La nation québécoise? The Triumph of Charles Taylor
It can be a fascinating experience to have your courses deal closely with current political debates. I am currently teaching a fourth year Canadian studies seminar entitled "Nationalisms and Identities in Canada." In the first term of the course, I have assigned a number of major Canadian works on nationalism from the last four decades, including work by George Grant, Pierre Trudeau and Ramsay Cook. I had deliberately scheduled a bit of fun in the course by assigning Michael Ignatieff's The Rights Revolution for the week before the Liberal party convention. This week has proven to be a bit of a surprise, however. We're reading selections from philosopher Charles Taylor's Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism this week. For those not familiar with Taylor's work, he has long been a major advocate of some form of official recognition of Quebec as a nation in the Canadian constitution.
It is thus fascinating for me to see this concept being hotly debated over the weekend, endorsed by the Quebec wing of the Liberal party and leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff, and advocated by many prominent Quebec columnists, as noted by Paul Wells. Back in the 1960s, Taylor was promoting this approach to Quebec, as one of the leading intellectuals in the federal NDP. It was over this approach to Quebec nationalism that historian Ramsay Cook left the NDP to support the alternative approach being promoted by Pierre Trudeau.
Before leaping on Iggy's nationalist bandwagon, I think that people would do well to consider Taylor's own approach to this topic. As he noted, this demand for recognition of the Quebec "nation" in a bicultural Canada is often premised on the assumption of the existence of a counterpoint "English Canadian nation." Taylor noted in 1992 that this imposition of a collectivist nationality on English-speaking Canadians was based on faulty premises. I think it still is, and perhaps has become even more the case with the progressive entrenchment of a Charter-based (and thus individual rights discourse-based) identity in English-speaking Canada.
I believe that Bob Rae and Stéphane Dion are wise to preach caution about the merits of re-opening constitutional talks for the main purpose of writing in an official recognition of the "Quebec nation". For one thing, it begs the question of the ramifications of having the constitution speak of one nation, and remain silent on the remainder of Canada's population. For another, I'm not sure it's prudent to have our constitution be so prescriptivist on issues of identity. And for a third initial thought (recognizing that this is a blog post, and not an academic paper), I think Canadians should be cautious about constitutionally entrenching what are, to be certain, fairly recent conceptions of what constitutes a Quebec nation. There may well currently be a sociological nation of Quebec. But less than 50 years ago, the primary identity for francophone Quebeckers was as part of la nation canadienne-française, which spoke to a much larger geographical reality, and encompassed many more people in the rest of the country.
Our identity politics (and indeed our identities) continue to change and evolve over time, and this is not necessarilly a bad thing. Even if one accepts Taylor's premise that Canadian society is characterized by "deep diversity," and that our individual identities are rooted in (or derived from) broader collective cultures, I do not think that it need necessarily follow that our constitution should codify the current forms that this diversity assumes. Recommend this Post