MANY CANADIANS ARE PONDERING A POSSIBLE FUTURE IN A FRACTURED AND FRAGILE HOMELAND
MANY CANADIANS ARE PONDERING A POSSIBLE FUTURE IN A FRACTURED AND FRAGILE HOMELAND
The students in William Barazzuol’s Canadian high-school history classes call it “brainstorming.” But it is much more than that. The Grade 10 and 12 classes in Oak Bay, B.C., a suburb of Victoria, hold regular discussions about Canada’s future—during which, Barazzuol says, they vent feelings of “despair, frustration and even cynicism” about the country’s constitutional crisis. “They want Canada to continue,” the teacher adds. “They do not want it to break up.” But the students do not stop there. Like a small but growing number of Canadians, they also put their minds to building on what their teacher calls “new political realities”—includ-
ing the possibility of a Canada without Quebec. Says Barazzuol: “It’s just an automatic topic with the kids. They say that if it must happen, then perhaps it will even be good.”
For many Canadians, the concept of Canada without Quebec is unthinkable. Some, like University of Toronto historian Desmond Morton, view the prospect of the country’s separation as a real “abyss of horrors.” But no matter the point of view, there is an emerging consensus that the debate about Canada’s future without Quebec is healthy for the country as a whole. “The process of self-definition that we are going through is not a bad one,” says Maureen Covell, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, just east of Vancouver, who recently completed a 50-page study of English Canada’s future titled Thinking About the Rest of Canada. Adds Coveil: “It’s like a slap in the face when you’re going into hysterics. It’s painful, but possibly salutary.”
Most such discussions focus primarily on the question of Canada’s political viability without Quebec: would the remaining nine provinces hold together, or would English Canada fragment and possibly fall into the embrace of the United States? But the prospect of separation raises a host of other issues, as well. They include the possibility of changes to existing provincial boundaries, reforms to institutions such as the House of Commons, the Senate and the Supreme Court of Canada, and major amendments to the 1982 Constitution and international agreements like the 1989 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
In addition, the entire political complexion of the country would change. Parties with a strong Quebec base, like the Conservatives and Liberals, would likely become less of a national force in a Canada that does not include Quebec. But the New Democrats and the Reform party, neither of which can count on much support 'from Quebec, would gain in proportion to the traditional parties.
Other politicians and opinion leaders pointedly avoid speculating on Canada without Que-
bec, arguing that such discussions are, at least for the present, misplaced and wrongheaded. They point out that under a law passed last June, the Quebec government is committed to holding a provincial referendum on the province’s place in Confederation by Oct. 26—and that Canadians should avoid inflaming the debate at such a crucial time in the nation’s history. Says Daniel Drache, a political scientist at Toronto’s York University: “People talk a lot of nonsense. I think this is very low rumormongering and scare tactics. The real issue is the new relationship. There has to be a new form of association.”
For Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a Quebecer who has achieved two successive majorities partly as a result of sweeping his home province, the prospect of leading a country of only Englishspeaking provinces is clearly a political nightmare. “I really don’t have time to contemplate it,” Mulroney said at a Feb. 13 news conference in Barrie, Ont. He added: “I’m not comfortable answering that question—I’m trying to avoid that matter arising.” Indeed, the subject has re-
ceived so little official attention that there is not even a commonly agreed term in the Canadian political lexicon to describe Canada without Quebec.
For their part, many observers have resorted to the acronym TROC, short for “The Rest of Canada.” And in spite of the official silence on the issue, some analysts are beginning to actively confront the possibility of a Canada that does not include Quebec. Writes York University political scientist Reg Whitaker in a recent compendium of essays about English Canada’s future: “Would a Canada-without-Quebec be such an unthinkable alternative to an unacceptable deal made on Quebec’s terms? We have never tried it before, so we can hardly render a definitive negative judgment.” Two University of Calgary professors, historian David Bercuson and political scientist Barry Cooper, have led the chorus of those calling for a public debate about the future of English Canada—on its own. In their controversial book, Deconfederation: Canada Without Quebec, published early last year, the two men go so far as to advocate sovereignty for Quebec. “At one time, we thought Quebec and Canada could exist as a single country,” the authors write. “But no more. In simple and distinct terms, we are very much in favor of the independence of Quebec. Can we be more clear? We wish to regard Quebec as a foreign state, like Spain or Australia or Zaire or the United States.”
