There can be no Trudeau-style nirvana, if you believe, as I do, that free and democratic societies positively require not only a great deal of personal freedom in the more or less multicultural (i.e. globalized) consumer and civil society, but also a strong common political culture, a single political culture of people building national covenants to guarantee we will be responsible to each other in fighting to maintain a common, shared freedom.
A state like Canada that is home to two high cultures, with all the media, educational, and other institutions necessary to sustaining them, has no obvious cultural project for the future that can somehow transcend the present duality in some new unity. National high cultures, with all their artistic and educational traditions, are already in conversation, in distinctive ways, with human universals; there is no reason to think some new culture-building project, akin to the modernization processes that created high national cultures with modern languages over the last few centuries, is about to unfold on some new level.
We are stuck here. But it seems to me that a federation of two nations with strong provincial governments is not an unrealistic vision for Canada. We need not always fear the divisions that come from the expression of local or provincial self-interests and governments, if we can learn that true respect for political differences need not lead us to stalemates, based on rituals of offended identity politics, but to a more mature political culture that relishes in an ever open and shifting trade in our differences. If we give up the post-World War II dream of a post-national world led by a UN-NGO-global media-and academic class, Canada can become in its own way a model of nations growing stronger through transparent, self-interested, interaction in a truly inter-national political culture.
This quick thought brings me to a little reconsideration of the founding "sin" of English Canada. Americans often talk about slavery as their nation's "original sin". French Canadians often used to imply that our founding sin was General Wolfe's Conquest of Quebec.
For some reason, as I watched the election results on tv, the words to the first verse of English Canada's first, if unofficial, national anthem came to mind: Alexander Muir's, The Maple Leaf Forever:
In Days of yore,...thistle, shamrock, rose: Scots, Irish, and English united on the field of conquest. The great imperial artist, Benjamin Wolfe, added some aboriginal and American elements to his monumental picture (which every visitor to Ottawa should see):
From Britain's shore,
Wolfe the dauntless hero came
And planted firm Britannia's flag
On Canada's fair domain.
Here may it wave,
Our boast, our pride,
And join in love together,
The thistle, shamrock, rose entwined,
The Maple Leaf Forever
But the Conquest of Quebec occurred in 1759-60 and its meaning for history would have been quite different if not for the real founding and traumatic event of English Canada: the civil war known as the American Revolution (1775-1783).
We English-Canadians are still living in the shadow of that event, struggling to realize a national compact that can unite a land of disparate refugees and loyalists from an old imperial order. Newer immigrants may not literally come from the old British empire, but they often learn to see Canada as something of a multicultural empire, with reason. Quebeckers were orphaned from their old French empire earlier; this, along with the founding division of English-speaking North America into two political regions, insured that French Canada would not be lost in a much larger state, and it developed its nationhood and distinct high culture accordingly.
It is now time for that nation to start playing a role in Ottawa without feigning, in the impeccable manner of Gilles Duceppe, the role of the insecure younger sibling. Quebec is really the elder child. But for the rest of us to accept the reality of this self-interested nation that has long played well the federal political game to maximize the flow to Quebec of federal dollars and benefits, we in turn will have to move further towards seeing ourselves as a self-interested, English-speaking nation and provinces in productive conflict and partnership with our sister nation and/or province. Maybe we need the and/ors, provinces/nations, to remind us of our freedom to frame our politics in more than one way, to find productive solutions to different problems.
If the Quebecois are not going to separate, they're also not going to go away: we can't hope to bury Quebec nationhood in some kind of Trudeaupian fantasy nation, as if French-English bilingualism will ever be an important fact of Canadian life in many places outside of Montreal, Ottawa, and parts of New Brunswick. It's time for English-speaking Canadians to learn to play ball on Quebec's level, moving beyond the fantasy that our political culture can be "multicultural". We do indeed live our lives today, in families, as consumers, as religious people, by drawing on diverse cultural histories. But when it comes to our politics, whatever the many backgrounds of the people involved, ours is clearly a single, if conflict-ridden, conversation about shared promises and hoped-for covenants. That is, with the exception of Quebec, where a quite different conversation is often going on.
Part of the reason this was such an uninspiring election with no party having a great vision is because we continue to have trouble articulating the reality of Canada. We can say that Harper failed to win a majority in part because he failed to articulate and defend a clear conservative vision. He played to the centre in a wishy-washy liberal nation. And when you don't take risks you don't create new possibilities. But I think this is really a way of saying we are still in part an imperial culture, often more interested in what a distant government promises to do for us than what we can do with our governments.
And yet the Harper conservatives did grow outside of Quebec, perhaps especially so here in BC where both the Liberals and the NDP lost ground. I take the relative weakness, the lack of ideas, of all the parties to be a sign of a need for some kind of new paradigm in Canadian politics, whether or not the intuitions expressed above are anywhere near the mark we should be aiming for.