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A happy marriage of convenience: the Quebec-Canada relationship works because of luck and pragmatism.

Reconquering Canada: Quebec Federalists Speak Up for Change

Andre Pratte, editor

Translated by Patrick Watson

Douglas and McIntyre

352 pages, softcover

ISBN 9781553654131

Secession and Self: Quebec in Canadian Thought

Gregory Millard

McGill-Queen's University Press

368 pages, hardcover

ISBN 9780773533844

"QUEBEC IS NOT AN ISLAND IN MID-ATLANTIC. Its separation from Canada would spell the death of Canada," wrote Andre Laurendeau in one of his Le Devoir articles of the early 1960s. A trifle grandiloquent perhaps. But an appropriate point of entry to the two books under review.

There is no need to belabour the place that Quebec has occupied in the English Canadian imaginaire over the past 50 years, ever since the Quiet Revolution. A modernizing nationalism, the rise of the Parti Quebecois, Bill 101, the 1980 and 1995 referendums on sovereignty, the Supreme Court reference case on Quebec secession, the emergence of the Bloc Quebecois at the federal level--all are testament to this. Yet the debate about Quebec's relationship to the rest of Canada is no closer to resolution today than it was at the time of the epic battle between Pierre Trudeau and Reno Lovesque 30 years ago.

Reconquering Canada: Quebec Federalists Speak Up for Change is an attempt to formulate the contemporary federalist position as seen from Quebec. It is a worthy effort, although like many collections some of the chapters are a good deal weaker than others, it is also the case that as a collected volume it lacks the coherence and logic associated with such well-known Quebec federalist figures as Pierre Trudeau and Stephane Dion.

Let me focus on a few of the chapters that cut new ground. The most interesting by far is the article by Andre Pratte, the volume's editor and an editorial writer for La Presse. Pratte questions some of the sacred cows of Quebec historiography and the logic of the two-nations position in contemporary Canada.

For Pratte, the Conquest of 1759 should be called the Abandonment of 1759. France showed far less of a commitment to its North American colony than did Britain to its, failing to send Montcalm the reinforcements that might have saved Quebec. And, given the subsequent history of France, including the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic Wars, it is open to question whether Quebec did not fare better as a British colony than as a French one.

Pratte is also prepared to challenge the conventional wisdom regarding conscription. With respect to World War Two he writes: "The story of the 1942 Conscription Crisis is not simply an account of the English majority imposing its will on the French minority; it is also a case of a historical error on our part ... Quebecers were wrong to see the war only as a quarrel between empires, wrong to ignore the fate of the European Jews, wrong to support Philippe Petain against Charles de Gaulle."

As for the contemporary Canadian scene, Pratte notes the very different situation Quebec finds itself in today as compared to 1867. Then Quebec's population constituted one third of Canada's and Quebec was one of four provinces. Today, by contrast, Quebec's population amounts to less than that of Alberta and British Columbia combined; it is well under one quarter of the Canadian total, and it is certain to decline further in decades to come. "Canada is more and more multipolar: Ontario no longer dominates the country's economy so completely, nor can Quebec expect to monopolize its politics ... We cannot find our place in this confederation by demanding what we had in 1867 or in 1608." All of this will make considerable sense to readers in English Canada, and it deserves serious attention from readers in Quebec, where the French version of Reconquering Canada was first published in 2007.

None of the other chapters in the book has quite the verve and originality that Pratte displays. There is a perfectly decent contribution by lean Leclair, a constitutional law professor at the Universite de Montreal, who defends the Supreme Court of Canada against repeated accusations by sovereigntist colleagues in Quebec's francophone universities who impugn its judgements as unduly centralizing. He also reminds his opponents that it was the Supreme Court that upheld the sacred flame of civil liberties in its landmark decisions in the Roncarelli (Jehovah's Witnesses) and Padlock Law (suppression of communism) cases, at a time when Maurice Duplessis lorded it over Quebec. ER. Scott would have felt himself done proud!

