Podium

As if two languages weren’t enough

Abraham Rotstein August 4 1980
Podium

As if two languages weren’t enough

Abraham Rotstein August 4 1980

As if two languages weren’t enough

Podium

Abraham Rotstein

The negotiations for a new constitution seem headed for a grinding halt in the fall. Not only are the talks bedevilled by an enormous agenda and an absurdly short time frame; they don’t share a common language of disclosure. I suspect that the three leading protagonists, Pierre Trudeau, Peter Lougheed and René Lévesque , are talking past each other because they are speaking three different languages, that is, using the same words to mean quite different things. A trilingual glossary beside your TV set might come in handy, particularly since there is no button yet to focus the sound as sharply as you can focus their visual images.

Take for example an apparently simple and straightforward word such as “individuals.” What does Trudeau, as a start, mean by “individuals?” Individuals have, first and foremost, inalienable rights—civil rights, language rights, rights to free expression, rights to share in this country’s abundance and so on. As the prime minister stated recently, his objective in the constitutional talks is to protect the rights of individuals, not governments. Governments are those sinister agencies standing in the wings liable to subvert these individual rights if we turn our heads away for a moment. So when you hear Trudeau say “individuals,” imagine on your TV screen an elaborate parchment scroll with a long list of rights.

For Lougheed, “individuals” means something else again. They have, first and foremost, inalienable grievances.

Alberta man is born, not exactly in original sin, but in the womb of complaints, injuries and injustices which give meaning and a true spark to his existence. The individual exists by virtue of the dart board that he confronts, clearly visible and up-front. Governments in turn fall into two polar extremes: the local ones who organize the dart game and keep the arsenal well stocked, and the national one at which you fire away. If you don’t feel the “grievances” in your gut, truly, deeply and irrevocably, you’re off the team. So when Lougheed next says “individuals,” sketch in on your TV screen the dart team limbering up for another round at the eastern dart board.

For Lévesque, “individuals” are barely visible on their own and dissolve into the larger whole. Individuals are the small tiles that fit together in the larger mosaic of “the nation.” The whole is immeasurably greater and more significant than the sum of its parts—the famous “collectivity.” The “collectivity” is suspended midway between siege and utopia. In the future, the collectivity has a rendezvous with history, as he stated on referendum night. In the present, it is in a state of siege—the ever larger and more threatening waves of the English language, of North American business, of the banks and of Ottawa’s encroachments and double-dealing. The Quebec government is the ordained vehicle to move the collectivity from the state of siege to the promised land. So when Lévesque next says “in-

*Trudeau, Lougheed and L'evesque are talking past each other...9

dividuals,” just flash back onto your TV screen the scene from Paul Sauvé arena on referendum night—an electric unity, a total commitment and a strangely un-Canadian exhilaration and oneness of purpose.

Take a further example, an even simpler word such as “land.” For Albertans, “land” has powerful overtones and is cast in the mould of the original homestead. They claim untrammelled jurisdiction not only to the surface territory but also to what lies beneath (oil) and what flies above (communications). The political game is still the same as it was in the old days—to thwart the officious and parasitic tax collector (Ottawa). Cultural survival is still a fragile and “elitist” issue. Multinationals, who have most of the oil and gas sewn up, are included in the family as fellow homesteaders—even though they are slated to cart away the lion’s share of any projected oil price increase (about half). In their compulsive land-fixation, Albertans remain politically onedimensional: just put up the “no trespassing” signs and keep the powder dry!

To Quebec nationalists, “land” is the base on which a whole social, historical and cultural edifice sits. “La patrie” (translate: the ancestral

home) is not one-dimensional and resonates in many directions. The “nation” is held together on its land and should have the room to breathe and flourish in all possible dimensions that make for self-determination. “Land” is the underpinning for a whole social topography.

“Land” is as unimportant to Trudeau as it is crucial for the others. It is the arena, however, in which a threering circus is going full force. The contending factions include regions, ethnic communities, native peoples, stubborn populists, emotional nationalists and declining and rising industries.

This world of a hundred tugs and pulls has only one magic answer—federalism. The prime minister, as ringmaster extraordinary, has to marshal some co-ordinated high-wire act out of such low-level, self-interested politics. It is an objective devoid of any real content of its own. More solid issues such as cultural survival and foreign control of the economy are still overlaid with suspicion—residual throwbacks to that old Adam, the nation-state. Recall this triumphant sentence of the prime minister’s speech on referendum night: “We are not the last colonials on earth, but rather the first among people to free themselves from the old world of nation-states.”

These are the three official languages of the constitutional talks called, respectively, liberalism, populism and .Quebec nationalism. Can three such different languages find happiness and fulfilment in a new constitution? Why not? A new constitution is simply designed to assure individuals a measure of peace, order and good government in their own land. Right? Right.

Abraham Rotstein is a professor in the department of political economy, University of Toronto.