The old fight has been won, writes Liberal leadership candidate KEN DRYDEN. Now it’s time for both sides in the national unity debate to embrace the global future—together.
If I had grown up as a francophone in Quebec, when I would have been old enough to resent, I would have resented. I would have resented the power in my life being in someone else’s hands. I would have been doubly proud of every special deed done by a francophone Quebecer. When I would have been old enough to do something about my place, my language, my life, I would have tried.
What I can’t know is how I would have tried: as a federalist or a sovereigntist.
The question, I think, for Quebecers, for all of us, now and always, is: are we better together? Do we have a story together?
I grew up in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. In school, we learned about the history of Canada, about the French and English, the founding of Quebec City, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. We didn’t learn much about life in Quebec, what it was like dayto-day, living in French on an English-speaking continent.
It seemed that Quebec was just like us—except for language, which made it seem really different. Later (disappointedly), we would learn that Quebec was bigger than Ontario, and (proudly) that Arvida had the biggest aluminum plant in the world.
We also learned that Montreal was bigger than Toronto, and that (very disappointedly) it would get Expo 67 and we didn’t; it would get the Expos and we didn’t.
But mostly, for us, Quebec was the Canadiens, this great team that almost always won.
They looked different to us as kids—they looked French.
When the players came off the ice, their trainers put white towels around their necks (no others did). The “e” rather than the “a” in their name.
And their players—Jacques
Plante, who wandered out of his net and wore a mask. And the Rocket. In schoolyard arguments about who was better, Rocket Richard or Gordie Howe, I always took Howe. All Richard could do was score, I’d say. Even then, I knew I was missing something. It
wasn’t until later that I discovered what.
I had very little other connection with Quebec. Then, in 1970,1 signed a contract with the Canadiens. My wife and I arrived in Montreal that September, just after our honeymoon. We were 23. On our first afternoon, we walked down Ste. Catherine Street, saw a familiar name, and went into Toe Blake’s Tavern. People started yelling. Then someone told us that women weren’t allowed in taverns in Quebec. We had a lot to learn.
A month later, tanks were on the streets— it was the October Crisis. Nine months later, I was again going down Ste. Catherine Streetin a parade with the Stanley Cup. On Nov. 15, 1976, we played at the Forum against the St. Louis Blues—while across town at Paul Sauvé Arena, René Lévesque and the PQ were celebrating their victory.
It was an exciting, formative time. What was so special about Quebec was a pride you could feel everywhere. I love being around believers, and Quebec in the 1970s was a province of believers—in a separate Quebec; in a united Canada. This was the pride of people fighting for something. And it was never a question of who was prouder in being a Quebecer—sovereigntist or federalist—though it sometimes seemed that way. It was about on what side of the political divide you put yourself to express that pride best.
Pride was what the Rocket was all about. Jean Béliveau, the other great Canadiens star of their time, was elegant, majesterial, the face of Quebec that English Canadians admired. Richard was so driven, so uncompromising, so defiant, so dangerous—those eyes. He was the face of Quebec that English Canadians didn’t trust. Later, Richard would become the perfect symbol of the “Oui” side. He had been a hero to many of Quebec’s sovereigntist leaders. Yet if English Canada had understood him, he would have been the perfect symbol of the “Non” side: fiercely proud, determined to be what he was, never taking a backwards step, always a Quebecer and always a Canadian.
It was the Quebec of the Rocket that I discovered in my years in Montreal. Today, in how I look at pride and difference and similarity, in how I look at this country, I realize how much of that Quebec is still in me. It is a big part of the reason why I’m in this leadership race.
To me, the future of the Canada-Quebec relationship doesn’t rest with fiscal imbalance; nor the spin and rancour emanating out of differing definitions of whether Quebec is a nation. It has to do with whether there is a common story that can make us collectively proud. Not an enlightened elite story, but a common story inside the belly of the average person in Red Deer and Sorel.
What is the Canada story?
We started as two commu-
nities side by side, with different languages, cultures, religions and laws. We had to live with each other, so we did. We created a nation—more than a century later, Canada is an immensely successful country by almost any measure. And we are a true global country, with an unimaginable mix of peoples, languages, religions. Because of our French and English history, we created institutions and developed understandings that have allowed differences to thrive. We have evolved a “live and let live” attitude that allows a bilingual country to work.
