Politics - Federal

Nationalism Vs. Canada

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 29, 2006

In the wake of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's controversial promise of Quebecois Nationhood, passed overwhelmingly by a cornered House of Commons, we have to ask: what does Harper really have in mind?

The concept of a Nation is a very 18-19th century idea. It's the idea of a more or less ethnically homogeneous political entity that manages its own affairs for its own interests. A Nation is by definition closed, insular, and conservative insofar as it struggles to preserve its distinct character in the face of constant exposure to different cultural values.

In other words, it's profoundly antithetical to the idea of Canada, which is a multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural political entity that takes a larger, more open approach to governance and continually reinvents itself as its culture changes and evolves.

The guiding principle in a Nation is chauvinism - deciding that one culture is better or more pure than others and maintaining a bulwark that insulates that culture from outside infiltration or dilution.

The guiding principle of Canada, by contrast, is tolerance - deciding that fundamental values of life, liberty, expression, and compassion are enough to unite a diverse citizenry that often disagrees about particular cultural issues but respects the other's right to have an opinion and to pursue various expressions of "the good".

Of course, Canada the country is an imperfect implementation of Canada the idea. The Liberals, regarded as Canada's "Natural Governing Party", have too often played off the Canadian idea simply to stay in power rather than to advance its principles in a meaningful way.

This seems particularly true of Paul Martin, a singularly opportunistic politician who failed either to throw off the weight of his big business entanglements or to back up his big talk about integrity and effectiveness with real action.

This caught up with the Liberals last January when voters threw them out in favour of the Harper Conservatives, who benefited mainly from being in the right place at the right time and having the good sense to prepare for leadership and present a moderate face to voters.

Still, it's no surprise that the Harper Conservatives have now decided to champion Quebec Nationhood. It plays into their profoundly conservative belief that Canada is not a real country and exists only because of Big-Government meddling (think of the east-west railroad as a countervail to the "natural" north-south economic imperative).

Further, it supports the Conservative (big-C) tactic of devolving powers to lower levels of government that have less tax powers and are therefore more constrained by markets and private interests. In the US this is called "states' rights"; the Canadian flavour taps into our unique bi-lingual and multi-cultural traditions to produce the same outcome.

Finally, it opens a constitutional can of worms that stokes Western alienation and gives hope to those Westerners - among whom we must count Harper himself - who want to "build a firewall" around oil-rich Alberta and assert a kind of nationhood there as well.

In other words, it serves Harper's ultimate goal of making the idea of Canada too dysfunctional to persist, even once he is out of power.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By (anonymous) | Posted November 29, 2006 at 12:45:40

Some questions:

1. If Canada is truly multinational, as McGreal writes, then why the problem with naming one of those nations?

2. Much like white people don't think they have a colour, and men don't think they have a gender, does McGreal think that Canadian nationalism does not exist?

3. Is nationalism truly about chauvinism? Or does it provide the shared horizon required for democracy to work at the level of the nation-state? Is it not in fact a horizon of meaning intervening between the individual and the universal?

4. If the guiding principle of Canada is truly tolerance, as McGreal writes, then why can we not tolerate a democratic discussion about the contours of our political community, including longstanding claims by Quebecers that they form a nation within Canada?

In short, when I look at this very typical attack on the recognition of Quebec, which vaunts the open-ness to diversity of Canada, what I see is in fact that this open-ness is thin and limited to the question of multiculturalism, and is in fact quite intolerant and unwilling to consider other diversities, such as those of nationality. As the Canadian philosopher James Tully has argued, one condition of freedom in our complex society is a willingness to recognize the identities of others, and to engage in a respectful dialogue about the nature of the political community.

I share next to no political values with Stephen Harper, but I respect his willingness and his guts to recognize that Canadian democracy requires a need for ongoing dialogue and debate about what we are. The Quebec issue, like the aboriginal question, cannot be solved once and for all with a magical formula. Yet, we will be neighbours forever, and so it seems to me to be preferable to maintain a dialogue, rather than refusing to listen to the other.

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By quebecer (anonymous) | Posted November 29, 2006 at 14:02:03

You want to know Quebec's "willingness to recognize the identities of others"? Bill 101 and bill 178. Take that, Jim Tully!

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By markwhittle (registered) - website | Posted November 29, 2006 at 15:24:26

I find it quite a giggle that Ryan would refer to his political principles instead of his ideological, or illogical principles.

Canada is a Corporation of the Monarchy created by the Kings Decree. That is our founding document, not Trudeau's bastard child he half-heartedly repatriated leaving the job half done.

Back then there were four nations, still are last time I checked. Quebec was one of them.

The King made a deal with the Aboriginal Mohawks who had a nasty habit of slaughtering any white man who landed on their shores.

The hatchet was buried under the tree of peace and the League of Nations was born.

The rest they say is history.

Once immigration was allowed that's when the trouble started with the Aboriginals and continues today.

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By (anonymous) | Posted November 29, 2006 at 22:06:16

Funny thing about 101 and 178 Quebecer... its that they are both constitutional under the Charter as they currently stand. The law is most constraining on francophones and immigrants due to the education provisions. I think when a majority is hardest on itself in these matters, it is a sign of maturity. But I can understand the bitterness, since it is hard to go from seeing oneself as the majority to recognizing that one is the minority, and to have that privilege usurped, even if democratically. In the decade I spent in Montreal, I met many anglos living in a past of resentment, longing for the days that St. James street ruled the province. I could never relate. I shared their language, but not the chip on their shoulders.

Is Harper's vision quite as radical as Jason suggests. Probably not. is his decentralist view consistent with the Canadian majority. Almost certainly not. But opening a dialogue on the nation may be helpful even for those opposed, because it opens the possibility of asymmetry, where we might have more possibliity of doing more things in common through the federal government if we recognized that Quebec might want to go about doing it in a different manner. In short, rather than having the will of the Canadian majority blocked by Quebec's legitimate insistence that its constitutional autonomy be respected, we could move forward on a number of issues by working in solidarity, but separately. Take parental leaves... the fact of reaching a deal with Quebec to allow them to set up a separate system now gives the rest of us a model to push for in the rest of the country, in order to replace the crappy system we have under EI.

I agree that the Quebec nation is complex and diverse and contested. Just like all nations. Its not as if we have stopped debating the contours and limits of the Canadian nation... just raise the question of the burkha and the kirpan in any gathering, and we can observe the complex, diverse and contested nature of defining who is and what is Canadian.

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By historian (anonymous) | Posted October 16, 2007 at 12:44:53

I think it is all verry interesting but i would rather talk about the fights and wars of nationalism

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