Spitting in the soup
Richard Swift muses on how Quebec separatism raises fundamental questions
about the relationship between nation and state.
By early October 1995 Quebec was starting to heat up. In Toronto all the talk in coffee shops or clinic waiting rooms was of the impending referendum. Even the profoundly apolitical in Anglo-Canada were plunged unwillingly from business-as-usual to anger and frustration over the resurfacing of that ancient Canadian question: ‘What does Quebec really want?’ Nationalism was lighting emotional fuses once again. My Italian butcher muttered to me darkly that ‘there would be trouble’ if the ‘Oui’ won.
But the social fire seemed to have gone out of the separatist side. Twenty years ago sovereignty seemed all about doing things differently in Quebec – power to workers and communities to decide their own fates. Now, after several terms of Parti Québecois provincial government, it seemed more about cushy jobs and ambassadorships for the Quebec political class and their relatives.
Today the ‘Oui’ pitch has more to do with a manipulated sense of national grievance. A call for social justice was being replaced by those vague but cherished values of reactionary nationalism everywhere – honour and destiny.
The questions that October’s referendum posed about nationalism have a lot to do with the relationship of state and nation in the modern era. Does a nation need a state in order to fulfil itself? There are examples both ways. The former Yugoslavia and USSR have witnessed an often-bloody break-up into a series of ethnically rooted mini-states.
But there are other options. Many in Europe hope that Basque, Walloon, Catalan and other nationalist aspirations can be accommodated in a re-arrangement where the centralized nation-state has been significantly weakened with powers devolved downwards to regional government and upwards to a Europe-wide authority. If one of the reasons a nation needs a state is to save it from domination by a centralized but alien government then diluting the power of such governments may provide the space for nations to define themselves without resort to an elusive political sovereignty. Sovereignty itself is often a mere figleaf in an age where the forces of global capital dictate so much of public policy.
Is a Quebec state whose power is hemmed in by international creditors and foreign-exchange dealers any longer an effective vehicle for national aspirations? Will it allow Quebec to do things differently? It seems that neither the Ottawa-based national government nor any of the Canadian provincial governments is capable these days of delivering the goods. The large (49.4 per cent) ‘yes’ vote from Quebec is at least partially due to the weakening of federal social programs like Unemployment Insurance and Old Age Pensions.
The incapacity of the Canadian state to guarantee the welfare of the nation has led to the rise of regionalist political loyalties. The right-wing Reform Party now dominates Western Canada and the Sovereigntists are the main voice in Quebec. Québecois who lack the Anglo taste for ‘letting the market decide’ have become particularly disenchanted. Yet it is unclear that an independent Quebec state would have any more ability to deliver the goods than the federal state it would displace. If anything the outside pressures on Quebec would increase to prove it was ‘responsible’ (debt reduction targets, cutbacks, no tax increases, weakened labour laws and deregulation) in its economic policies. The fiscal squeeze would be even tighter.
Québecois nationalism, like most other nationalisms, has two souls. There is the old cultural nationalism with its slogan of la pure laine (the pure wool) – an ethnocentric calling to the original white French Québecois (about 82 per cent of the population) who settled here more than two centuries ago. The other soul is a more progressive anti-imperialist nationalism rooted in the trade unions, community groups and women’s organizations. These groups see independence as a chance to break with the more predatory forms of North American capitalism in a socially-oriented Quebec.
The ethnocentric exclusionary nationalism has created the most tensions, alienating the immigrant Montreal Allophones (Québecois parlance for immigrants whose native language is neither French nor English) and the native populations scattered around the province, particularly the militant Cree in the North. Sometimes this takes the form of overt racism such as the attacks on native people at the time of the militant land dispute at Oka a couple of years ago – or more recently the graffiti sprayed on Anglophone and Allophone businesses in Montreal. More often it is simply an assumption that such groups are not really Québecois and that their concerns are some how less important than those of la pure laine.
Unfortunately for the nationalists there was a price to be paid for exclusionary politics in a multi-ethnic society – the lost votes of Montreal’s immigrants and the entire native population.
The other soul of Quebec nationalism puts forward a more inclusionary program that would allow for a cultural diversity rooted in a fight for social rights. But people on this wing have shown a marked reluctance to weaken the nationalist front by criticizing the exclusionary nationalists. And unabashed cultural nationalists like the conservative Premier Jacques Parizeau have not hesitated to use populist appeals such as his claim that a ‘Non’ to sovereignty would be a signal to big business ‘to spit in our soup’. Ironically the political will necessary to stand up to corporate pressure would need a mobilization of the vast majority of the Quebec population – something the exclusionary nationalists can never hope to achieve.
