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.
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