Bercuson and Cooper insist that Canada would not only survive but flourish once Canadians put behind them “the endless disorders caused by a large province that is skewing the real priorities of our nation.” They write that “After the separation of Quebec, Canadians will indeed want to maintain Canada,” and will “pull together in the future even more than they have in the past because they will have had ample evidence of where rampant provincialism leads.” But so far, their public musings have had the opposite effect. In an interview with Maclean ’s, Cooper acknowledged that he and Bercuson have been “vilified” in both English and French Canada for their views. “We haven’t been very popular with people who like to think that they speak for the nation,” he adds, “but crises can sometimes bring out the best in people. Canada could certainly hang together.”
That assertion has been widely challenged by observers both inside and outside Canada. Among them is Stephen Blank, director of Canadian affairs at the Americas Society, an influential New York City-based organization devoted to examining political, economic and business relationships in the Western Hemisphere. Says Blank: “My negative scenario is this: On the first day, Quebec goes. On the second day, there’s righteous indignation in the rest of Canada. On the third day, the West says that it doesn’t want to be in bed with Ontario. And on the fourth day,
Ontario says, ‘We don’t want to be in bed with these people.’ ” Adds Blank: “I don’t see it staying together. It would be a great disaster.”
In Canada, University of Montreal economist Kimon Valaskakis is among those who also publicly question English Canada’s ability to remain unified, should Quebec separate. “I think the possibility of a long-term survival is small,” he says. “What is likely to happen is that the different pieces will try to find some kind of political accommodation with the United States.”
Robert Normand, a Quebec City newspaper publisher who toured the country widely last year as a member of the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, suggests that a new Canada without Quebec would be flawed at birth in at least two important respects. Like Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947, Canada would be physically divided. The four Atlantic provinces, comprising the most economically fragile region of the country, would be geographically separated from the rest of the nation by a newly sovereign Quebec. In Pakistan’s case, the arrangement proved to be short-lived as the poorer, eastern half of the
country, citing a variety of problems such as economic discrimination, split away from the rest of Pakistan in 1971 and called itself Bangladesh. According to Normand, the same thing could happen to Atlantic Canada.
Normand and others also maintain that the disproportionate amount of power Ontario would have in any newly devised Confederation would render such a union unstable. Adds Gordon Ritchie, Canada’s former deputy trade negotiator in Ottawa and now an Ottawa-based consultant: “I can see very good reasons why Canada would not choose to reconstitute itself as one. What is the likelihood that Alberta and
British Columbia would join a country in which Ontario accounted for half the population? I can see a very distinct possibility that they would be looking to follow a separate course.” Jean-Michel Lacroix, director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at the University of Paris, agrees that the most pressing obstacle for a Canada without Quebec “would be the physical fragmentation.” Westerners, Lacroix said, “might feel more alienated and be tempted to live on their own while, I suppose, British Columbians would turn even more towards Asia and the Maritimes would be isolated.” Although Lacroix doubts that most EnglishCanadians would choose to join the United States, he cautioned that the loss of Quebec
would remove from Canada one of the principal features of its identity. He also claimed that a Canada without Quebec could lose its membership in the Group of Seven, the organization of the world’s leading industrialized nations.
Another potential problem created by the partition of Canada concerns the fate of the Free Trade Agreement. In the event of a national breakup, Ritchie says, the United States might well press to re-negotiate the pact on terms more favorable to Washington. Noted Ritchie: “I’ve never known the Americans to miss a chance to squeeze a better deal for themselves.” Given a redrawn political map north of the border, he adds, “they would have grounds.”
Other problems may be more open to solution. Ian Stewart, a political scientist at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., points to other models for English Canada besides Pakistan. “What about Alaska?” he says, noting that the northern U.S. state is cut off from the rest of the U.S. mainland by British Columbia. Declared Stewart: “Alaska works. Sure, it’s possible.” He adds that at a time when trade barriers are coming down around the world, the shipment of goods between Eastern and Western Canada “would be one of the smaller problems.”
Another option for Canada without Quebec would be to abolish provinces altogether, and instead institute a strong central government or devolve more power to local levels of authority. But for most Canadians, the challenge of remaking a nation without Quebec, regardless of its name and political context, would be a dismal undertaking. The Reform party, for one, advocates a new Canada in which, among other things, all regions are entitled to equal status. The party’s 1991 policy statement claims that if such principles are rejected, “Quebec and the rest of Canada should consider whether there exists a better political arrangement.” But even Stephen Harper, the Reform party’s policy director,
says, “We don’t view any of this as desirable— we wish we weren’t talking about it.” Adds Acadia’s Stewart: “There are likely to be substantial costs for both sides. The only winners are the divorce lawyers.”
Still, as the nation counts down to a Quebec referendum that is no more than eight months away, the prospect of a bitter national divorce will loom ever larger in the minds of Canadians. And if the world’s third-oldest surviving federation comes to an end, the concept of a Canada that does not include Quebec—unimaginable to some—might in fact become bottom-line political realism.
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