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A War of Words -- Canada's Secession Battle
B Y E D I E J E F F E R S , S P E C I A L T O S C E N E
In 1763, the English conquered the French in North America,
forcing a shotgun wedding between Quebec and the rest of Canada. This
arrangement, which evolved into a sort of common-law marriage of
convenience, has developed into a power struggle for individualism. The
push to preserve French language and culture in Quebec has become an
argument about independent national destiny. Now Quebec nationalists, a
slim -- and vocal -- minority, want a divorce.
For nearly 40 years, the people of Canada have been caught up in a war of words that has taken the country to the very edge of its identity. Beginning quietly in the 1960s and reaching a dangerous peak with the Quebec secession referendum vote of Oct. 30, 1995, words such as self-determination, secession, destiny, constitutional change, nationalism and independence have been worn out in Canada.
Debated among politicians and among people in their neighborhoods,
written about in reams of news reports and in legislation, and shouted as
a battle cry in the streets, this rhetorical battle has as its chief
casualty a massive, countrywide identity crisis that could cause Canada
to crumble, or make it stronger.
Mark Christensen '74, credit risk manager for Hudson Bay
Corporation, grew up with talk of constitutional change and secession. At
times the push for change has grown violent, but for him and many other
Canadians, it has definitely become tiresome.
"Like many people, I'm sick and tired of it," says the Whitby, Ontario,
resident. "I'm sick and tired of reading about it. I'm sick of resources
being spent on it. It's been going on for the entire time that I've been
working, I guess 25 years, and I want it resolved." Christensen's
earliest memory of the controversy is the early 1970s kidnapping and
murder of an anti-secession cabinet member by members of the Parti
In power since 1976, the Parti Quebecois and its followers believe the
current constitution is a compact between two nations that can be
dissolved by either party. The rest of Canada holds that the
confederation is made up of 10 equal provinces, and that no one province
can dissolve the agreement. Although Canadian parliament has given Quebec
more government control and more money than any other province, the Parti
Quebecois argues that, for the Quebec nationalists to truly preserve the
identity of "their country," Quebec must be a separate state. Secession
from Canada is the next natural step in their growth as a nation, the
The argument over nationalist destiny versus national unity has raged for
so long that the C-word (constitution) is taboo.
"For most Canadians, the sense of crisis has been replaced with a feeling
of fatigue and a belief that Quebec's disaffection is a permanent feature
of the political landscape," says PLU political science professor Peter
Grosvenor, a native of Wales who teaches a class on Canadian
"The province has presented Canada with a seemingly intractable
constitutional dilemma that stands in no prospect of resolution. Quebec's
controversial Bill 101, which made French the only official language of
the province, is a particular cause of resentment in the rest of Canada,
because the country contributes significant resources to bilingualism,"
he explains. "Even provinces with miniscule Francophone populations such
as British Columbia must contribute resources to the federal policy of
It can be difficult for people in the United States to understand the
impact of this cultural conflict, because we hear so little about it and
we really don't know much about Canada. We may assume that because Canada
is primarily an English-speaking democratic nation that the countries are
similar. But the cultures are fundamentally different, Grosvenor
"The United States has traditionally taken a melting-pot approach to
culture--a variety of nationalities are combined to form a common
identity. In contrast, Canada has preferred the salad-bowl analogy, in
which different cultural ingredients retain their distinct flavors. The
Canadian constitution, which is a unique fusion of the British
parliamentary system and American federalism, embodies this philosophy of
cultural diversity," he says.
Canada's constitution was written during the height of America's
reconstruction period with specific provisions that came in reaction to
the United States' own identity crisis.
"When modern Canada was formed in 1867, the constitution invested more
power into the federal government than did its American counterpart. This
was done to safeguard against the prospect of a conflict similar to the
American Civil War," says Grosvenor.
But the tide has turned gradually, he adds.
"Over the past 130 years or so, the government in Ottawa has devolved
more power to the provinces, making Canada's arguably the loosest federal
system in the world."
A simpler explanation of the different systems of governments may be that
in the United States, we have a marriage among all the states. They are
unique, but interdependent, and ultimately committed to one another for
life. In Canada, there is a sense of commitment, but the union may be a
little bit more like that of housemates. "Or even neighbors," says
|"It can be difficult for people in the United States to understand the impact of this cultural conflict, because we hear solittle about it and we really don't know much about Canada."|
--PETER GROSVENOR, PLU
A PLU family shares a personal perspective
Christensen's wife, Debbie, believes there is still much good will
between French Canadians and their Anglophone neighbors. A former Quebec
resident, she lived in the province from age 6 to 20 and completed her
entire education there, much of it bilingual.
"I find it hard to believe that the French are not happily living next
door to their English neighbors and are suddenly against them," she says.
"When I lived there, we had English and French neighbors, and there was
no feeling of animosity. My mom is French-Canadian, and I interacted with
all of my cousins. It was no big deal."
She believes the desire to secede rests primarily with the politicians.
