Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Statism In Separatist Clothes

March 1, 1995

In my view, there isn 't any one Canadian identity. Canada has no national culture.
—Sheila Finestone, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women

Our language, the French language, is the basis of our identity and the vehicle of our culture.... Our language, which names things and delineates concepts, also constitutes—since that is its first function—a way of thinking, of reflecting, and of understanding the world.
—from a 1994 Parti Quebecois document
 

The controversy about Quebec's place within—or outside of—the Canadian federation is slowly coming to a head. This is supposed to be the year in which the people of that province will, again, have a chance to vote to become a sovereign republic.

Obviously, this is not a new controversy. Proponents of separation have managed to push their ideas to the top of the Canadian political agenda for quite a while. There is a host of conflicting opinions, also among Christians, who are lined up behind the separatists as well as the federalists. But are there certain Christian insights that can help us make sense out of the various arguments?

Sources of conflict

Historically, Quebec's place within Canada has been beset by at least three sources of conflict. First, the roots of Quebec separatism reach back some 235 years when the English defeated the French near Quebec City. Alexis de Tocqueville, describing in 1831 his findings in Lower Canada (Quebec), reported:

The bulk of the population and the immense majority, everywhere, is French. But it is easy to see that the French are the vanquished people. The rich classes belong for the most part to the English race, (quoted in William Johnson, A Canadian Myth, p. 11)

This sense of defeat and humiliation has been ardently nurtured by the French-Canadian elite. The reality that "two warring nations in the bosom of one state" (as phrased in Lord Durham's Report of 1835), attempting to live together within one territory, has aptly been described as "the burden of Canadian history." The reality of the conquest has coloured French-Canadians' attitude towards the others (the English), who have habitually been portrayed as oppressors, determined to assimilate the French into the overwhelming North American English-speaking majority.

Survival of the embattled French culture and language has become one of the most powerful and recurring themes in the French-Canadian lexicon.

Second, the survival theme was further intensified by the Protestant-Catholic rift. As one historian, Arthur Lower, put it: "Worst of all, it [the conquest] was the triumph of Protestantism over Catholicism: that preserve of the Church, that precious jewel in the Madonna's crown, New France, which had refused to admit even a fellow-Frenchman if his faith were suspect, handed over to the profane, to the foreigner and heretic."

The triumph of Protestantism over Catholicism was all the more painful because the Roman Catholic Church sought to inspire its flock with the idea that they had come to the New World with a special mission to carry the flame of true religion and to embody the glory of the French race. In 1902, Monseigneur L. A. Paquet expressed this lofty sentiment in "A Sermon on the Vocation of the French Race in America," as follows:

Now my brothers,—why should I hesitate to say it?—We have the privilege of being entrusted with this social priesthood granted only to select peoples. I cannot doubt that this religious and civilizing mission is the true vocation and the special vocation of the French race in America. Yes, let us not forget, we are not only a civilized race, we are pioneers of a civilization; we are not only a religious people, we are messengers of the spirit of religion; we are not only dutiful sons of the Church, we are, or we should be, numbered among its zealots, its defenders, and its apostles. Our mission is less to handle capital than to stimulate ideas; less to light the furnaces of factories than to maintain and spread the glowing fires of religion and thought, and to help them cast their light into the distance. 

Third, the Roman Catholics in Quebec were taught that they should shun the "secular" world of commerce and industry. They glorified the simple lifestyle, rural occupations, and large families. The result was predictable: the French were left out of positions of economic leadership in their own province. But they laid the blame at the feet of the English, the despised foreigners who were pictured as the cruel oppressors.

The "Quiet Revolution"

The "Quiet Revolution" of the 1960s set out to change all that by a radical overhaul of the entire power structure in Quebec. The goal of the separatists was to become masters in their own house. Provincial governments began a campaign of controlling the major sectors of the economy, education, and welfare. They replaced not only the British in the economic sphere but also the Roman Catholic church in the field of education and social services. Thus, the process of secularization went hand in hand with a transfer of power from the English to the French. The result was that the secular state replaced the Roman Catholic Church as the most powerful institution in the province of Quebec.

Since the 1960s, each Quebec provincial government, whether Liberal or the Parti Quebecois, undertook a relentless campaign of demanding a transfer of power from the federal to the Quebec government. But the demands for more power to the province could never be satisfied. The drawn-out and failed constitutional negotiations to redefine the place of Quebec within Canada only served to prove to the Quebec nationalists that federalism was a dead-end and that their only option was to become a sovereign nation-state.

As of this writing, the Quebec government, now firmly in the hands of the Parti Quebecois, is committed to make Quebec a sovereign and independent republic. The Bloc Quebecois Members of Parliament form the official opposition in the House of Commons and are similarly determined to take Quebec out of Canada.

