The Referendum Debate

English Canada must be prepared to give-but not to give away the store

David Lewis August 22 1977
The Referendum Debate

English Canada must be prepared to give-but not to give away the store

David Lewis August 22 1977

English Canada must be prepared to give-but not to give away the store

The Referendum Debate

David Lewis

As an anglophone from Ontario, I am conscious of two self-evident facts. It is obvious that whether Canada remains one or breaks up is the concern of all Cànadians, whatever their province, region or background. Yet it is equally obvious that, in the final analysis, the question whether Quebec remains a part of Canada or not will be decided primarily by the Québécois themselves. For no one with any commitment to human dignity and social harmony would seek to keep Canada together by force. The task of the anglophones outside Quebec is, therefore, to behave in such a way that the majority of the francophone Québécois will continue to believe that their lives will be richer spiritually and materially if they remain Canadians as well as loyal and proud Québécois.

It has for many years seemed clear to me that we will not find a solution to the Quebec-Canada problem if the rest of us continue to be reluctant to accept the fact that Quebec has always been determined to have its own identity and to acquire the political power necessary to protect and enrich that identity. Furthermore, the perceived identity of the francophone Québécois is clearer and more homogeneous than that of other Canadians. More than 80% of the people in Quebec not only speak the same language, but come from the same background, have the same heritage, celebrate the same traditions, honor the same ancestors, belong to the same religion and are shaped by the same cultural influences deriving from a sheltered history of several centuries on the North American continent.

Yet it has been difficult to persuade Anglo Canadians to accept Canada’s linguistic duality with grace and to accept and accommodate the Quebec community as a distinct collectivity in our country. Instead, many of us have tended to regard the French in Canada as just another ethnic minority and to be impatient toward their demands, no matter how legitimate.

This is not to accept everything that some Québécois say about the history of anglophone-francophone or Ottawa-Quebec relations. The strident separatist attempt to blame the “Anglos” in Montreal or elsewhere in Canada as primarily responsible for the disadvantages suffered by the majority in Quebec, whether in their relative economic condition or threats to their language and culture, is simply invalid. It ignores the complicity of FrenchCanadian leaders, the impact of foreign corporate power in control of the economy and consequences of the decades before

the Sixties when Quebec society was controlled by francophone cultural, church and political forces which sought to insulate the province from modern economic and social influences.

I therefore reject the separatist version of the Canadian fact. Equally, however, do I reject the insensitive anglophone version of the French fact. And in anglophone

Canada it is the latter that has caused unworthy intolerance and unnecessary misunderstanding. However, perhaps things are changing. There is real hope that today English Canadians are ready to think in different terms, precisely because of the challenge that the PQ government now presents to the rest of us.

The unhappy economic situation and the promises of the PQ social program were key factors in the change of government in Quebec.

Existing antagonisms in Canada are not the product of thoughtless Westerners, mendicant Easterners, grasping farmers or selfish labor leaders. The conflicts derive from legitimate grievances against central governments which have for decades broken as many promises as they have made to deal effectively with those grievances. What has been particularly irksome is that the relative situation has changed little since the end of World War II, despite the fact that during this period Canada has experienced immense economic and technological advance. The inequalities between classes and the inequities between regions persist. It is therefore necessary to

break down not only the linguistic but also the economic barriers to the development of a common Canadian purpose.

However, these longer term considerations do not answer the problem of the immediate present: the urgent need to persuade the Québécois to reject separatism. There are now Canadians—academics, editorialists, former political spokesmen— who are urging immediate negotiations. They parade this as open-mindedness. There are even some who urge with the earnestness of the convert that we should be preparing for the eventuality of Quebec separation. They parade this as wise planning.

Both these suggestions seem to me dangerous. I have no doubt that Ottawa and the nine anglophone provinces should declare a continuing willingness to negotiate new constitutional arrangements. The Québécois should be honestly assured that the choice is not necessarily between the federal status quo and Quebec political independence. He should know that even now the provinces have wide areas of independent powers and that modern developments may well open up other such areas.

All this is important and necessary. But to suggest that negotiations start now raises the obvious question as to who would negotiate with whom. The present Quebec government has not the slightest interest in negotiating a new kind of confederation except as it may be able to exploit such negotiations to advance its separatist cause. It would not be openbut simple-minded to present such a platform to the propagandists of Quebec independence.

As for the suggestion that we should plan for conditions after possible Quebec separation, it is the kind of defeatism that is self-fulfilling. Nothing could be more helpful to the separatist cause in Quebec than evidence that a significant number of Canadians in the other provinces are resigned to it. In our search for accommodation we must be careful not to reduce the federal institutions to impotence. Whatever constitutional changes we collectively agree to make, we must leave ourselves with a central parliament that retains the capacity to strengthen Canada’s economic and cultural independence and to help Canadians in every region to achieve economic security and social equality. Without this capacity, there is little value in federalism, whatever its structure.

David Lewis, former leader of the New Democratic Party, teaches political science at Carleton University in Ottawa.