THE NATION’S BUSINESS

A country of many cultures and flavors

Collapse of the two-nation theory has moved the referendum to new ground. Canada now is a land with a common past but no common history.

Peter C. Newman July 24 1995
THE NATION’S BUSINESS

A country of many cultures and flavors

Collapse of the two-nation theory has moved the referendum to new ground. Canada now is a land with a common past but no common history.

Peter C. Newman July 24 1995

A country of many cultures and flavors

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

PETER C. NEWMAN

Collapse of the two-nation theory has moved the referendum to new ground. Canada now is a land with a common past but no common history.

Jacques Parizeau’s most charming habit as a politician has always been his proclivity for having one of his feet firmly planted in his mouth. Last week, he had them both jammed in his jaw, when it was reported that in a private session with European ambassadors in Ottawa, he compared the plight of Quebecers after a “Yes” vote on the referendum to lobsters in a pot.

Whether the pot was a trap at sea, as some diplomats who were there maintain, or a kitchen boiler, as others who heard him reported, makes no difference to the metaphor. All that matters is whether the lobsters will behave like typical Canadians—and typical lobsters—by dragging fellow crustaceans that try to escape back into the boiling pot.

All of the worry and attention about the coming referendum has so far been focused on what’s been happening in Quebec. But the referendum itself, and the dilemma that makes it necessary, reflects equally what has taken place in the rest of the country. As far as Canadians outside Quebec are concerned, the notion—so dear to French Canada’s nationalists—of this country being the home of two founding nations is a dead duck. For that idea to have remained valid required not only Quebec to have a distinct society, but the rest of Canada as well.

Instead, Canada has turned into a multicultural country, not by government edict or sociological hocus-pocus, but as a fact visible to anyone walking down just about any Canadian street.

When I first arrived here, from Czechoslovakia in 1940, we lived immersed—or more accurately, drowned—in a world dominated by White Anglo Saxon Protestants. Toronto was bicultural then, British and Irish; except for the bankers, who were Scottish.

That’s why I don’t subscribe to the benevolent notion of the country as a “cultural mosaic,” which was supposed to differentiate Canada from the American melting pot. That

was never the Canadian way. The nation’s ethnic infrastructure was set in place during the first decade of this century, when a million immigrants chose the western plains to make a new life. It had been a perfect arrangement: the WASPs got in on the kill of the construction and manufacturing booms in the heartland, while us honkies were patronizingly allowed to maintain our cultures—just so long as we kept it to ourselves. Newcomers were expected to break the soil, do the dirty jobs, and folk dance on Dominion Days. That point of view was most brutally articulated by former Trudeau cabinet minister Bryce Mackasey as recently as 1978. “Where?” he demanded during a speech defending the country’s immigration policy, “Where would we be without the Italians, the Czechoslovaks and the Portuguese, the Greeks and Lebanese? Who would do the dirty work, and dig the subways, mine the mines, sweep the floors... ?” Sheer numbers muted such prejudice. But now, no ethnic or linguistic flavor dominates the Canadian Stew. During the past two decades, three million immigrants, mostly from Asia, Africa, and other non-white continents, have arrived on Canada’s shores.

The fact that the members of Canada’s founding societies are no longer in the ascendancy means that a new and radically different country has been created.

The politically correct notion of Canada as the home of two nations has outlived reality. Only die-hard constitutional reformers still maintain that one society (Quebec) is distinct while the other, by default, is indistinct. To politicians outside Quebec, such a “two nations” theory has always been a sociological phenomenon which meant not very much except that it gave legitimacy to their constitutional initiatives; to Quebec nationalists, it meant everything. To have your own language and culture recognized meant being a proud people instead of a marginal tribe with curious ethnological affinities. “Quebec sovereignty is not about resentment against English Canada,” Lucien Bouchard, separatism’s most articulate proponent, kept insisting. “It’s about two nations which need to go their own way politically to give themselves the kind of society they both need and deserve.”

It was a wonderful dream, that Canada with two founding nations would calmly evolve toward the 21st century. It was a wonderful dream, but it no longer reflects what Canada has become. The wisest comment I’ve heard on the issue came a while ago from Dr. Vivian Rakoff, chairman of the University of Toronto’s psychiatry department: “Nobody any longer can dwell inside a zoological garden in which you preserve yourself as a species unaffected by changes in ecology. We’re all blood brothers now.”

Equality of treatment, which became the great cause of the 1990s, is plainly incompatible with any form of officially sanctioned privilege based on language, ethnicity or length of tenure. The time has come to acknowledge that liberalism and tribalism are terminally incompatible.

The collapse of the legitimacy of the twonation theory outside Quebec has moved debate on Canada’s future to new ground. Deprived of its founding myth, Canada has become a land with a common past but no common history.

Resolution of this troublesome new factor is at the heart of the Quebec referendum: if Canada has truly abandoned its historical raison d’être for being one country, should it become two?

Inflammatory rhetoric aside, Quebec’s position can be reduced to the francophone fear that when communities are integrated, individuals are assimilated—so that only political independence (or something close to it) can guarantee the long-term survival of Quebec’s language and distinctive way of life. The problem is how to grant Quebec control over its destiny without wrecking Canada in the process—how to create two “nations” and still have one country.

Canada’s constitutional optimists—myself among them—have always comforted themselves with the notion that this country takes a lot of killing. That questionable aphorism is about to be tested, once and for all.