We didn’t set out to do this. It happened because of our Canadian experience. We have shaped each other, sometimes because of each other, sometimes in spite of each other, but together we have created something unique in the world. It is an achievement and a story that can make us all—those in Red Deer, Sorel, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver—stand a little straighten It’s also a story that works for those who do not speak English or French as their first language, who sometimes resent our FrenchEnglish preoccupations. Yet our preoccu-
‘WE HAVE SHAPED EACH OTHERSOMETIMES IN SPITE OF EACH OTHER. TOGETHER, WE HAVE CREATED SOMETHING UNIQUE/
pation is not just about language. It is about the Canadian story, of how we got here as a country. Of why immigrants choose Canada and why they love it here. To those immigrants: be grateful for that French-speaking community in Quebec that has fought so hard to be what it is. They didn’t know it, but they were also fighting for you. This “live and let live” society we have created is what allows a multicultural country to work. This is a story all Canadians can understand.
The sovereigntist might argue, okay, maybe, but even if I accept what you say, it’s the
past. We’ve done it. It’s already in us. Now we can go our separate ways.
Except this isn’t about the past. Resentment is about the past. Fighting the Canada fight, as federalists have, on the basis of dollars and cents and fear of change, is about the past. And a Canada and a Quebec that focus on each other is also about the past. This is about us in the world. This is about the future.
What defined us historically was difference, the difference of language, of culture and custom, and with that came disconnection, alienation, divide. The “Two Solitudes.” So long as difference is the framework in which Quebecers see themselves, in which the elites fight their fight, the Canada-Quebec relationship will never evolve. But it has evolved—the elites, the official “definers,” just haven’t noticed. What defines our relationship now is commonality, the common-
ality of outlook and attitude, the commonality of shared experience.
I hate official “definers.” They take over language. They force you to one side or another, force a choice. Their choice. Are you this, or are you that? They define you.
Is Quebec a “nation”? To me, this isn’t about a legal definition. It’s about what as a Quebecer you feel yourself to be. And if that’s what you feel, that’s what you are. If that helps to make you the best of what you are, that’s great for you and it’s great for Canada. Just so long as the official “definers”
don’t make you think you can’t be part of Canada as well. You are. Because just as Canada has been shaped by Quebec, so has Quebec been shaped by Canada.
Is there a “fiscal imbalance”? Sure—that is a natural outcome of the federal and provincial and territorial governments having different powers. At different times, the exercise of those powers is more or less expensive to each. In 1867, publicly funded education and health were neither very important nor costly. Not today. Each province and territory also has its own priorities. Quebec values early learning and child care, spending far more
on it than any other province, changing Quebec’s fiscal circumstances.
On “fiscal imbalance” defined this way, as a federal government, you work with the provinces and territories, you adapt, you help make the federation work. It is your constitutional responsibility to see that every province and territory can provide for its citizens reasonably comparable public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation. Federal money balances things out. Circumstances and priorities change. Equalization and territorial formula financing need to change, to strike the right balance.
Is there a “fiscal imbalance” as defined by the official “definers”? That’s a different question. To them, fiscal imbalance keeps money in a patronizing federal government’s hands to parcel out for its priorities, interfering in others’ jurisdiction. To this question, the answer is “no.”
As prime minister, I would deal with the provinces and territories as I did when I was minister of social development negotiating child care agreements. Quebec had invested in child care far more and far earlier than any other province. Should Que-
bec need to make child care the same priority as the other provinces? When the other provinces had made roads or public safety their priorities and Quebec didn’t, why shouldn’t Quebec now have the right to spend its money on new priorities? So Quebec said it would spend its new funds on the well-being of children and families. This is a federation. It works together to work. But it only really works with a big, common understanding of itself.
I think, truly, we don’t know what a great country we, all of us together, have created. I think, truly, we don’t know how good we
have been for each other. But we had better know soon. Countries become what they think they are.
The old fight has been won. Quebec’s culture is surviving and will continue to survive. It is possible to be different and the same at the same time. It is time to win what’s next, not to keep winning what has already been won. And what’s next is the global world of our future. It is a source of great anxiety, but what we’ve got going into that future is what’s in us—our learning, our experiences, our understandings and attitudes that have come from our French and English beginnings and struggles. It is what the world needs from us; what we need to succeed in the world. Once Quebecers needed to fight the past to win the present. Now they, we, must engage the future.
As much as we drive each other crazy at times, we’re good for each other. All of us today are struggling with how to make a borderless, global world work. Canada has moved down this path more successfully than anyone else. The rest of the world is watching. We don’t have a right to fail.
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