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“Nation and Identity,” Claude Ryan, Montreal, QC

A paper delivered at a “hearing”
on Nation and Identity
held on the occasion
of the triennial meeting
of the General Synod
of the Anglican Church of Canada

Montreal, May 25,1998

NATION AND IDENTITY

I am pleased to take part in this discussion on Nation and Identity to which we were most aptly introduced by Bishop Hutchison’s excellent address. Bishop Hutchison indicated that it is not the role of the Church to align itself with any party in our ongoing debates on the future of our country but that the Church has the duty to be vigilant in safeguarding the fundamental rights and well?being of the people. The first part of this statement finds its justification both in the teachings of Christ and in the long history of relations between the Church and civil rulers. While I also subscribe to the second part of the statement, I would like to see our religious leaders intervene in our debates more frequently and more vigorously when matters of principle are clearly at stake.From a no less traditional point of view, it is the responsibility of Christians as individual citizens to bring their contribution to political debates, especially as regards the broad issues of mutual understanding, justice, peace. and unity. In this perspective, we as Christians cannot abstract ourselves from the serious problems which derive from the presence of nations and nationalist movements not only in the world at large but also in our own country. We must also try to discuss them in the spirit of civility, openness, fairness and generosity which should be the mark of Christian?minded citizens.

A discussion of nation and identity is as relevant today as it would have been fifty years ago. It appeared for a time that nations might lose their strategic significance as a result of new transnational forces which were rapidly emerging in different areas. But that was to a large extent an illusion. As Anthony D. Smith, a leading British authority on nationalism, put it in his book entitled National Identity, published in 1991, “national identity does in fact exert today a more potent and durable influence than other collective cultural identities… and this type of collective identity is likely to continue to command humanity’s allegiances for a long time to come, even when larger?circle but looser forms of collective identity emerge alongside national ones” (1).

We must recognize, as Smith suggests, “that there is both danger and hope in the division of humanity into nations and the persisting power of national identity throughout the world” (2). The dangers ? in particular the proliferation of ethnic conflicts, the denial or curtailment of minority rights in the name of national homogeneity, the destabilization of political systems, ethnocide and genocide ? are present at an unprecedented scale in today’s world. But on the other hand, the positive and dynamic aspects of nationalism are too real and potent to be ignored. It provides a source of cohesion and pride for disadvantaged peoples and also, one should add, for highly developed ones. It is for many societies “the recognized mode of joining or rejoining democracy and civilization”. It also provides “the sole vision and rationale of political solidarity, one that commands popular assent and elicits popular enthusiasm” (3). Nations and nationalism will continue to fulfill those functions, according to Anthony Smith, as long as they have not been superseded by other kinds of collective identification which have yet to make their appearance on the theatre of history.

In light of those well?documented observations, a serious debate on national identity as it applies to Canada is fully justified, even necessary in view of the confusion and misunderstandings which persist among us around our own identity as a nation. In spite of our impressive achievements as a country, we have not yet attained the level of harmony and stability which is the trade mark of well?established nations. Many reasons may be advanced to explain our chronic uncertainty surrounding our identity. While not wishing to minimize the role of other factors, it appears to me that the relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada remains a leading source of concern in this regard. The so?called Quebec problem revolves around a very simple but essential question: “Is Quebec just a part of Canada, one province among the others, or does it form within Canada a distinctive collectivity worthy of being named a nation and of being treated as such?” To the average English?Canadian, the answer is spontaneous and simple. We, as Canadians, form one nation from one coast to the other, from north to south. We are of course different but our differences must be subordinate to our common citizenship. The consequences of this position are inescapable. While we may have different origins and speak different languages, we must live and develop as one country under the Constitution and the majority rule. We must all be equal as individual citizens. The same principle must apply to the ten provinces, of which Quebec is one. For most English Canadians, loyalty to Canada comes first. Within this view of things, there is and can only be room for one nation in Canada.

If Quebec were only a society where 80% of the population spoke another language but were like other Canadians in all other aspects of their lives, the transposition of the Canadian national model to Quebec would be easily achieved. But Quebec is much more than a mere aggregate of Canadians speaking another language than that of the majority. It is a society which has all the attributes of a nation, except full statehood. According to Anthony Smith, a national community is characterized by such features as an historic territory or motherland, common myths or historical memories, a common mass public culture (including a common language), common legal rights and duties for its members, and a common economy. In virtue of our history, our geography and our federal system of government, some of those traits are of course possessed in common, albeit in variable proportions, by Quebecers and other Canadians. On the whole, however, Quebecers are different not only as individuals but also and prominently as forming a distinctive society with its characteristic history, language, culture, institutions and mode of life. Between Quebec and Ontario, for example, there are basic differences which do not exist, at least to the same extent, between Ontario and other Canadian provinces. The differences can be observed in the fields of law, education, health and welfare services, religion, the media, labor relations, literature, culture, etc.

