Monday, November 27, 2006

Actions speak louder than resolutions

For those keeping score - and I use that term advisedly - Gerard Kennedy is set to announce his opposition to the Harper resolution recognizing that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada. I say "keeping score", because our politicians still seem to be treating their treatment of Quebec (or Québécois) nationhood as a political football to be kicked around for short-term gain. It is this treatment of the issue, at least as much as its content, which has worried me.

My colleague, Andrew Nurse has beaten me to the punch with his more scholarly treatment of the nationhood debate. Although Andrew doesn't name him directly, he is referring to Benedict Anderson's seminal work on nationalism - referring to nations as "Imagined Communities" which are voluntary communities, more often than not stateless, of people who consider themselves to be a nation. Applied to the Canadian situation, the Québécois people, or Quebeckers who consider themselves to form a nation do, simply as a matter of self-identification. No resolution in Parliament will change that fact. In the realm of semantic games then, or the politics of recognition, to use a more lofty phrase of Charles Taylor, the Parliamentary resolution could be considered to be Parliament expressing its recognition of a sociological reality, and an act of self-definition. One might take the argument further and argue that this effectively changes nothing, and might even be a positive step indicating that English-speaking Canadians recognize how many Quebeckers feel about their identities.

But here's the problem. For a large number of Quebec nationalists, this type of resolution is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of their demands, and acceptance of this resolution will do almost nothing to end this debate. What most separatists, and many soft nationalists, actually want is a wholesale devolution of powers from Ottawa to the Quebec state, and an unfettered right to use the Quebec state for nationalist objectives. To wit, if we look at the Meech Lake Accord round of constitutional talks, a Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) was handed down in the middle of the ratification process in 1988. The Supreme Court struck down the Charter's provisions requiring French-only signs. Premier Robert Bourassa re-passed legislation on commercial signage, invoking the notwithstanding clause to do so. It is notable that at the time that Bourasse said that if the "distinct society" clause of Meech was already in operation, there would be no need to invoke the notwithstanding clause - Quebec would have the right to pass laws restricting the use of English as part-and-parcel of being a distinct society. (And for those who are wondering, this does roughly coincide with the implosion of that Accord, at least as much as Trudeau's denunciation of it). What was sold in English Canada as being little more than a nice turn of phrase was revealed for having the real power that it might, and the popularity of the Accord plummetted.

What I am getting at here is that "nice" words of recognition like "distinct society" (which passed through Parliament in 1995) aren't enough for nationalists. Without real power/influence stemming from them, they count for nothing. And so we can count on a resurgence of demands for some form of constitutional entrenchment of this Parliamentary resolution - which is when these pretty words would begin to have some constitutional oomph (to use the technical term).

In rationalizing his acceptance of the resolution, Stephane Dion has apparently stated that he would also find resolutions acceptable which recognized First Nations as nations, or Acadians as a nation, or French Canadians as a nation, etc. There are many who like this approach of considering Canada as a country that contains many nations working together. You will, however, note, that the resolution being proposed has not been amended to include all of these other "nations" - or even a Canadian nation, which has as much sociological/historic validity as a Québécois one if we are talking about self-definition. The fact that noone is actually putting such a resolution forth concerns me. The politics of recognition should be mutual and diverse. What we have right now is a unilateral resolution recognizing only one group, which to my mind is only going to further divisions, feelings of non-recognition, and further conflict in the politics of Canadian identity. If Parliament is going to follow this fool-hardy path, I'd at least like to see other MPs put forth the other resolutions that Dion proposed, and have them pass Parliament, and maybe even have Jean Charest (one of the chief negotiators in the final days of Meech, in case anyone has forgotten) pass a resolution through the National Assembly recognizing the united Canadian nation of which Quebec is an integral part (or some wording to that effect).

We may also come to the point where it is felt necessary to re-open the constitution, and re-allocate jurisdictions between Ottawa and the provinces. If this is to happen though, this must be part of an open process. Significant constitutional reforms should not slide in through the back door as the result of parliamentary gamesmanship.

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