The Referendum Debate

What secessionists don’t understand is that even if they win, they lose

John Crispo January 9 1978
The Referendum Debate

What secessionists don’t understand is that even if they win, they lose

John Crispo January 9 1978

What secessionists don’t understand is that even if they win, they lose

The Referendum Debate

John Crispo

It will be ironic, to say the least, if the separatist cause proves to undermine rather than enhance the legitimate aspirations of French Canadians. Yet that is precisely what could happen if Quebec should decide to go its own way. Within Canada it may not just be the French-Canadian culture and language that are at stake. It could be the entire socioeconomic-political system.

It is the thesis of this commentary that the rest of Canada will not survive as an entity if Quebec should secede. Instead, led by either Alberta or the Maritimes, there would be a movement to join the United States. Ontario would doubtless resist such a movement the longest but even it would have to go along eventually.

The net result would be United States of America surrounding a relatively insignificant French-Canadian enclave in its northeast corner. Anyone—separatist or otherwise— who thinks that Quebec would be better off than now under these circumstances is just plain naive.

That there are such individuals is hardly surprising given the depth and the intensity of the feelings that lie behind the separatist cause. Separatism is basically a nationalistic and therefore emotional phenomenon. It reflects the desperate feeling of a minority that is convinced that its future is threatened. It feeds on fears of a further decline in the group’s relative numerical strength and thrives on examples of discrimination especially in the economic sphere.

Fortunately most English Canadians still seem to have a large residue of goodwill toward Quebec. This has led to a mixture of bewilderment, sympathy, tolerance and understanding. How long these attitudes will persist is questionable.

The nature and tone of the debate over separatism is not that encouraging. The ultimate aim of the separatists is complete independence or political sovereignty within some sort of economic association. They blithely talk about the latter as if it could be easily worked out. In contrast, key leaders in Ontario and Alberta and elsewhere have tried to dismiss this possibility. The problem is that the debate is bound to become more emotional and irrational as the date for Quebec’s referendum on separation approaches.

It is a sad—indeed tragic—commentary on the present state of the country that the

case of Confederation is not being effectively made from within Quebec. At the very least this means that the separatists will gain a substantial minority vote in their referendum. As a result uncertainty will continue to plague Quebec even more so than Canada as a whole. Which way this uncertainty cuts in terms of subsequent initiatives in favor of separation remains to be seen. It hardly bodes well for the economic outlook in Quebec which is already extremely bearish. The question could

thus become one of how harder times, including more unemployment, will affect French-Canadian attitudes.

Because the risks of separation are not to be minimized it is important to speculate on the results. Canada has always been a difficult entity to maintain. It is riddled with regional disparities and separatist tendencies which extend far beyond the borders of Quebec. Moreover, it has never made much sense economically, a fact of life that would become more pronounced if, as and when an attempt was made to forge an economic association between Quebec and the remainder of the country.

Quebec’s departure might temporarily strengthen the bonds of unity in the remainder of the country but not for long. Soon thereafter some provinces or regions would begin to think more of their natural north-south ties than their artificial eastwest ones. Canadians have worried throughout their history about the United

States’ so-called manifest destiny. Indeed, the only durable form of Canadian nationalism has been based on anti-Americanism. All of this could change in quick order if Quebec pulls out. Instead of worrying about an American take-over, English Canadians could suddenly find themselves wondering about U.S. willingness to pick up the pieces. The very thought of this should give all Canadians and especially French Canadians, including the most radical separatists, cause for reconsidering their positions. It’s ludicrous to think that Quebec’s culture and language-let alone its overall socioeconomic-political position—would be better protected when virtually totally surrounded by an enlarged United States of America. At most Quebec would then be tolerated as a quaint French-Canadian cultural and linguistic retreat for tourists supplemented by a few branch plant operations tied to its key resources. It would be even more haunted by the surrounding English-speaking majority than it is today.

The challenge is obvious for all but those who would not find it that unattractive to be absorbed into the United States. Both language rights and federal-provincial power sharing must be reassessed in Canada if the country is to remain united. English should remain the basic language in the rest of Canada with as many people persuaded to learn French as possible. Quebec should be able to insist on French as its primary, if not exclusive language.

One is bound to have even more qualms about any further devolution of power in Canada. The country already has a highly decentralized and fragmented federalprovincial system which makes coordination of policies a paramount concern. Nonetheless some further decentralization and fragmentation, particularly in the field of social security, may still be feasible without making the country completely unmanageable from a fiscal and monetary point of view.

The realist cannot feel that optimistic about the future of Confederation. Yet men of goodwill on both sides of the separatist chasm may still be able to find an accommodation. If nothing else, fear of absorption by the United States should galvanize such men into actionjust as it has so often in the past.

John Crispo is a professor of industrial relations at the University of Toronto.