The difficulties of Canada as a political nation derive from the fact that Quebec wants to see its identity more clearly and effectively recognized in our political arrangements. Its governments, regardless of the party in power, have kept insisting ever since the end of Word War II upon obtaining more explicit guarantees concerning the role and responsibilities of the parliament and government over which its people have direct control. Because the needs of Quebec in this respect are greater owing to its particular character, it cannot be content with being just a province like the others. To which the standard reply in English Canada is that, all provinces being equal, any right or attribution which might be accorded to Quebec must also be made available to all provinces. According to this vision, no particular role or responsibility should be assigned to Quebec which could not as well be assumed by any other province. Meanwhile, the federal government ? or the national government as it is often called in English Canada ? should be allowed for its part to continue expanding its role in areas of strategic interest to Quebec ? the most recent example being the Millennium Scholarships Program ? by invoking open?ended dispositions of our system like the power of the purse and the general interest of the nation.

Discussions on the Quebec issue must now take place in a very different context than the one which existed one or two decades ago. The prospect of political separation then appeared far?fetched, remote and most unlikely, not only to other Canadians but also to a majority of Quebecers. There was no need to rush for solutions. English Canadians could bide their time. Alas, that is no longer true. The prospect of separation is now perceived as real and plausible by a larger proportion of Quebecers. It can no longer be neutralized by the spectre of fear. It appears on the contrary that the case will eventually be resolved, as it should be, on the basis of the objective merits of each position.

Many nationalist movements end up by calling for the creation of a state of their own. This option represents for many Quebecers a philosophical choice which finds support in the universally recognized right of peoples to self?determination. For others, it defines a pragmatic conclusion which was reached after years of vain attempts to renew the Canadian federal system. We must respect that option and by respect I mean more than mere tolerance. But sovereignty is not the only avenue worth exploring by a national community in search of an improved status. As Anthony Smith notes in his book and as many of us have long maintained, it is quite possible, it may even be more desirable, for a national community, to opt for dual identities in preference to outright separation. Smith envisions something like “a national identity within a territorial state identity, a Breton nation within France, a Catalan nation within Spain and so on”. (4). Would it not be possible in this perspective to accommodate frankly, without equivocation and with the necessary adjustments, a Quebec nation within Canada? Such an option would better respond in my view to the indications of history and geography. It would better realize our will to preserve many values which we hold in common. It would also be consistent with the view which the Fathers of Confederation took of the “new political nationality”, as Georges?Étienne Cartier proudly called it, which they agreed to found at the Quebec Conference in 1864.

After, considerable deliberation, the Fathers actually opted not for a monolithic national model but rather ? for a pattern of dual identities when they laid the foundations of the original Constitution of 1867. “I have always contended, John A. Macdonald wrote in 1865, that if we could agree to have one government and one parliament, legislating for the whole of these peoples, it would be the best, the cheapest, the most vigorous, and the strongest system of government we could adopt. But, on looking at the subject in the Quebec Conference, and discussing the matter, as we did, most unreservedly, we found that such a system would be impracticable. In the first place it would not meet the assent of the people of Lower Canada, because they felt that in their peculiar position ? being a minority with a different language, nationality and religion from the majority ? in case of a junction with the other provinces, their institutions and their laws might be assailed, and their ancestral associations in which they prided themselves, attacked and prejudiced. It was found that any proposition which involved the absorption of Lower Canada ? if I may use the expression ? would not be received with favour by her people” (5). The same John A. Macdonald was not afraid of words. On another occasion, he also had something like this to say about the people of Quebec: “Treat them as a faction, and they will react like a faction. Treat them as a nation, and they will react like a nation”. Quebec and Canada having both grown enormously since 1867, it is normal that the arrangements worked out in 1867 should be in need of adjustment in light of the new needs and aspirations which have arisen. It is no less logical that such changes should be studied with particular attention being paid not only to the need for change but also to the preservation of unity. There can be no substitute however for concrete action. Such action will require more than pious words. It will require on the part of English Canadians a clear and unambiguous acceptance of the fundamental duality of Canada and of the key role which history has devolved upon Quebec for the preservation and development of the French dimension of that duality. It will require on the part of French speaking Quebecers a no less clear recognition of the many values and advantages which they share with other Canadians and a disposition to work out with them through fair negotiations a renewed partnership which will be also incorporate the legitimate aspirations of other members of the Canadian family, including in particular those of Aboriginal Nations and of the less prosperous regions.
Claude Ryan
Montreal, QC

Notes

1) National Identity, by Anthony D. Smith, Penguin Books, London, 1971, p. 175.
2) Ib., p. 176.
3) Ib., p. 176
4) Ib., p. 138
5) The Federal Principle, Solidarity and Partnership, by Alain Noël in Beyond the Impasse, Toward Reconciliation, edited by Guy Laforest and Roger Gibbins, published by the Institute on Research for Public Policy, Montreal, 1998, p. 241.

for concrete action. Such action will require more than pious words. It will require on the part of English Canadians a clear and unambiguous acceptance of the fundamental duality of Canada and of the key role which history has devolved upon Quebec for the preservation and development of the French dimension of that duality. It will require on the part of French speaking Quebecers a no less clear recognition of the many values and advantages which they share with other Canadians and a disposition to work out with them through fair negotiations a renewed partnership which will be also incorporate the legitimate aspirations of other members of the Canadian family, including in particular those of Aboriginal Nations and of the less prosperous regions.

Claude Ryan