Quebec, September 18th, 2024

Using MS word to re-engineer a Scottish cousin's pro-independence op-ed piece; A whimsical look at Quebec politics, ten years hence

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Photo: A. Cooper

Wordsmithing a Scottish pro-independence argument creates the scenario of an all-inclusive Quebec in a dystopian Canada

It’s Time We Face The Difference Between Canadianness And The Canadian State

Quebec City, 20 August 2024In a week in which coverage of the independence campaign has been dominated by haranguing over currency, as the No camp took their fixation with PKP to cultish extremes, an important dimension of the debate has somewhat slipped under the radar. Over the last couple of years the Yes movement, particularly its grassroots components, have been keen to stress that this debate should not be misunderstood as one primarily about identity. In light of some recent developments it is a point worth reiterating and exploring further, particularly in relation to notions of “Canada” and “Canadianness”, and what these represent.

Last week we witnessed the most co-ordinated lovebombing yet in the shape of “Let’s Stay Together”, a letter to Quebec signed by over 200 Canadian celebrities headed by Justin Trudeau. Meanwhile, the Quebecois Social Attitudes Survey announced findings that since 2021 the number of people living in Quebec who picked Canadian as their national identity had  risen from 15% to 23%, while the proportion of people choosing Quebecois fell from 75% to 65%, which most media outlets used as evidence to support the view that Yes is losing ground. While the figures perhaps suggest that the sense of “Canadianness” of those in the No camp has been reinforced by the campaign to keep Quebec in the federation, in my experience identity and voting intentions are more nuanced than this Quebecois v. Canadian dichotomy suggests. While identity will undeniably influence the way many people vote, even at a subconscious level, there is no doubt that overriding democratic and political concerns motivate many people more than the extent to which they feel Quebecois, Canadian, neither, or both.

After all, “Canada” is the geographical term for the land mass that includes the two nations of Quebec and The Rest of Canada. Personally, I will still consider myself “Canadian” in a general sense after the referendum, regardless of the outcome, much in the same way as people from Scotland continue to consider themselves "British" and people from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark consider themselves “Scandinavian”. Other Yes voters might not share this identity, and that’s fine; “Canada” obviously has connotations, many of them negative, that transcend apolitical geographic place-names. In an independent Quebec, the name we use to define our commonality and shared history and culture with the Rest of Canada, (and indeed the rest of the world) will be less important than acknowledging and preserving its existence. Call it the North American archipelago of states or whatever else, the point is Quebec will remain a part of this continent and we will continue to share unique bonds and a close relationship with family and friends across it.

But why should that justify a political federation if it’s failing to benefit its constituent parts? Why should that justify sharing a highly centralised government, with a political, economic and philosophical base that is 3000 km from the Quebec border, that has in the last 35 years systematically privatised key industries and the welfare state, led us into wars despite overwhelmingly public resistance, continued to drag its heels on renewable and environmentally friendly energy sources and induced the most widespread democratic malaise probably since universal suffrage? What’s most striking about the “Let’s Stay Together” intervention is the complete lack of attempt to grapple with why many people in Quebec support independence, beyond the lazy assumption that “they must not like us very much.” It’s substance-free fluff, devoid of any political content whatsoever.

“But remember Team CANADA! Glasgow 2014!” they cry, as if the fact that it was nice seeing Ryan Cochrane win should be considered a compelling argument. Why not just support each other’s athletes anyway, as some friends have told me they do across Scandinavia? (That might sound a bit idealistic, but look at the positive reception athletes from the Rest of Canada got at this month's Quebec City Commonwealth Games.) And just as people from Scandinavia can live and work in each other’s countries without a passport or a visa, there’s no reason why that will be any different across Canada after a Yes vote. The problem is not with “The Rest of Canada”, or Canadian people, it’s with Confederation and its dysfunctional institutions and imbalance of political and economic power. A Yes vote will fundamentally challenge that, and all these celebs with their cosy notions of Quebec-in-Canada will still be welcome here afterwards.

With just five weeks left to go, I think Yes campaigners need to stress these points to folk who are convinced by the many political arguments for independence but are reluctant to vote Yes purely because they “feel Canadian.” The PQ has at times in the past and during the campaign been accused of adopting an unhelpful “us and them” kind of attitude, and in the case of a few of their less tactful, more “nationalistic” MNA’s, that has occasionally been true. Yet Bernard Drainville has regularly insisted that for him, the debate is not about identity. At a Yes event last December, he said:

“I represent a constituency in Montreal where if you asked somebody randomly on the street what their national identity is, they are as likely to say Pakistani, or Irish, or Sikh or Muslim than Quebecois or Canadian or North American. What we are seeking to end is the political federation. We are not seeking to end the social federation.”