Another chapter that caught my eye was that by Mathieu Laberge, a Montreal-based economist, who makes an effort to take English Canada seriously. When was the last time one read a Quebec francophone who acknowledged that "the rest of Canada is at least as diverse as the different regions of Quebec" and that "if a British Columbian is different from all the other Canadians, then a Quebecer is part of his or her 'rest of Canada"? He is also prepared to note the move to a more flexible and open form of federalism in Ottawa in recent years, something that comes much closer to meeting the needs of the children of Bill 101, namely those Quebecois who have come of age since the passage of the Charter of the French Language in 1977.

Finally, let me note a worthy contribution by Marie Bernard-Meunier, a former Canadian ambassador to Germany and to UNESCO, who broadens the discussion of Canadian federalism to embrace the German case as well as that of the European Union. It is all too easy to become self-centred on the Canada-Quebec debate, forgetting that federalism with all its complexities is also the paradigm of a fair number of other countries around the world. Perhaps Bernard-Meunier's most telling argument is her acknowledgement that "federations are marriages of convenience and reason, never marriages for love."

What is the deeper message of the Pratte volume as a whole? It is not asking its Quebec readers to suspend their sense of a separate Quebec identity or to assume that Canadian federalism is a perfect solution to all their concerns. But it advances federalism as a better solution than the quest for sovereignty. The search for some perfect constitutional arrangement a la Meech and Charlottetown may well resemble a dialogue of the deaf. But a more pragmatic basis for accommodation remains within the realm of the achievable.

This leads me to the second volume under consideration, Secession and Self: Quebec in Canadian Thought by Gregory Millard. His was originally a doctoral dissertation at Queen's University and inevitably it has a more academic flavour than the volume edited by Pratte. This is both a strength and a weakness.

Millard's is a serious attempt, as his subtitle would suggest, to trace the place that Quebec has occupied in Canadian political thought. His primary focus, therefore, is not on Quebec debates per se, although there are more than fleeting references to leading Quebec nationalist thinkers and to their old bete noire, Pierre Trudeau. His primary focus, however, beyond strictly theoretical postulates, is to map the place that Quebec has occupied in the thinking of English Canadians, past and present.

He begins by addressing a number of commentators (including the present reviewer) who back in the 1990s, at the height of the Meech and Charlottetown debates or in the run-up to the 1995 referendum, were prepared to contemplate the possibility of Quebec and English Canada going their separate ways. The pitfall of what Millard calls English Canadian dissociationists was their tendency to think of the Quebecois as "other" and to dismiss as a failure of solidarity with English Canadians, for example over the 1988 Canada-D.S. Free Trade Agreement, what was often a failure of understanding.

He then goes on, in the more substantive part of his book, to make the case for the crucial role that Quebec occupies in the Canadian scheme of things. A key part of his argument hinges on the importance of living in a multinational state and in the significance this has in softening the hard edges of nationalist identity both for English Canada and for Quebec. Another feature of his argument is the importance that Canadian duality has as a global exemplar. "If federalism can't work in my Canada, it probably can't work anywhere." writes Michael Ignatieff, one of a number of authors Millard cites to make this case. "Canada's disintegration would instruct the world, particularly its less favored peoples, that even the richest, freest, and most developed democracies can die when the will to unity has atrophied." writes the American journalist, Lansing Lamont.

Millard grounds many of his arguments in the dialogical principles of deep diversity, multicultural democracy and constitutional multiplicity associated with eminent Canadian intellectual figures such as Charles Taylor, Will Kymlicka and lames Tully. And in perhaps his most telling argument, in the closing chapter of his volume, he speaks of the usefulness of "overlapping narratives" where English Canadians, Quebecois and indigenous peoples are concerned, invoking figures such as Donald Creighton and Northrop Frye to underline the importance that Quebec has historically had within the English Canadian mind set. As Millard reads Creighton, the territory of Quebec, its landscape, its great rivers are utterly indispensable to our understanding of what Canada is and ought to be.

