As long as I’ve been following politics (which is almost as long as I’ve been alive), the question of what defines Canada has provided unsatisfying answers.
Polls typically tell us that some combination of the Charter of Rights, our health care system, and the fact that we are not American top the list. Canadians generally are proud of our diversity (be it bicultural or multicultural), our symbols (natural beauty in our geography and quirky things like maple syrup, beavers, and the maple leaf), and our disposition (we are nice people and distinguished ourselves as international peacekeepers, after all.)
When the country feels at risk (as I think it did for many of us in 1995 when we helplessly watched the results of the Quebec referendum, wondering whether 27,145 Quebecers voting “yes” instead of “no” would really have broken up the country), we feel a pit of angst that does confirm the country means something, even when we can’t really agree on what that is.
Reading the round of end-of-year media features, summarizing the past and projecting the next year in every sphere of life reminded me of this perennial question: What holds Canada together? What makes Canadians one country from sea to sea to sea? The Charter and our health care system have taken a beating during COVID. Our international clout has diminished, as has our sense of national unity and esprit de corps that “we’re all in this together” as regional, political bickering has increased. Despite all that, Canada remains one of the most desirable places to call home anywhere in the world. Still, that doesn’t erase the very real internal challenges we face.
Take a look at Quebec, for example. Under the leadership of Premier Francois Legault, it has gone beyond being a distinct society, as the language of the 1990s described it. Most pundits describe Legault as the most popular/successful/significant politician in Canada today. Pollsters suggest the scheduled October provincial election will be a runaway victory for his Coalition Avenir Québec.
Positive polling numbers and Quebec’s recent economic strength are certainly factors in Legault’s favourable media coverage. However, as former Quebec Senator Andre Pratte observed in a National Post feature, it is Legault’s appeal to nationalism and culture that makes him particularly popular.
Another punditry broadcast I listened to pointed out that Legault governed differently from previous Quebec premiers. While others made separation a political issue, Legault, by passing French language, culture and religion bills, has governed as if Quebec isn’t really part of Canada. If the Charter of Rights is an obstacle in enforcing state-imposed secularism on provincial civil servants through Bill 21, just use the notwithstanding clause of the Charter to exempt the province from court challenges. Then use the outrage from the rest of the country to mobilize public opinion into coherent support.
Who needs a referendum? By the time the courts catch up (if the rest of the country actually has the guts to take on these irregularities), the cultural and political battle will essentially be over. The result is disunity and division on a national scale, with Canadians’ fundamental human rights recognized and respected differently in different parts of the country.
There are also important issues to notice in Western Canada, especially Alberta, where discontent with Canada is brewing, albeit in different ways. Albertans voted in October to reject the federal equalization program, and Premier Jason Kenney is battling unfavourable ratings from inside and outside his party. It is unclear how much difference the Alberta referendum will make in the long term. With the next provincial election not scheduled until May 2023, there is lots of room for movement and more political turbulence. How Premier Kenney has fared in dealing with his political challenges by this time next year will also have a lot of influence on the effects of Alberta discontent on the country as a whole.
There is in Alberta a baseline of discontent that has never really gone away. A National Post end-of-year feature cited various Alberta politicos characterizing the past 20 years as “wasted.” They suggest that neither the Reform Party nor the subsequent western-influenced Harper Conservative government answered the historic “the West wants in” complaint. Former Alberta Finance Minister Ted Morton notes in the article, “The disillusionment with the status quo is deeper and wider than it was 20 years ago. And it’s also better articulated and better funded than it was 20 years ago.” The final chapter on western alienation has yet to be written.
Unless you are old enough to remember Canadian politics prior to French President Charles de Gaulle shouting, “Vive le Québec libre!” when visiting Expo 67 in Montreal, talk of separation and dissatisfaction of one part or the other of the Canadian family with the constitutional arrangements is always part of the equation. Alberta Senator Paula Simons suggests it goes much deeper than dissatisfaction because “the culture of grievance is baked into the DNA of Alberta.”
In part, Canada is an unnatural creation, an artificial border along the 49th parallel that defies natural geography and trade features in favour of a circumstantial peace treaty between French Catholics and English Protestants.
I suppose it makes sense that a constitutional arrangement established to solve a problem of “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state” without being pulled against its will into the 10-times larger state immediately to its south will always have its unity challenges.
When it comes to determining what keeps Canada united, even an appeal to values fails. In a pre-election column, Andrew Coyne responded to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s reflections about Canada being a “post-national state” which is built around “shared values … (including) openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice.” Coyne pointed out that values and symbols, as important as they are, are not enough to overcome the very real differences that people feel from their neighbours. “We should understand ‘Canadian values’ for what they are – not as qualities of character with which we are exceptionally endowed, but as moral duties to which we are called,” Coyne argued. But if they are moral duties, then these values belong as much to Americans and Europeans as they do to Canadians.
They’re not a particularly distinctive basis on which to build a country. Only when we can aspire to a bigger vision that can inspire, to something worth sacrificing for, can we have national building blocks. Without that, we are left with difference and division and as much as we want to celebrate the beauty of diversity, it comes with enough other baggage to make unity a perpetual project that’s just out of reach.
Ray Pennings is Executive Vice President of Cardus.
Ray is a Troy Media contributor. For interview requests, click here.
Submitted by Convivium, Cardus’s online magazine. Cardus is a leading think tank and registered charity. Convivium is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.
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