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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Harper on "Nation" - Quebec Style!

In the past week I have been concentrating on the Alberta Royalty Review Report. That attention to the issues and concerns will continue here and on Policy Channel for awhile I am sure.

In the meantime I have neglected to post our regular op-ed for LaPresse in Montreal. We can see Dion is having his challenges in Quebec and Harper is trying to pander to soft nationalists…with some success I might add. So here is what we said about Steve’s musings in Australia a few weeks ago about Quebec and Canadian politics. Strange he didn’t say this at home!

La Presse septembre 2007 Ken Chapman and Satya Das

Only the insular deny the distinction of Quebec, and only extremists would posit that Quebec constitutes anything other than a distinct society within Canada.

Yet there is certain unease at Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s proclamation this month in Australia, regarding what he calls the Quebecois nation.

It is unprecedented that a Canadian prime minister would make such a reference in a foreign country. And it is all the more satisfying that it comes from an Albertan prime minister, given the unjustified reputation our province suffers as a hotbed of bigotry. Our Albertan and Canadian capacity for accommodation manifests itself in Harper’s affirmation of a societal reality. It is pleasing that this should come as Quebec itself is conducting a brave dialogue with citizens about accommodating its own minorities.

So why our unease? Because “nation” means different things in English and in French. One worries whether the Prime Minister leaves himself open to interpretations that may raise unrealistic expectations, particularly among Quebecois who might view Harper’s declaration as a prelude to sovereignty-association.

Consider what he said in the Australian parliament, in French:
« Le Canada est né en français, à Québec, il y aura 400 ans l’année prochaine, et cela se reflète jusqu’à ce jour par la présence des francophones et de la nation québécoise au sein de notre pays uni»

In English, in the presence of Australian Prime Minister John Howard, he also used the phrase « the Quebecois nation. »

There is an enormous gulf between the implications of the word, in the two languages. The French and English begin with the same core meaning, using “nation” as an evocation of shared culture, history and values; implying a certain homogeneity of experience.

Then comes the gulf. The French use of the word “nation” is more appropriately translated as the English word “polity.” Polity in English means a process of society organising itself into civil government, a political entity that evolves a constitution or charter or other codes of law to perpetuate its being. And within that there is an unspoken “next level” that such a nation must of course be the master of its own destiny.

Yet the English sense of the word nation, as in “the Quebecois nation” of Harper’s usage, is closer the word “people” as in “the Quebecois people.” It is understood as one might mean “the Latino people” while referring to a socio-cultural description, rather than any specific Hispanic country. In the sense that Harper uses it in English, “nation” is much closer to “people”, without the French overtone of a polity that merits autonomy or even sovereignty by its very existence.

This is why we can speak in English of a Quebecois nation, in a way that we cannot speak of the Albertan nation. In Anglophone and Allophone Canada, the province that could most aptly bear the designation of “nation” would be “the Newfoundland nation”, particularly because of an established history of cultural and ethnic homogeneity.

And it is why we can understand, despite the brutal rhetoric of some of the intervenors, why it is necessary for the Quebecois nation to have its dialogue about minorities.

It seems quaint and even archaic to those of us in heterogenous Alberta, but we recognise that it is a good and useful thing for Quebec to discuss the boundaries of pluralism, because it may lead to a better understanding of the virtues of embracing otherness. This accommodation is the vital precondition to flourishing in the borderless world, and we must respect the sentiments of those Quebecois who are impelled to cling to the past, even as we disagree fundamentally and vigorously with their retrograde perspective.

As Quebec continues its internal dialogue, though, it might be unwise and even misleading to expect that a Canadian Prime Minister who uses the word “nation” in both English and French would knowingly promote secession or separation.

With the advent of the Clarity Act we have a process to establish nationhood and to leave the Canadian nation. Thus when Harper uses the word “nation” in both official languages we do not really need to pick one meaning over the other. But we must understand the difference — and live with it in our uniquely Canadian accommodation.