Many people outside Quebec were quite surprised (although not unpleasantly so) by the results of the recent provincial election. Part of the reason for the surprise, I suspect, is that we have been subjected to a steady stream of hand-wringing over the lack of emotional commitment that many Quebecers seem to feel toward Canada. Many English-Canadian observers have professed shock, dismay and anxiety over this apparent indifference. Because of this, the strong reaction in Quebec against the fist-pumping referendum talk was unexpected.
Those who have been doing the hand-wringing never quite get around to explaining why they consider a lack of emotional attachment to be such a problem. Personally, I don’t think it’s an issue at all. In fact, I take it to be an encouraging sign. It seems to me evidence that Quebec is becoming more of a normal province.
Presumably in the background of all this worry is the thought that emotional bonds are somehow needed to hold a country together. Perhaps this comes from having compared the federation to a marriage once too many times. “Unless they love us, they will leave…”
Yet this is barely true of marriage, and certainly not true of countries.
Indeed, you only have to stop and think about it for a moment to realize that it can’t be true. After all, the nationalism that prevails in English Canada – the sort of giant-inflatable-beaver nationalism that was on display in the closing ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics – is of extremely recent vintage. It was pretty much invented in late ‘70s, mainly as a way of counteracting Quebec separatism. It was really Pierre Trudeau who pushed the idea that, in order to fight the emotional pull of Quebec nationalism, it would be necessary to create an equally emotional form of nationalism at the federal level.
Until that time, the rest of Canada got along quite well without very much in the way of patriotic spirit.
I’m just old enough to remember what Canada was like before that great nation-building project had achieved its full effects. In Saskatchewan, where I grew up, we took pride in our lack of national spirit. The dominant view, coming out of the 1960s, was that nationalism was extremely dangerous, at best a thin pretext for militarism and jingoism.
I can still remember the scene at my high school when it came time to ‘sing’ O Canada at general assembly. They would put on a recording, and the entire student body would stand there in absolute silence. Even the teachers were too embarrassed to sing. The principal would occasionally give it a go, but his voice would usually trail off before the song was half-finished.
None of this had anything to do with disliking Canada. We did it to show that we were wise to the game. We wore our apathy as a badge of honour. Indeed, I can remember at the time entertaining the contradictory thought that Canada was a great country, because no one ever pressured you to be patriotic.
It was around this same time that the secessionist Western Canada Concept party was starting to make waves, and a bunch of us at school got membership cards, which we proudly signed and stuck on our binders.
I suppose that an observer from Toronto, parachuted in around this time, might have been alarmed by the attitude among young Westerners, and concerned by the rise of Western separatism. After all, if there is one part of the country that has the most obvious incentive to secede from Canada, it’s Alberta (and if they were willing to take Saskatchewan along with them, then so much the better for Saskatchewan!)
And yet this worry would have been completely unfounded. Why? Because secession is always about language, ethnicity, or religion (taken singly, or sometimes in heady combination). Has there ever been, in the modern world, a serious secessionist movement motivated by purely economic considerations?
Material interests are not enough to break up a country. People need to be passionate, they need to be willing to make sacrifices for the cause. This is why, despite protests to the contrary, it has always seemed obvious to observers that Quebec separatism is a form of ethnic nationalism, and not “civic” nationalism (as generations of apologists have claimed). Why? Because there is no such thing as a secession movement grounded in purely civic concerns.
In other words, without some sort of visceral appeal to our tribal social instincts, secession movements can’t get any traction. Indifference, by contrast, favors the status quo. It also favours coexistence. After the tumult of the past forty years, the lack of strong political emotions in Quebec may come as a welcome relief for all Canadians.