More thoughts on Kymlicka

As Jocelyn points out, most intellectuals in Quebec have had their say about the PQ’s proposed Charter of Values, and are now forced to observe things from the sidelines, with a growing sense of frustration and impotence. Things have now moved decisively into the realm of politics, in the pejorative sense of the term; it seems pretty clear that whether or not the policy is adopted will have nothing to do with its merits as a strategy for managing pluralism.

Nevertheless, as an intellectual, I can’t stop myself from intellectualizing. And so without any illusions about the political significance of these debates, I just want to draw attention to a really interesting exchange that occurred between Will Kymlicka and David Miller in September, 2011 in the journal Ethnicities (unfortunately gated), which lays out all of the issues that we’ve been debating for the past year with exemplary clarity.

I missed this when it came out – I must admit that I find it increasingly difficult to follow Will’s work, because all of his titles seem to involve different variations on the same six or seven words (like the names of James Bond films), so I can no longer remember which ones I’ve read and which ones I haven’t, or what he said in any specific paper. (By way of illustration, this paper is called “Multicultural Citizenship within Multination States.” Hat tip to my student Pierre Mailly, who told me to read it.)

In any case, for those Quebecers who think that English Canadians are obtuse, when it comes to understanding the special difficulties that immigration poses to Quebec society (and which it does not pose to Canadian society outside Quebec), reading Kymlicka’s paper should provide at least some comfort. That’s because Will articulates exactly what those difficulties are. In fact, he articulates them much better than anyone in Quebec has. So, you know, we’re not all blockheads.

Will’s central argument is that, in a multinational state like Canada, the majority group tends to have an identity that corresponds to the highest-level national identity (so English Canadians think of themselves as just “Canadians”). When immigrants arrive, the suggestion that they avoid any identification with the extant national groups, but adopt a post-national identity (e.g. as “unhyphenated” Canadians), is actually just a way of tacitly privileging the nation-building project of the majority group, at the expense of minority national groups.

The alternative, Will argues, is for the national minority group to distance itself from its prepolitical ethnic identity, so that it can serve as alternative pole of allegiance and identity-formation among immigrants. Much of the paper is quite circumspect about the Canadian situation (he talks rather about England, Scotland and “Britain” with the understanding that the lessons generalize), but there are a few points at which he discusses our situation explicitly:

The fact that virtually no immigrants voted for secession in the 1995 referendum in Quebec, while the clear majority of native-born francophones voted for it, suggests a problem in the integration of immigrants in that province. Immigrants expressed a profound identification with Canada, but in the very process they revealed how little they had integrated into Quebec’s collective life. And indeed Quebec nationalists recognized this as a crisis, and so embarked on efforts to reach out to immigrant groups, with the result that support amongst immigrants and their children for secession has grown since 1995. In my view, the growing support for secession amongst immigrant groups is (paradoxically) a good thing. It shows on the one hand that Quebec nationalism is becoming more open and inclusive, as Quebec nationalists become more sensitive to the importance of negotiating nationalisms in Canada, and more understanding of the ambivalent commitments it involves. In short, the Québécois are learning to practice a more multinational form of citizenship, and immigrants are learning to practice a more multinational form of citizenship. And this is the goal of citizenship promotion on [my] approach, even if the paradoxical result is that some immigrants express lower identification with or commitment to the larger state (Ethnicities 11/3: 296).

That was in 2011. Obviously the PQ has done a rather abrupt about-face on the “open and inclusive” nationalism, reaching out to immigrants, etc. This is why folks like the Indépendantistes pour une laïcité inclusive were so mortified by the Charter of Values – it basically drives immigrants into the arms of the federal government. (One can just imagine members of minority-ethnic immigrant groups saying to themselves “Thank God that when I came here I got Canadian citizenship, and not just Quebec citizenship!”)

That having been said, I find myself largely agreeing (somewhat to my surprise) with David Miller, in his critical response to Kymlicka. Miller argues that Kymlicka moves a bit too quickly in equating immigrant adoption of the “postnational” identity with the interests of the majority group.

