Several months ago Canadian academic and former politician, Michael Ignatieff, was interviewed by the BBC’s Scotland service and asked to give his thoughts regarding the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence.
In his analysis, Mr. Ignatieff drew on Canada’s experience with the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum as a way to understand the potential implications such a vote would have for the UK, regardless of the result. Mr. Ignatieff went on to express, that in his belief were Scotland to choose independence, it would have a profound impact on Canada and could be a catalyst to the eventual separation of Quebec from the country.
It was with that statement that a firestorm was unleashed upon the former politician. Newspaper headlines and columnists practically screamed treason and politicians from every political stripe condemned the comment. Now fast forward a few months later, the furor has subsided, the conversation has moved to other topics and most, at best, have a hazy memory of the story. However, when examined closer, this small, momentary episode in modern Canadian political and social discourse give a rare glimpse under the surface of the state of Canada today.
The incident didn’t so much open up old wounds as it did remind us that these wounds have never really healed. It’s a wound that has been exposed for a long time, so long in fact that we’ve become accustomed to the discomfort it causes. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean the wound is gone, only that we’ve become numb to the pain, which is much worse.
The few days in which Mr. Ignatieff’s comments made their rounds showed how unwilling Canada is to talk about its national cohesiveness. The mere questioning of national unity draws the ire and scorn from all sides of the political spectrum, with the exception of the separatist themselves, that is. The image of a country with its head in the sand would be somewhat comical, that is if it were not so true and the consequences so real.
All is Not Fine within Confederation
The idea that if anyone dares challenge the status quo of “all is fine within confederation” that they are practically driven out of town, is the saddest demonstration of a majority’s tyranny and of the stagnation of national growth and evolution that currently exists in a liberal democracy. Simply because there is no active national discussion on Quebec’s place in Canada does not in any way mean there is not a real and growing political, cultural and emotional divide, a numbness so to speak, between the two sides. If anything, ignoring, whether deliberately or out of ignorance, the fact that there are issues which need to be resolved is a greater threat to the contiguity of Canada than actually talking about such issues could ever be.
A perfect example of this divide is crystallized in the past student protest movement that has gripped Quebec for more than 4 months. To explain simply, the government of Quebec wanted to increase tuition fees and student unions were adamant opposition to that. It is an ongoing debate raging within Quebec with opposing positions being taken across all social lines. With the exception of some on the left, it is very difficult to find substantial support of any kind for the students in the rest of Canada. It’s not only that there is little support for the students outside of Quebec, but that most do not understand why the students are protesting in the first place, this in spite of the protests having drawn a great deal of media attention in English Canada.
Quebec Tuition Debacle
Tuition rates in Quebec are among the lowest in Canada and even after the proposed increase, Quebec tuition would still be one of the lowest in Canada. The widely held view of the protesters outside of Quebec, rightly or wrongly, is that they are not much more than spoiled, whining children who don’t want to pay for university. Inside the province they are seen, by their not insignificant amount of supporters, as fighting for the fundamentals of social justice and equality.
Now, student protests are not an indicator of national unity; however, it plays into the larger picture of divergent values, or at the very least of the perceived divergence of values between Quebec and the rest of Canada. In and of itself divergent values need not be more of an issue today than they have ever been in Canada. As a country of such vast scope and with so many regions and communities, priorities and views are bound to be different.
Therefore, it has historically been incumbent upon the federal government to aid in maintaining national unity. There may be many views on how that is accomplished, but ignoring the question isn’t one of them. Canada’s greatest leaders have never cowered from this responsibility, they realized that the idea of Canada is an ongoing project that needs to be continually guided, nurtured and built. Mr. Ignatieff is a former politician and some would agree he holds that status for good reason.
He was, however, brave enough to challenge a very dangerous status quo that is cementing itself in the psyche of the nation. The only thing Mr. Ignatieff’s former peers, the supposed national leaders, could do was cower behind the fallacy that everything is alright so long as no one talks about it.
Not one had the courage to say that maybe there is indeed something wrong and that closing our eyes to it is not helping. Not one, and Canada was made weaker because of it.