COLUMN

Ottawa only has itself to blame

If Canada had wanted to remain one nation, the use of French would have been a private matter, not an item of national policy

BARBARA AMIEL July 16 1990
COLUMN

Ottawa only has itself to blame

If Canada had wanted to remain one nation, the use of French would have been a private matter, not an item of national policy

BARBARA AMIEL July 16 1990

Ottawa only has itself to blame

COLUMN

If Canada had wanted to remain one nation, the use of French would have been a private matter, not an item of national policy

BARBARA AMIEL

In spite of the fears of some, I didn’t worry about the safety of the Queen on Canada Day, when, to quote The Globe and Mail, she “took a rare step into Canada’s great language divide, braving a bitter political climate ...” The Queen is a wise woman and has confronted a lot worse stuff than this tiresome argument between Canadian and Quebec mandarins in search of job security. All the same, the hyped-up news reports were amusing reading. “It was not the tense, dangerous scene that many have feared just one week after the death of the Meech Lake constitutional accord,” nattered The Globe and Mail’s front page. Honestly, did the reporter sitting at her terminal typing out that story really credit such fears?

In fact, the reason why Quebec may now leave Canada is the very fact that its revolution has become such a safe middle-class affair. It began as the zealous cause of radical students. The early days were all anti-capitalism, proMarxism, death-to-colonizers and bombs in letter boxes. It was the closest Canada got to having a disaffected young intelligentsia just like in a Jean-Luc Godard movie.

The first referendum on sovereignty-association rejected the concept handily. The Quebec middle classes regarded nationalism, rightly, as a movement that was in the hands of hotheaded quasi-socialists who were both violent and untrustworthy in their attitudes to making money and getting on in life. It’s not businessas-usual that we want, said those early separatists, but a left-wing socialist state. That was a threat to a stable Quebec economy, and ordinary French-Canadians marked their ballots accordingly.

Fortunately for the separatists, the English and French federalists came to their rescue. The way to solve the existence of Quebec separatism, said our federal politicians from Pierre Trudeau to Brian Mulroney, is to make all of Canada accept that Quebec should have special privileges. While many of us were rendered speechless in the face of such mon-

strous stupidity, Quebecers got the point very fast. By forcing the rest of the country to become officially bilingual and by permitting Quebec to remain officially opposed to the use of the English language, Canada created a de facto sovereignty-association status for Quebec ages ago. French separatism shed its fringe identity and became a nonthreatening middleclass movement. You can have all the advantages of being distinct, said our federalists to Quebec, without any of the disadvantages. English Canada muttered a bit, then scratched its belly and shelled out the millions this cost.

If Canada had wanted to remain one nation, the use of French would have been a private matter and never an item of national policy. The only way for nationhood to emerge is for groups to merge. Language is absolutely basic to this. The Normans conquered the Saxons and, for three centuries after 1066, English was reduced to being the language of peasants. But the making of the English nation began when English re-emerged as the national language. As the historian George Macaulay Trevelyan wrote, “There is no more romantic episode in the history of man than this underground growth and unconscious self-preparation of the despised island patois, destined ere

long to ‘burst forth into sudden blaze’ to be spoken in every quarter of the globe and to produce a literature with which only that of ancient Hellas is comparable.”

In the mid-1970s, when I was arguing against Canada’s language policies, one of Trudeau’s cabinet members sent me a report on the Swiss canton system. In an accompanying note, the cabinet minister (I simply can’t remember which one) reproved me for my assertion that our bilingual policies and a united Canada were mutually exclusive. I was unconvinced. Switzerland is a sovereignty-association and a very successful one where, as far as I can tell, no one worries much about enforcing the official trilingualism. I was in Geneva a couple of weeks ago and there was not much point in trying to speak German in that canton any more than there would be much point in trying to speak French around Zurich.

I can’t blame Quebec separatists for the wanton stupidity of our language policy. They have always said that bilingualism was not their policy: it was the aim of the Trudeau and Chrétien crowd and the whole sycophantic following of English liberals who tagged along preaching the joys of immersion courses. Stick with us, said our rapturous federalists to the French, and we will ensure that it is as easy for you to have a career in Vancouver as Montreal. The French separatists were unimpressed. They had their eye on a distinct nation and, as the years went by, the rest of Canada got more and more tired of what they regarded as having to inconvenience themselves for the French— only to be denounced and derided by them.

Human beings like their distinctiveness. In earlier times, our societies were divided by religious and class divisions. Just as they were diminishing, we discovered nationalism and then, later on, along came ideologies. The only chance a relatively new nation like Canada had to root itself was to adopt the melting-pot approach. But our politicians were entranced by the chic idea of the cultural mosaic and then multiculturalism. Soon, we had a new special interest group: all those politicians and civil servants and “human resources” whose careers depended upon the maintenance of bilingualism and multiculturalism.

In my view, the politicians’ initial support for b-and-b and multicult was as much for bad reasons as good ones. Many of our political leaders believed that their re-election was dependent upon not offending any one group. By now, running Canada seems to mean balancing the perceived special interests of groups, not according to any abstract notion of fairness or equity (which would be a good thing), but rather according to a calculation about which group must be appeased in order to beat an opponent at the polls.

So Canada may have a divorce on its hands. That is lamentable but not fatal. It would only be dangerous if the French and English became enemies, two nations hostile to one another. As it is, we may simply have our version of the European Economic Community, with Canada, Quebec and the United States living side by side as good neighbors. It’s better than being unhappy spouses, isn’t it?