The question confronting Quebec nationalists is one that has confounded movements of national liberation throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. While Quebec will certainly be in better economic shape than post-colonial Ghana or Indonesia, the room for governments to manoeuvre and shape their own economic destinies has if anything narrowed from the heady days of Kwame Nkrumah and Ahmed Sukarno.
Quebec’s provincial debt (without even adding on their share of the national debt) is the highest in the country, working out at about $10,212 per head. Unemployment is also a chronic Quebec problem with rates projected to remain over nine per cent into 1997. Dire warnings from major Quebec investors and international bond-rating agencies on the effects of a ‘Oui’ give a sense of the kinds of pressures an independent Quebec state dedicated to more egalitarian economic policies would face.
But the incapacity of the Canadian nation-state to defend living standards because of these same relentless forces is leaving the loyalty of its citizens in tatters and encouraging sovereigntist support in Quebec. The result is a gridlock that casts an interesting light on the fate of both nationalism and the nation-state.
Nationalist feeling is on the rise in many areas of the world, at least in part because of the economic dislocations wrought by the global economy and those who control it. Yet the nation-state, that cherished instrument of nationalists, is no longer a mighty tool of national will. So nations like Quebec may need to find other places of self-expression outside the narrowing corridors of state power.
Richard Swift is an editor with the New Internationalist in Canada. He is a Quebecker who now lives in Toronto.
Leslie de Freitas and her friends feel excluded from Quebec’s brand of nationalism.
For fifteen years I have watched the thousands march by my apartment on Saint-Jean Baptiste Day. In the parade to celebrate Quebec’s national day the white and blue of the fleur-de-lys was always reflected in the whiteness of the marchers’ faces. Never a hint of Montreal’s diverse ethnic communities.
Nevertheless, until mid-October, I was convinced that the majority of Quebeckers would vote ‘No’ to leaving Canada, just as they had in the 1980 referendum. This allowed me the luxury of a cool objectivity in the inevitable, sometimes interminable, discussions that raged around me in the days leading up to the vote.
This conviction melted with the growing realization that something was going on that I didn’t understand. A nationalist fervour was sweeping the province. For the first time I had to confront the frightening realization that the ‘Oui’ might carry the day.
A week before referendum day a Francophone friend suggested that only French Quebeckers should vote, because only they felt passionately about the issue. As for me and my motley assortment of ‘ethnic’ friends, we should just stay out of it. Another Francophone friend warned that if the ‘Yes’ side lost because of the Anglophone and ‘ethnic’ vote, there would be a backlash. We got angry. Apparently we did not count, and therefore should not be counted. And, worst of all, the talk wasn’t just coming from posturing politicians, it was coming from friends. But it also confused us. Could we, the non-French Quebeckers, be wrong? After all, these friends were people with whom we tended to agree on most questions of justice and injustice. Now their burning sense of national identity was putting up a wall between us. And they seemed so certain of their convictions.
Our inner conflict intensified when, in an attempt to attract dissatisfied Quebeckers not ready to split from Canada, the sovereigntists tried to broaden the ‘Oui’ vote. It no longer meant a vote for a separate Quebec, it meant a vote against the status quo. We certainly did not consider ourselves in favour of a complacent and conservative status quo. So if we voted no, what did that mean about our own identities?
In the end there was no place for us on the ‘Yes’ side. We felt excluded by the rhetoric of the separatist Parti Québecois with its images of ethnic and linguistic uniformity. How else could we feel when one of the most successful slogans in the campaign was ‘Vote Yes and Be the Majority’? We were left wrestling over our evasive identity, trying to construct a nationalism of our own to meet the challenge of the growing fervour of the ‘Yes’ side.
I spent referendum night with two friends who had just received an eviction notice from their landlord. The atmosphere was thick with a fear of homelessness. On one level, my friends were afraid of losing their apartment. On another level, we felt like the country itself was shifting under our feet.
My relief at the razor-thin ‘No’ victory never evolved into a feeling of celebration. But I think that the referendum process helped me to clarify what is at stake. Quebec’s nationalist poet Gilles Vigneault wrote a beautiful song entitled Mon Pays in 1971. The first line is ‘Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver’. My country is not a country, it is winter. Every Canadian knows what winter is. Snow is in our blood. But if we try to hold snow in our hands to examine it more closely, or put it under a microscope, it turns into water.
Nationalism has the power to seduce people who feel that their identity is threatened, offering a quick-fix solution for their problems. But Canada is a land of immigrants. If nationalism can only draw strength by promoting divisiveness, it will melt our fragile bonds in the heat of its passions.
Leslie de Freitas
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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