The Sky is Falling?
Rafe Mair, writing for The Tyee, pontificates on the inevitability of Quebec separatism in this muddled essay. He doesn’t start off well. Blames Trudeau for inflaming separatism and in the same breath notes that such blame is misplaced. He (mis-)identifies the source of sovereigntist sentiment with historical events: the nation resolution, the night of the long knives, etc. In a startling display of historical revisionism, he castigates Mulroney for including separatists in the biggest political tent in Canadian history (would they be the same bete-noire if Charlottetown had passed?)
But at least I agree with Mair on one point: support for Quebec sovereignty has increased markedly over the past couple decades. This has been correlated with a notable decrease in the pride of Quebecers (and Canadians generally) for Canada. In 1985, 80% of Canadians were ‘very proud’ to be Canadian. Today, it’s 61% and trending downwards.
In 1985, 62% of Canadians would ‘fight for their country.’ Today? 30%. The numbers for Quebec are even more dismal (the percent ‘very proud’ to be Canadian has dropped from 65 to just 32 today).
But what’s critical is that Quebec’s declining love for Canada (and concomitantly increasing support for an independent Quebec) is not an isolated phenomenon: their disillusion is the canary in the Canadian coal mine warning us that something is amiss in our nation. We should not be asking ‘what is fuelling Quebec separatism’ but instead ‘why are people disillusioned with Canada from coast to coast to coast?’
And I think the answer lies in the lack of politicians articulating a national dream.
Our national dream used to be tied up with our crown corporations. “Oh Canada, Land of Crown Corporations,” as one historian famously trumpeted. But that changed when Brian Mulroney came to power wielding a deficit-fighting agenda. Budgets and programs were slashed. Since then, the number of Canadians noting that the CBC is “very important to being Canadian” has fallen in half. The same is true of a myriad or other government programs.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Support for nationalism. Pride in country. Everywhere else in the world they’re growing. In Europe, pride in country and pride in a European identity have increased over the past decade (disproving the naysayers who allege that support for a Quebec nation is incompatible with heartfelt pride in Canada). America’s population is still stridently patriotic – even in the face of a declining economy and a hopeless foreign war.
If our pride for nation used to be tied up with a great national institutions and projects, perhaps this is something to which we can return. Ask yourself: what has made you proud to be Canadian? Is it Juno Beach? Is it no-questions-asked Medicare? Is it multiculturalism and an openness to immigration?
For me, I want a government which calls upon us as citizens, not just as consumers. A government which visibly acts to improve the world. Maybe that will be through a Steven Harper small-government revolution where ‘Canada’ does a few things really, really well. Maybe that will come through a Stephane Dion state which calls upon Canadians to – to paraphrase Apple’s old marketing campaign – Act Different, to become the first sustainable economy in the world, an economy which reconciles the need for growth and the perils of Climate Change.
But in the meantime, we’ve reconciled ourselves to an aimless state. As historian Michael Bliss says (a man as fascinating as he is wrong) “nobody expects much from the public sphere anymore, the fact that the politicians aren’t delivering vision doesn’t matter to people.” And when that no longer matters, the country no longer matters. There is another way. But it involves an intellectual honesty which goes beyond unsupportable sops to special interest groups like textbook tax credits and a writeoff for hockey gear. It involves re-articulating a national dream which people can latch onto with both mind and heart and begin to call their own.
In his essay, Rafe Mair argued that Trudeau knew what would – and would not – ‘appease’ Quebec. I think he’s right. And perhaps Trudeau – that master of national mythos – has some untapped lessons for the new generation of Canadian politicos about creating government which matters.