The Referendum Debate

If some Quebeckers want divorce, so be it-as long as they don’t get custody

Morris Shumiatcher October 17 1977
The Referendum Debate

If some Quebeckers want divorce, so be it-as long as they don’t get custody

Morris Shumiatcher October 17 1977

If some Quebeckers want divorce, so be it-as long as they don’t get custody

The Referendum Debate

Morris Shumiatcher

We have heard enough of “the founding races” of Canada. The question now is not who found Canada, but who is to be lost to Canada? The séparatistes of Quebec claim that they represent a French nation within the territorial boundaries of Canada because they carry the hallmarks of nationhood: first, a definable origin in the France of the 16th century; secondly, occupation of a specific area of land; thirdly, a common language; and fourthly, the will to be a nation. Let us accept these premises and apply them to the people who live within the boundaries of Quebec as it now exists—all of its 595,000 square miles of land and water.

Only a small part of these lands was regarded as French in 1763 when Quebec became a part of British North America, or in 1867 when Quebec joined in founding the Dominion of Canada. More than two thirds of its present lands—352,000 square miles of what was Ungava, in the Northwest Territories—were added by the parliament of Canada between 1898 and 1912. This area remains sparsely settled by the Indians and Inuit who have unambiguously declared their origin to be North American, their language English, their culture native and their desire for nationhood Canadian. Are their lives and fortunes to be made hostage to the electors in a Quebec referendum? The area is likely, one day, to become one of the richest producers of minerals and power and forest resources. Are these to be denied to the 23 million Canadians whose heritage these lands unquestionably remain? Before the 19th century, there came from all of the countries of Europe, immigrants who chose to settle in Quebec. They have built their lives in the vocabulary of English. They have constructed their careers upon the bedrock of a language that covers not only large parts of Quebec, but the whole of Canada and, indeed, the entire North American continent like a rich overburden.

They, too, have a claim to the areas which their ancestors occupied and developed. Like French Canadians, they, too, have a desire to identify themselves with the vision of nationhood. That nation is Canada. They, too, have a language, a history, and a desire for nationhood. If the four criteria for establishing a new francophone state are valid, then surely, only those areas of Quebec that are French in history, in language and in culture are in contention. All other territories in Quebec must remain in statu quo as a part of Canada. Self-determination is a two-way

street. If it requires that those who identify themselves as French may set up their own French state within the portions of the territorial boundaries of Quebec that they own and occupy, it also means that those who do not share the French identity possess a corresponding right either to form an English-speaking state within the present territory of Quebec or to merge with the provinces with whose residents they share a common sense of values.

An expression of opinion by ballot is not all that is relevant. A plebiscite, at most, may legitimately canvass the wishes of individual voters. It cannot effect a disposition of land or property. Its purpose may be to determine which Canadians of French descent choose to remove themselves from the aegis of Canada. But the Quebec National Assembly can no more force the dissenter to surrender his Canadian citizenship than the Legislature of Ontario or Saskatchewan or British Columbia may deny citizenship to Frenchspeaking Canadians in any of those provinces. Majority rule does not sanction banishment of the minority. If freedom and self-determination are to have their way, then those in Quebec who desire to exile themselves from Canada may, as individuals, identify themselves. Thereafter,

as individuals, each may move to pool his resources with other like-minded Quebeckers.

If the time should come when Quebeckers in numbers elect to sever their Canadian connection, the lands and the property they own and control may be defined and the territorial boundaries of a new state may be delineated to encompass them. And then, when their obligations to Canada (in the form of outstanding taxes and the like) have been paid, the independence of the séparatistes, the dissolution of their status of citizenship and the exclusion from Canada of the specific lands they own, may be acknowledged. In order that viable boundaries may be established, exchanges of lands may become necessary, and with these exchanges the painful resettlement of families, all designed to produce the ethnic and linguistic purity that the progenitors of the new state of Quebec profess to espouse.

If separation must come, let it appear to be what in fact it is—a departure from Canada of those who reject her. A retreat into enclaves within the territory of Quebec that are owned and occupied by those who decide to abandon Canada. All of the rest of the province must remain a part of our country. All others must be assured of their right to remain Canadian. The separation of spouses is always a painful and traumatic experience. It cannot be expected that a separation of two peoples who have lived together as a nation for more than 200 years can be anything less. Often, where a married couple determines to separate, a recognition of their pedestrian but practical needs has a wondrous effect in bringing home to them the longterm advantages of continuing to live their lives together, imperfect though they may be. This insight often has the effect of keeping husband and wife together. Reason prevails over emotion; tensions ease and normal relations are restored.

Surely this is not too much to expect from the Frenchand English-speaking people of Canada who are bound in a national marriage that concerns not only themselves but all Canadians, and, indeed, all people who live in North America. I believe that the practical will prevail over the political, the empirical over the emotional, the historical over the histrionic.

This, perhaps, is because I am fortunate enough to have an understanding wife who is French.

Morris Shumiatcher is a Saskatchewan lawyer and a controversial commentator on domestic and foreign affairs.