The conflict between Quebec separatism and Canadian federalism appears on the surface to be straightforwardly simple and in total opposition. The separatists want to use a sovereign Quebec state to assure the survival of the French identity. The federalists have poured all their energy into building a bicultural and bilingual nation within which the French would feel at home everywhere in Canada.

At the level of strategy, there is an obvious and clear contradiction between the politics favoured by the separatists and the federalists. But their differences are not as profound as they seem at first sight. Despite appearances, their underlying view of the role of politics and the state is identical: both assume that the state is the main actor in organizing society, including educating the youth and managing the economy.

The PQ's literature leaves no doubt about its essential statist character. For example, the party's policy, as described in its 1994 publication Quebec in a New World: The PQ's Plan for Sovereignty, asserts:

The proposal to make Quebec a sovereign state is aimed primarily at giving us the capacity to adapt and the instruments of our emancipation....In doing this, we will recover our capacity to act, gather together our power to be ourselves, and find in ourselves the extra spirit that we need to build a new society in a new world.

The late Premier Rene Levesque, put this in his own characteristically blunt way: "The state is one of us, it's even the one of us with the biggest muscles."

Former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau was, and still is, a powerful opponent of Quebec nationalism. Trudeau's critique of his fellow Quebecers' separatist ambitions have been articulate, scathing, and often right on target. But, ironically, the federalist position, developed as a bilingual and bicultural alternative, suffers from the very same disease that afflicts separatism. It's the assumption that all our problems are essentially political and therefore require a political solution. That's fighting fire with fire. One kind of interventionist politics is fought with another kind of interventionist politics.

This truth can be demonstrated by analyzing one of Trudeau's major legacies, The Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This Charter is ostensibly designed to protect the individual over against the state. The reality is that it has been used as a tool for intrusive politics, especially via the judicial and administrative branches of government.

Across the Canadian political landscape, the driving force of public policy is now equality—not the old idea of equality of all citizens before the law, but equality of outcome. Policies based on the new political imperative of equality, engineered and imposed by various agencies and quasi-judicial bodies of the state, were designed to achieve greater social harmony, freedom, and equality for all. But, in sanctioning reverse discrimination as a means to achieve the desired results, the reality has been the very opposite—rising social tension and conflict.

Underlying the statist direction of both federal politics and the drive for Quebec independence is the new "religion" of modernism, with its focus on the self and the here and now. The secular belief in autonomous man has replaced traditional Christian faith—especially in the now bloated public domain.

Dethroning politics

The vacuum created by the wholesale abandonment of traditional religion is being filled by the elevation of politics into a new absolute. This is why both in Quebec as well as in the rest of Canada the expectations of politics have been grossly exaggerated. What has been called "the revolution of rising entitlements" has found a home in politics. But the expectations engendered by that revolution are by definition unfulfillable, a reality that in turn has led to disappointment, anger, and cynicism about politics. This odd combination of high expectation and cynicism is a dangerous mix. It aggravates the social and political tensions dividing Quebec and the rest of Canada and fuels the conflicts between an ever-increasing number of interest groups, who fight their skirmishes on what has become a political battlefield.

The road to political ceasefire in Canada begins with the recognition that the state is a relative and not an absolute human endeavour. In practical terms, what the Quebecois demand and expect of the state is something the state and politics are not designed for and cannot accomplish. It is simply too much to expect that the state can be the means by which a nation, race, or people can find its identity and liberation—the kinds of claims that are now made by the Quebecois. Wherever such an attempt has been made, the result has always been an abuse of the power of the state, with tragic consequences for its citizens.

More fundamentally, whenever politics is absolutized, the true purpose of our lives, namely, to serve God and our neighbour, is misdirected into the worship of a god that is manmade—a form of idolatry. This does not mean that love of one's country and culture is wrong per se. The opposite—denigrating and ignoring the value of one's own culture—is foolish, a foolishness that English Canada suffers from, epitomized by leaders such as Sheila Finestone.

The accomplishments of past generations deserves our respect and gratitude. There is much in Canadian history and culture to be treasured. But when love of one's own country becomes an absolute, and the state is used to direct all of life accordingly, then what is legitimate and intended to promote justice for all citizens becomes illegitimate and oppressive.

The curse of our time is the enthronement of politics. The cure lies in its dethronement. The Quebec crisis can be defused, and we can yet live together in peace and with justice. But to accomplish that, we will have to learn to relativize the political in the light of that which is the true source of life and human fulfillment. Then politics can play the vital role it was intended for and contribute to the building of a just and free society.

This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment