When the final edition of the Book of Canada is written, in some distant future, 2007 might well be remembered as the year that the country even pretending to be a proper federation and began functioning along principles more akin to organized crime.
What distinguishes organized crime from the more common, unorganized, kind is that it looks and acts in many ways like a government. It exercises a form of sovereignty over a given swath of the economy, flourishing in places or markets where the government is unable or unwilling to go—such as the loading docks of ports, or illegal establishments for gambling, prostitution and drugs. Most importantly, organized crime can only prosper when it is tolerated or even supported by the people, who don’t trust the legitimate authorities and who value the security and services the mob provides.
Which brings us to the current state of federal-provincial relations and the commotion caused by Bill 195, better known as the Quebec Identity Act. Introduced by the Parti Québécois, the bill calls for the drafting of a provincial constitution and the creation of a form of Quebec citizenship that would require immigrants to the province to learn French and demonstrate an appropriate appreciation of Quebec history and culture. Those who fail to do so would be all but disenfranchised—barred from holding public office, raising funds for political parties, or petitioning the legislature.
Everyone agrees that the bill has zero chance of becoming law; even if Jean Charest or Mario Dumont had any interest in supporting it, the Supreme Court of Canada would strike it down as unconstitutional. Indeed, Bill 195 has been derided by commentators inside Quebec as an entirely political gambit, aimed at re-establishing the languishing PQ as the chief defender of the
Out in the ROC, the reaction has been just as dismissive, with added hysteria. In the rush to condemn the PQ, the English-speaking media has tripped over itself trying to come up with sufficiently hyperbolic adjectives. Divisive you say? I’ll see you one racist, and raise you a xenophobic.
Sure. But before we conclude that this is just another fat tributary from the fountainhead of Québécois racism, it’s worth asking why anyone might have thought Bill 195 was a good idea in the first place, and why it has the support of 52 per cent of French-speaking Quebecers.
Stephen Harper probably thought he was being frightfully clever last November, when
Separatism, like organized crime, flourishes in places the government is unwilling to go
he had the House of Commons pass a resolution affirming that “the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.” The deliberate use of the term “Québécois” in the English version of the resolution was so scientifically misleading that it had the desired effect of laying a thick curtain of smoke across the entire field of debate. Did it mean the Quebec state was an ethnic, but not a civic nation? Or did it mean French-speaking Quebecers formed some sort of “sociological” nation within the Canadian state? Who could tell?
However unspecific Harper’s actual intent was, though, the way it was interpreted within Quebec was entirely predictable. Not only had the federal government finally confirmed what most Quebecers had long known—that they formed a nation—but the emphasis on the “Québécois” could not but imply that this newly recognized nation was l) French-speaking, 2) based entirely in Quebec, and 3) none of Ottawa’s concern or responsibility.
It is precisely to avoid this kind of consti-
tutional gangsterism that, when Quebec nationalism first showed signs of posing a serious threat to the country, the federal Liberals under Pierre Trudeau launched a panCanadian nation-building project, centred on the federal government. Beginning with the Official Languages Act of 1969, they sought to reinvent Canada as a bilingual country, with Ottawa as both guarantor and defender of both aspects of that duality.
Despite what you’ll read in the right-wing precincts of the Canadian op-ed pages, this wasn’t some aimless hippie-era fugue. When Trudeau declared that “le Canada sera bilingue ou il ne sera pas” (“Canada will be bilingual or it will not be”), he wasn’t engaging in starry-eyed Trudeaupianism. Trudeau knew that the feds would always lose the romantic battle of flags, symbols, and songs, and he was simply making a clear-eyed prediction of what would happen if the provincial government in Quebec City was allowed to displace Ottawa as the defender of last resort of the interests of French-speaking Quebecers.
That is more or less what has happened now. You can give this Québécois nation whatever ‘ethnic” or “sociological” spin you like, but the fact remains that the members of this nation now have no choice but to look
to Quebec City and only to Quebec City for protection of their rights and interests. Ultimately, this nation will want its own constitution and a reasonable facsimile of citizenship. Bill 195 may be a bit too much a bit too soon, but it doesn’t take a weatherman to see which way the flags are blowing. Since the provincial Liberals, the ADQ, and the PQ differ only in the degree of their nationalism, it is only a matter of time before they hit upon a formula for Quebec citizenship they can all agree on.
And when they do, it will hardly matter that the proposal is “unconstitutional.” When it comes to Quebec, Ottawa is like the municipal police force that is too afraid to go into the crime-ridden parts of the city because it is too dangerous. And there is no such thing as a political vacuum. So where the legitimate authority won’t go the province will be more than happy to step in. With the full and enthusiastic support of the people. Nl
ON THE WEB: For more Andrew Potter, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/andrewpotter
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