Kymlicka invites us to consider the relative merits of attempting, on the one hand, to inculcate a ‘postnational’ civic identity in immigrants, or on the other to encourage them to adopt the national identity of whichever part of a multination state they find themselves in. As he acutely points out, each of these proposals bring with it significant drawbacks. My suggestion is that there is a third alternative, namely that we should follow the logic of ‘nested’ national identities, and encourage members of immigrant communities to adopt split-level identities in the way that many indigenous people already have (Ethnicities 11/3: 306).

I agree with Miller here, and want to make one observation specific to the Canadian case that seems to me germane. A few paragraphs back, I said the following: “the majority group tends to have an identity that corresponds to the highest-level national identity (so English Canadians think of themselves as just ‘Canadians’).” This is actually not true – there are an enormous number of English Canadians who are quite alienated from the “maple leaf” and “let’s sing O Canada” national identity. There’s a good reason for this, which is that this national identity was specifically crafted as a way of breaking the back of the hegemonic “British” identity that dominated Canada well into the 1960s. Remember, until quite recently, that Canada used to have two (unofficial) national anthems: “O Canada” a French song that was sung in Quebec (and was originally commissioned for St. Jean Baptiste day), and “God Save the Queen,” an English song that was sung in the rest of Canada (and that I used to sing in school, growing up in Saskatchewan in the 1970s).

The Trudeau government, in 1980, chose to impose the French song on the entire country, for two very specific reasons: as part of its long-standing project to combat Quebec nationalism by grafting the traditional Canadien identity onto the federal government; and also as a symbolic rejection of the British national identity that had previously been hegemonic – it is important to remember that there was a particular sort of self-satisfied Britishness that Trudeau genuinely despised. The story with the maple leaf was similar – keep in mind that this is a tree that does not grow throughout most of the country, but has very strong emotional resonance in Quebec.

I mention this because one can still see the tensions that these nation-building policies created in English Canada, indeed, they are the key to understanding some of the more peculiar decisions that have been made by the Harper government on the nationalism file. The amount of money spent on “War of 1812” advertisements, for example, struck most people as very strange (after all, why are Conservatives trying to whip up anti-Americanism?). The only way to understand them is to recognize that many English Canadians, of a conservative temperament (e.g. retired farmers in Alberta), still lament the passing of the old British national identity. The Conservatives are not just attacking the Liberal party, they are also trying roll back the entire “post-national identity” (including so-called “Charter patriotism”) that was imposed upon English Canada by Quebec-dominated governments in the ’70s and ’80s. Reminiscing about the glory days of the British colonial wars is their somewhat inept way of doing that.

So here’s the upshot. It is not the case that by adopting a national identity organized around the federal government, immigrants are simply buying into the national-building project of English Canadians. Walking around a major city like Toronto one could get that impression, but that is precisely because there are so many immigrants in those cities. Many older English Canadians are profoundly uncomfortable with the federal project, as witnessed by the fact that the current federal government – which rules, I should note, with essentially no support in Quebec – is very actively trying to undermine it. Thus there is, in Canada, a distinct national identity, at the federal level, which cannot simply be identified with the national identity of either English or French (or, obviously, Aboriginal) national groups. And so to the extent that immigrants gravitate toward that identity, they are not necessarily “picking sides” in the age-old disputes between Canada’s founding peoples.


More thoughts on Kymlicka — 1 Comment

  1. Maybe it is because I grew up post 1980, but I was sceptical on first read that there really was a significant English Canadian popoulation pining for the red ensign and God Save the Queen. Then this was published yesterday and it provides such a clear and obvious example of a significant English Canadian objection to the federal national identity: That Conservatives have tackled more symbolic matters (1812, putting Royal back into the name of the armed forces, etc.) instead of more substantive policy may suggest why their efforts seem “somewhat inept”. It is also a lot easier for them.