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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 Quebecois.
      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 party claims.

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 government.
      "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 bilingualism."
      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 says.
      "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 Christensen.

"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 PROFESSOR

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 is French."


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 Canada.
      "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 provinces.
      "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 people.
      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 of Quebec."


International implications
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 to self-govern.
      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 of Canada."

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://206.248.74.98/default.htm. Another source is CANOE (Canadian Online Explorer) at http://paddle4.c anoe.ca/CNEWSPolitics/quebec.html.

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