Drainville went on to state he has “attachments to aspects of Canadian identity,” and that Quebec would seek to preserve and strengthen interdependencies with other parts of Canada post-independence. Whether or not you like him as a politician, his sincerity is not in doubt.  These reflections will not be new to many people, but I’m not sure whether at this late stage they been widely enough received in the campaign.

In a segment on Quebec 2024 a couple of weeks ago, Premier Peladeau attempted to put that message across,emphasising that the crux of the matter is political autonomy, and getting the governments that we vote for. Jean-Marc Fournier immediately jumped on this, demanding to know who Peladeau meant by “we”. In this terrain the debate becomes ultimately philosophical – which “imagined community” do we see as best suited to provide a good quality of life for its citizens? This touches on the point made this week by another Canadian celeb offering their two bits worth, the ubiquitous George Stroumboulopoulos, who advocated independence because he supports power devolved as locally as possible, but warned against loyalty to imaginary concepts.

Of course he’s correct that nations are social constructs, but ultimately “Quebec” is no less arbitrary than any other country. Canadian nationalism is no less arbitrary than Quebecois nationalism. If the federalist alternative truly embraced a borderless world of no nation-states, then this logic might be more valid. Patently it does not, so the issue instead is not the existence of the nation-state but how well it works for the people who live there and how it relates to the rest of the world. Virtually no one on either side of the campaign would refute that Quebec is a country in its own right, therefore its claims to statehood and self-determination are no less divisive than those of any other country, especially when it is regularly ruled by a government that very few of its citizens voted for, imposing policies which decimate communities. If sharing a government with its much larger neighbour had a recent track record of improving the lives of the people of Quebec, to say nothing of those in Canada, then fuzzy assertions of “unity” and brazenly hypocritical allusions to post-nationalism might hold some ground.

In reality, however, it is the status quo which perpetuates division. This is a state united only in name; where the five richest families are wealthier than the bottom  20% of the entire population; where asylum seekers and refugees are met with dawn raids and “Go Home” vans; where the government’s rampant austerity agenda continues to punish the poor for the crimes committed by a cocooned wealthy elite. Recent forecasts indicate that by the end of this decade, at least 65,000 more children in Quebec will have fallen below the breadline, despite the Liberals' pledge in 2018 to eradicate child poverty by 2023, in Montreal today, city-wide child poverty levels stand at 33%; in Montreal North East it is 43%. Meanwhile, the city continues to be blighted by the notorious “Montreal effect” –– with mortality rates the highest in Canada and among the highest in North America (male life expectancy in some parts of the city is in the fifties).

The fact that other cities in Canada have similar problems is not a reason to stay. Radical change is needed to address these chronic ills, and it’s very hard to see that happening within the current structure. In the last fifteen years opportunities to restructure democracy in Canada have come and gone. Promises to reform the unelected Senate never materialised, the referendum to (modestly) change the voting system was rejected, and the opportunity to devolve additional, if limited, powers to the Council of the Federation was overwhelmingly passed up. It’s time to try something different. Independence is the best chance in generations to transform politics in our part of the world, and one we might not get again for a long time.

For some people across Canada there might be a visceral, negative reaction to Quebec independence for the first few years. Ordinary folk who are also victims of the Canadian state, might initially feel jilted. But if it leads to some soul-searching across Canada that could be, in the long-run, a good thing. The Rest of Canada especially needs to reconnect with the positive aspects of its own history, politics, and culture, without it being couched in a watered-down, all-encompassing “Canada”, which tends to basically just mean The Rest of Canada anyway. Meanwhile, future Quebec society should seek to maintain the shared aspects of its history and culture with The Rest of Canada, whether that is defined as “Canadian” or not. For instance, the Quebec history curriculum should include the role played by Quebecois in building and strengthening the Canadian Federation, as well as our mutual experiences in World War Two and the building of the postwar welfare state.

It will be up to all of us, whichever way the vote goes, but especially if it is Yes, to work co-operatively and amicably to preserve and strengthen our bonds with the remaining provinces of Canada. Solidarity with the rest of this continent can be expressed by showing that another way is possible, leading by example with a more devolved and democratic structure. New proposals to radically strengthen Quebec’s local democracy as a means of building a more equal society are a step in the right direction, and will be crucial in ensuring that change goes beyond merely the location of our central government.

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Some examples of my "replace all" wordsmithing on MS Word:  "United Kingdom"/"Canada", "England"/"Rest of Canada", "Edinburgh"/"Quebec City",  "Glasgow"/"Montreal", "island/continent".  My third cousin Callum MacDonald's original piece "It’s Time We Face The Difference Between Britishness And The British State" is published at http://nationalcollective.com/.