The Referendum Debate

If Confederation is indeed doomed, blame those who perverted its meaning

George Woodcock December 26 1977
The Referendum Debate

If Confederation is indeed doomed, blame those who perverted its meaning

George Woodcock December 26 1977

If Confederation is indeed doomed, blame those who perverted its meaning

The Referendum Debate

George Woodcock

When the Parti Québécois first achieved its election victory, many of us in the West— and many people in the Maritimes as well—were elated. Not that we wanted to see Quebec separate from Canada. Far to the contrary. But we did hope—over optimistically as it turned out—that such an event would force the pseudo-federalists in Ottawa to recognize at last that Canada is historically and geographically incapable of being molded into a centralized nation-state of the kind that is now proving

unviable even in Europe, its place of origin. We felt that Trudeau and his associates must at last recognize not only the legitimate cultural and political aspirations of Quebec, but also those of other parts of Canada outside the TorontoMontreal axis.

We were disappointed. In Canada the old saying that “In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king” has to be reversed; here the one-eyed are ruled by the blind, and the government continues to be bemused by the strange illusion that a token biculturalism will satisfy the burning resentments of Quebec, and that the resentments of other Canadian regions can go unrecognized and unsatisfied.

Harder to take has been the

equal blindness of many central Canadian intellectuals and opinion-leaders, who are sincerely dedicated to the idea of Canadian unity but still see the problem in terms of the two-way French-English confrontation sustained with such echoing bombast by those rival devotees of the outdated nation-state, Messieurs Trudeau and Lévesque.

An example of this attitude was a Maclean’s column (September 19) in which Abraham Rotstein presented the aims of the Committee for a New Constitution of which he and many other Canadians I respect are members. The manifesto of the committee contained the following points; the right of Quebec to choose its own constitutional future; the parallel right of English-speaking Canada to define its priorities, determine its constitutional features, and protect its own legitimate interests; the obligation of both communities to conduct negotiations in a spirit of goodwill aimed at mutual accord.

Like a number of Maritimers and of other Westerners, I was asked to sign this

manifesto. Reluctantly we refused, because for us it perpetuated one of the great impediments to any kind of real unity in Canada by failing to represent the point of view of the English-speaking extremities of Canada.

The illusion from which both the Ottawa government and people like the Committee for a New Constitution suffer is the assumption that “English-speaking Canada” is a homogenous bloc that has the same “priorities” and “legitimate inter-

ests,” and can sit down to discuss the future of northern North America with an equally homogenous block known as Quebec. Even Quebec, of course, is not itself homogenous. It cannot wish away its English, Jewish, Greek, Italian, Indian and Inuit minorities. Nor can it speak for all Canadian francophones, since the Acadians and the French speakers of the Prairies have priorities and legitimate interests quite different from those the PQ presents.

But English-speaking Canada is even less a homogenous entity than Frenchspeaking Canada, and to conceive it as such will in my view not only imperil any possible dialogue with Quebec, but will also destroy the chance of Canada surviving without Quebec.

The fact is that there is not one undifferentiated English-speaking Canada with Toronto as its mystic centre. There are the Maritimes, with their common and individual traditions, and their deep and justified grievances about the havoc Confederation has wrought among them.

There are the Prairie provinces, largely non-French and non-English by tradition, and economically deprived because of antique tariff and transport policies that favor central Canadian interests. There is British Columbia, a land of its own, culturally active and strongly linked with the Orient and the American West Coast. There is also the North, more than any other region a surviving heritage of the aboriginal peoples.

If we foresee a debate with Quebec, it is

obvious that any attempt to negotiate between two blocs, one of which is almost three times as populous and several times as prosperous as the other, is bound to arouse fears of renewed domination that will doom it from the start. Quebec will understandably decide on departure as the safest way out. On the other hand, a debate between Quebec and several autonomous English-speaking Canadas might weave a network of common interests between equal partners that would allow us to work out a new kind of confederation capable of retaining Quebec in our midst.

If Quebec goes, the dangers of viewing English-speaking Canada as a single bloc are equally strong. Ontario will re-

main the industrial centre, with the largest population. On the other hand, the strength of the other regions in relation to Ontario will increase with the departure of Quebec, and they are unlikely to be content with a nation-state dominated by the rump of the old central Canada. They will demand a greater say in affairs, greater autonomy, and if they do not get it they will make their own arrangements with the external world and Canada will cease to exist.

It is time Canadians recognized that the Liberal politicians and the high officials in Ottawa who glibly present themselves as federalists are lying. They are not federalists. They are either cynical builders of bureaucratic empires, or adherents of an obsolete concept of the nation-state. Confederation, by any true definition, is a free league of equal and autonomous partners; if our Confederation had been that from the beginning, it would not now face such urgent perils.

George Woodcock is a Vancouver-based writer, lecturer, critic and man of letters.