I find myself in significant agreement with Millard, particularly when it comes to emphasizing the multinational character of Canada or the underlying significance that the Quebec dimension has had for the English Canadian vision of the country (and to a certain degree the importance of the Canadian dimension for the Quebec sense of self). So I welcome his book as a useful restatement of a very important theme and a reminder that Quebec and English Canada are more than passing strangers to one another.

Where I part company with Millard, however, is in the excessive importance that he gives to abstract ideas in his attempt to map Quebec's place within Canadian thought. I say this as a fellow-academic and as someone who values the work of many of the Canadian philosophers and theorists who have served as mentors for Millard. Nonetheless, I am reminded of one of Stephane Dion's bons mots--I wish he had resorted to more of these during his ill-fated tenure as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada--when he noted that Canada is a country that does not work in theory but works in practice. In a curious way, this comes closer to reflecting Canadian reality than all the fine phrases about mutual recognition and fusion of horizons, strange multiplicity or polyethnicity associated with Taylor, Tully or Kymlicka. It was Ken McRoberts, in his presidential address to the Canadian Political Science Association in 2001, who noted that although Canada was a multinational state at the sociological level, little about its political institutions reflected this fact.

Why might this be so? It is here that the quite different realities of English Canada and Quebec come to the fore. For members of a majority nationality, which is what English-speaking Canadians for all their multicultural diversity ultimately are, a degree of symmetry in the working of federal institutions is de rigueur. Nor is there the same interest in significant decentralization of power to the provinces, when they view the federal government as their national government. Quebecois, as members of a minority nationality, are generally more keen on asymmetry and decentralization of power than their English Canadian counterparts. And they tend to view the Quebec government as their national government in a way that English Canadians generally do not view their provincial governments.

This inevitably contributes to a divergence between the two principal linguistic communities. So perhaps Andre Siegfried, the French political scientist whose 1906 The Race Question in Canada is sometimes seen as the Canadian poor man's equivalent of Alexis de Tocqueville's far more famous Democracy in America, got it right when, in a passage that Millard cites and dismisses, he spoke of a "modus vivendi without cordiality" between English and French in Canada. Or to put it another way, if the essence of a federal arrangement as Bernard-Meunier describes it is a marriage of convenience, there may be less place for empathy and camaraderie than Millard, for one, would like.

It is all very well to hold Canada up as an example to other states riven by ethnic, linguistic, racial or religious conflicts; to celebrate Canadian multiculturalism as a model to the world, as figures such as John Ralston Saul or Will Kymlicka have been prone to do; and to believe that deep diversity will somehow allow us to emulate a version of the Aristotelian good that is the summit of philosophical attainment for a figure such as Charles Taylor.

Perhaps. But I wonder whether we are not reaching for universalistic conclusions from our very particular and bounded experience.

In an odd sort of way, there may be less of Aristotle and more of Machiavelli at play in the successful workings to date of Canadian federalism, multiculturalism and multinationality. Canada has had the good fortune to occupy a huge land mass with a fairly small population scattered across it; it has not had the history of bitter enmity between ethnic or linguistic groups that has often been the story elsewhere; we have not had invading neighbouts (1812 aside) and multiple enemies with whom to contend; and we have had the good luck to have ample natural resources, a competitive economy, developed social services and a high gross national product per capita to sustain us. For Machiavelli, fortuna was a key part of the equation where the realization of political virtue was concerned. Canada, as a political entity, has had fortuna to succour it--the razor-thin outcome in favour of the no side in the Quebec referendum of October 1995. Other multinational states such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union--and who knows, perhaps Belgium in the near future--have not been so lucky. The least we can do is to learn not to gloat.

Philip Resnick is a political scientist at the University of British Columbia. His books include The Masks of Proteus: Canadian Reflections on the State (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990), Twenty-First Century Democracy (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997), The Politics of Resentment: British Columbia Regionalism and Canadian Unity (Institute for Research on Public Policy, 2000) and The European Roots of Canadian identity (Broadview Press, 2005).
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Title Annotation:'Reconquering Canada: Quebec Federalists Speak Up for Change' and 'Secession and Self: Quebec in Canadian Thought'
Author:Resnick, Philip
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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