Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dancing with the Lady in blue and white

Watching the elections results come in tonight, one couldn't but be struck by the essential fact that a strong majority of Quebec seats went to the Bloc Quebecois, now our perennial third party, effectively denying a Conservative, or for that matter any, majority government in Canada today and probably for some time to come. It seems to me this may not be a bad thing, if Quebec's politicians can somehow be made to take on greater responsibility for this fact and grow beyond the banal opposition party the Bloc have been. I have no great qualms about recognizing what I see as a clear reality: that there does exist a French Canadian nation, largely in Quebec, with a distinctive high culture, institutions, and political traditions (though Quebec is also home to part of the English-Canadian nation). And if that Quebecois nation wishes to continue within Canada, but without giving up some sense of independence and self-interested conduct at voting time, we English-speaking Canadians need to think more seriously how to dance with her, becoming more frank about our own national self-interests and giving up on our more unrealistic visions of transcending this difficult national question in some kind of post-national, "multicultural" nirvana.

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,
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
...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):

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.


Dag said...

Tolstoy wrote that all happy families are the same; but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

If Canada or Belgium or any number of other nations are unhappy families, they will or they won't work it out. What remains important when the dust settles is what kind of basic nation emerges: will it be a cast-bck to feudalism, which is the trend today? or will reunited and reaffirmed united countries move forward into greater Modernity, greater freedom, greater good?

Better to let things go to pieces than to find nations ruled by efficient 21st century Bismarcks.

To intrude on you post, and one of the best i've seen in years anywhere, I think the matter of national unity or even of cordiality is not so important as the ruling ethos of Modernity as national covenant.

Every child in every classroom, every day, placing hand over heart, reciting: ""I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of American Canada, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation under God, indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for all."

Every nation, every people, pledging allegiance to the flag of their nation of America.

No people are the same, but all people are people, and they all have the same inalienable rights, regardless of oligarchies and traditions and innate cultural failures. But no one can find the numbers to force the world's nations and peoples into Americanism; that must come from within each population, and it must if there is to be freedom for all.

What is America? That is for each nation to define for itself. And then it is for every nation to struggle to make it and create its spread and roots, to make it universal. It will for every man to filibuster for universal Modernity, to save those who cannot save themselves from tyrants: to live as school teachers with guns in defense of the Revolution of Modernity for all.

Such is my thought on the day after the Canadian election.

Eowyn said...

" ... (T)o save those who cannot save themselves from tyrants: to live as school teachers with guns in defense of the Revolution of Modernity for all."