political forces see a future independent, ethnic state, preserving a French-speaking culture which they view as unique and threatened by the English-speaking societies of North America. An indistinct opposition longs to return to a bilingual, liberal state supporting a cosmopolitan society in which the use of language and the free evolution of culture is a personal, family, business or neighborhood affair.

Neither of these political divisions is new, nor have they been played out on the modern historical stage without demonstrating their own particular strengths or inherent weaknesses. But two such adversarial concepts cannot live securely and comfortably under the same roof.

Logically, an ethnic state must suppress significant minorities, but those minorities will continue to long for the freedom under which such a state might cease to exist. For most Canadians the political house we laboured to construct over the past thirty-five years was to take the form of a bilingual federal state governing a free and open society. It was a vision designed to appease the inevitable resentment and conflicts inherent I a nation, formed in haste, from the remnants of two warring empires and a diaspora of aboriginal peoples.

But in Quebec, the window of opportunity for the creation of that sort of country has passed. Today the idea that there can be some form of Canadian solution to the ideological schism in this province is one which practical men and women have all but put aside.

The eclipse of the Trudeau Liberals in the early 1980’s marked the end of the last principled effort to build a country where people were protected from coast to coast by a charter of rights and freedoms. All actions, in the wake of the failure of that enterprise, have been reduced to the level of deal making.

Canadian deal-makers, however, have long since stopped addressing the real conflict in Quebec. The struggle here is between radically different world views. Quebeccois ethnic nationalists seek to ensure their present power to use coercive laws for the preservation of society as a mirror image of themselves. An adversary culture of Quebec citizens, more tolerant of linguistic or ethnic distinctions, wants to turn the clock back to the days of a free and open society. None of the pan-Canadian formulas worked out over recent years would have solved this ideological gridlock.

From Meech Lake to Charlottetown, Canadian deals struck during the Mulroney years were rejected in Quebec. Under Jean Chretien, the terms for a Canadian solution are not like to change. The government of Quebec will be invited to agree to some form of association that will preserve the facade of a federation.

If that is accepted the federalist Quebeckers will be expected to live without the protection of the constitution. The Canadians of Quebec are offered, at best, an estranged relationship with their own country. In exchange for our rights and freedoms, the rest of Canada gets an economic union and Quebec nationalists maintain a stable currency to further the pursuit of an independent state.

While the governments of Canada and Quebec keep up appearances for the sake of credit ratings, federalist Quebeckers are offered a little more time to sell and leave their homes. In Canada, it seems, there is no longer a will to propose anything nobler.

French and English speaking people of diverse ethnic origin can and do live comfortably together in liberal societies, but conflicting ideologies cannot co-exist so easily. All ideologies operate as powerful belief systems and, as such, are often irreconcilable.

The theoretical basis for Quebec separation has always been collective and dirigiste in nature. Quebec’s nationalist intellectuals have never been able to abide the messy internal contradictions of a pluralist, bilingual, bourgeois society.

On the other hand, Quebec’s Canadian loyalists are a diverse mass of French and English speaking citizens who rely on voluntary commitments and the free association of autonomous individuals. They generally shun political coercion, even in the name of what a contemporary majority may view as a higher purpose.

Collectivist visions are usually imposed on people from the top down. The liberal approach to life grows freely among people from the bottom up. It can, however, foster deviation from the legislative blueprints of a planned society. That is why, among Quebec’s nationalist elites, personal liberties have been delegitimized and so ferociously resisted.

The liberationist vision of an exclusively French Quebec is almost totally at odds with the liberal vision of a free Quebec. A Quebec house so divided can never be productive and strong. Eventually, one side must submit to the other or the two must agree on a fair division of resources and go their own ways.

In the wake of the last referendum, a genuine desire to create an alternative liberal democratic entity is emerging within the present territory of Quebec. The idea began as a murmur, but according to a December edition of the Montreal Gazette, it is slowly gaining some credibility. Some speak of the creation of a new Canadian province, others special status for Montreal within Quebec; still others, the birth of a new city state.

All, however, is in agreement about one thing. The Canadians of Quebec no longer want to be sacrificial lambs, neither for the birth of a republic, nor for a renewed federalism which compromises their liberty within their own homeland.

A short time ago, most of Quebec’s Canadians would have held their noses and voted for a Meech Lake Accord or a Charlottetown agreement. That sort of arrangement seemed to be the best they could expect within the unfortunate context in which they lived.

More recently, however, they have learned the value of setting the bar a little higher. It appears they are stealing a page from the revolutionary scripts of the early Quebecois independence movements. They too have discovered the old axiom: In politics it is sometimes easier to accomplish the impossible than the merely improbable.

William Brooks is Head of the Social Sciences Department at Lower Canada College.