"I don't understand their mentality. It's a wonderful province. They
should be proud of their heritage," she says.
The Christensen family now lives in Whitby, east of Toronto, six hours
from the Quebec border. They've lived all over Canada, but Debbie says
she doesn't think she would return to Quebec for more than a visit.
"I would probably not want to live there now because of the politics
going on, but when I go back, I don't feel any animosity from anyone who
Working in a divided country
Craig Wainscott '83, president and managing director of Frank
Russell Company, Canada, has worked in Toronto, Ontario, with French
Canadians since before the 1995 referendum vote. He believes the close
vote may not be a clear measure of opinion on the secession issue.
"What they voted on in the referendum was actually very vague," observes
the Riverside, Calif., native. "There is a small group of politicians who
it looks like from the outside want their own country, but Quebec
residents haven't been given enough information to know what would happen
if they had their own country. If people knew exactly what would happen
if they separated, I doubt they would support that."
The threat of secession is clearly hurting Quebec economically.
"As an employer, we have to ensure our employees can work in the language
of their choice," says Christensen. "It's just more expensive to do
business there. When we're looking to build something for our people
there, the system has to be in both French and English." Christensen's
employer, Hudson Bay Corporation, operates two chains of retail stores in
"They just need to settle this for a while," adds Wainscott. "It is
costing the country billions of dollars. They could have done better in
the bull market."
Saskatchewan's top lawyer, John Nilson '73, goes
to court to try to mend Canada
John Nilson '73 is Saskatchewan's minister of
justice and attorney general. Last April, his office filed an
unprecedented case with the Canadian Supreme Court arguing against
Quebec's right to unilaterally secede from the federation.
"I think one reason we're arguing in this case is we want to make sure
it's not just between Quebec and the national government," says Nilson,
husband of Everett, Wash., native Linda (Lee) Nilson '74.
Nilson says the lawsuit is the provinces' effort to keep the argument
within the family.
"The lawsuit's purpose is for the Supreme Court of Canada is to set out
whether Quebec can leave on its own. It's meant to set out what is the
international law, and our position is that international law says a
unilateral declaration of independence cannot be done. An agreement
between Ottawa and Quebec wouldn't be valid without other provinces
voting," he says.
Quebec has largely ignored the lawsuits filed by Saskatchewan and other
"The case is not something the province of Quebec is going to participate
in. An attorney had to be appointed to argue Quebec's case in the lawsuit," he says.
The government of Quebec has ignored its own top judges as well. When a
unilateral declaration of Quebec's independence was declared by the
Quebec Superior Court to be illegal and unconstitutional, Lucien
Bouchard, the current leader of Parti Quebecois, walked out of court.
The lawsuits are one part of a two-pronged approach aimed at saving the
federation. While the lawsuits attempt to put to rest Quebec's claim on
the right to unilaterally secede, the second part of this effort -- the
Calgary Declaration -- is an effort to strengthen Canadian unity among the
Made up of seven principles that acknowledge Canada's diversity, equality
of its provinces and the unique character of Quebec society within a
united Canada, "A Framework for Discussion on Canadian Unity" (the
Calgary Declaration) was accepted by the premiers of the nine primarily
English-speaking provinces and the two territory leaders last fall. The
leaders then took the seven principles back to their people and built
support through a town-meeting-style consultation process.
Support has been strong in Saskatchewan.
"We are going into a special [legislative] session to vote on the unity
resolution, which is being passed all over the country," says Nilson.
"The resolution sets out points on how Quebec fits into Canada. It's
basically extending a hand of welcome, a gesture toward the Quebec
people, not toward the government."
Another measure of the rest of Canada's commitment to Quebec is its
support of bilingual education. French immersion education is widely
available in public schools across the country. In Ontario, the
Christensen's three children take French, as do the Nilsons' two young
daughters in Regina, Saskatchewan.
"To me, bilingual education is very positive," says Mark Christensen.
"It's a good sign in our school system that people can grow up and be
bilingual. It's further evidence that we see the importance of Quebec
culture, and we try to do things to maintain and learn about the history
In light of the events that have transpired in the former Yugoslavia and
the former USSR, some political observers have called for more deliberate
responses to potential and actual conflicts and for better-defined
criteria from the UN to handle claims of self-determination. This kind of
escalation of world government could interfere with a country's freedom
Nilson, however, remains optimistic that Canada will resolve the crisis
from within. He believes the Calgary Declaration reflects the ownership
the people of Canada have in the future of their country.
"Other measures were from the top down, driven by lawyers and distrusted
by the people. People don't like to hear the C-word. 'Forget about this
constitution,' they say. 'Let's talk about why we want the two nations to
coexist.' The declaration is about how we can work together to make
Canada work. This is an open-arms to Quebec -- a signal that Quebec is part
More information on the secession movement can be obtained
from "Canada Conversation," the Web site for Intergovernmental Affairs, a
branch of the Queen's Privy Council Office for Canada. The address is http://126.96.36.199/default.htm.
Another source is CANOE (Canadian Online Explorer) at
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