Sunday, March 22, 2009

André Pratte, ed. Reconquering Canada: Quebec Federalists Speak Up for Change

I finished reading Reconquering Canada a few weeks ago, and have been slow to get a full review posted. As I mentioned in this earlier post, the translation work by Patrick Watson is spotty. Indeed, editor Pratte might have done well to proofread the translation of his own essay, which contains the following clunker in the English version:

No one other than Louis-Joseph Papineau termed the French regime an “arbitrary and aggressive government and declared that under the English “the rule of law had given way to violence.”

This seems like an odd passage to include in what is otherwise a generally pro-Canada piece. Indeed, the original French reads:

Nul autre que Louis-Joseph Papineau a qualifié le Régime français de gouvernement « arbitraire et agressif » et estime que sous les Anglais, « Le règne de la loi a succédé à celui de la violence. »

Ah, so the reign of law was the successor of that of violence. That makes more sense!

But enough about the translation, what about the content. Like all edited collections, it is a mixed bag, with some particularly strong contributions, some rehashing of arguments made elsewhere, and some weaker entries. Pratte attempted to include federalists of many political stripes, including Liberals, Conservatives and Adéquistes. There are economists, journalists, politicians, businessmen and yes, even an astronaut. The fourteen authors each defend federalism in various ways, and emphasize the high degree of flexibility and decentralization of the Canadian federation.

One of the strongest entries in the collection is constitutional law professor Jean Leclair’s systematic dissection of the myth of a unilaterally centralizing Canada. Leclair tears a strip off of Eugénie Brouillet’s contention that the federal government and Supreme Court have systematically centralized the federation. Drawing on extensive evidence from court decisions, he demonstrates how balanced the Canadian courts have been in their decision-making, and points out that in the Ford decision on Quebec’s sign law, much-derided by separatists, it was not the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that was used to strike down the legislation, but Quebec’s own Charter of Rights! Leclair also, rightly, points out the diversity of English-speaking Canada, noting that the residents of the other provinces do not all want to be Ontarians!

Another somewhat comforting contribution is that of Quebec’s Liberal Intergovernmental Affairs minister, Benoît Pelletier. While Pelletier does call for some additional decentralization of the federation and recognition for Quebec, he does observe that most Quebeckers do willingly identify with Canada, and embrace its core values, including that of federalism (80), even if they don’t always consciously recognize it. I did, however, laugh out loud at Pelletier’s characterization of “culture” as a “relatively objective” factor which composes a nation, alongside recognized territory, language(s), religious assemblies and traditions.

Pratte’s own essay is a shorter, somewhat distilled version of his excellent book “Aux pays des merveilles”, which dissects the major sovereignist myths. He calls for a greater recognition of the strengths of Canadian federalism, and of the contributions of the British and English-Canadians to Quebec’s history. Crucially, he observes that a refusal to compromise – so often demonstrated by Quebec’s political leaders – is unacceptable in a federation.

The remainder of the collection contains some solid essays, including Marc Garneau’s discussion of the importance of collaboration and working within the widest pool possible for scientific and technological research, and Mathieu Laberge’s optimistic musings on the potential for the children of Bill 101 - born into a thriving francophone-dominated Quebec – to move past the old constitutional and national battles anchored in past grievances. However, there is no single essay in this collection which stands out as particularly inspiring or profoundly perspective-altering. It is a good primer on the current state of Quebec federalist thought, and from that perspective is valuable reading for English-speakers seeking to engage in new dialogue with their Quebec francophone counterparts. However, to my mind, this is a collection primarily aimed at francophone Quebecers, and intended to be read in French. From that perspective, Aux pays des merveilles is a stronger piece of writing and more focussed on its subject matter.

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At 9:38 pm, Blogger Altavistagoogle said...

Good book review. Thank you.

At 5:10 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished the book. To me, it showed how little real progress has been made by Quebeccers to include the rest of Canada into their world. When supposedly learned Quebeccers call people in the rest of Canada; Anglo-Saxons; Anglo-Canadians; and other terms that are meant to be derogatory; I hold little hope for any recognition that it is the West that his and has been shortchanged in Canada


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