Thursday, November 23, 2006

So, we're opposed then?

Boy, nobody on the Progressive or Conservative side of the Internet seems to like this whole nation motion. The best you'll find is a lukewarm "well, it's worse than nothing, but better than some" kind of resignation.

It is, I admit, disheartening that, in Paul Wells' words
only one nation was discussed in the House of Commons today, and it was the nation most Canadians don't live in. Apparently most of us don't deserve a nation. Certainly we don't seem to deserve a prime minister who names our nation for us. And if you don't like today's events in the Commons, you pretty much have to lump it, don't you: Vote Tory, NDP or Liberal, it's all pretty much of a muchness, because none of them can name a nation worth defending except Quebec.
And then you've got others out there basically screaming that this is the death of Canada. Well, I dunno. Joe Clark said the same thing about the Clarity Act. We all said the same thing about the FTA, and then NAFTA. Not to be too Pollyannish about it, but Canada is actually still here. On the other hand, maybe you'd look at exactly the same evidence I do and say that Canada is disappearing by increments. Even so, by that line of argument you'd have to concede that Canada has been doomed since the Mulroney Years, at least.

It would be interesting to see how this vote would go if, as well as the Quebec Nation motion, we also had a motion declaring Canada to be a single nation constituted of the people of Canada. I don't believe that saying Canada is a single nation precludes talk of sub-National nations (ugly phrase, I suppose) anymore than talk of "Canada" precludes recognition of First Nations communities.

Before I go ahead with this analogy, I want to state outright that it's incredibly poor, and people shouldn't read too much in to it. But I am nevertheless reminded of my first-year Prof's description of Weimar Germany. During the inter-war years, Germany was plagued by a number of governments that were either dysfunctional to the point of crisis, or actually engineered crises for partisan gain. Canada has not had governments as corrupt or dysfunctional, but the root cause of Weimar's dysfunction was similar: two popular, competing, mutually exclusive views of what Germany should be.

The religious and business conservatives saw Germany as a strong, industrious, Christian nation that had been beaten in the war by a conspiracy of Jews and Communists. The answer to restoring Germany's greatness was more religion, more business, and rejecting the Treaty of Versailles.

The Communists and Socialists saw Germany as strong and industrious, but objected to the religious classifications for ideological reasons. They believed Germany had been beaten by the aristocratic and capitalist nations of England and America. The answer to restoring Germany's greatness was revolution, and rejecting the Treaty of Versailles.

The point is that the two most powerful groups in Germany had fundamentally opposite views of what Germany should be, and only agreed on two things: Germany had been beaten "unfairly" in the war, and the Versailles settlement was illegitimate. You can see, however, that Germany became more and more polarized as the 1930s arrived - by the last election before Hitler's rise, the Communists and Nazis were doing much better than the more moderate Socialists and Catholic parties.

The tragic thing is that both sides were wrong about Versailles. We can argue about this is people want to, but by the time Hitler came to power, Germany's reparations to the Allies had been postponed until late in the 20th century, and Germany's economic problems derived less from Versailles than from the global depression. Also by the 1930s, the rise of the USSR had left many Conservatives in the UK and France willing to negotiate away Germany's military restrictions. In any case, there's no record of public Germans acknowledging that if Versailles was unfair, then the far, far more punitive treaty the Germans forced on the Russians at Brest-Litovsk was also unfair.

Now, I acknowledged in the beginning that this analogy is a poor one, but let me propose a few points of similarity:

Most Canadian poltical parties seem to accept the premise - to varying degrees - that the Canadian Constitution is somehow illegitimate. The Bloc Quebecois are perhaps the most vocal about this, but even federalist parties seem to accept the notion that Canada will not be complete - will not be a fully legitimate entity - until we somehow compel Quebec to sign the Constitution. This further leads to the belief that the Constitution is incomplete, will need to be reopened, and thus all the regions and communities of Canada have a laundry list of demands for the next time we open the constitution to amendment.

An additional point of similarity is that this belief leads to a certain amount of dysfunction in the Canadian political system, where even political parties like the Conservatives (a western, anglophone party whose base bitterly opposes special status for Quebec) ends up, less than a year in power, making large financial and political concessions to Quebec. This dysfunction is by no means Quebec's fault alone, but rather I would say stems from the way that our view of the Constitution seems to encourage regionalism. Because Quebec "was left out" of the Constitution, and in part because Meech and Charlottetown failed, we get the Bloc Quebecois and we get Reform.

These two parties, I believe, should have been a signal of something very wrong with Canada. What we began to see in Canada during the 1990s, and what I believe we're seeing today, is the replacement of two more-or-less national parties (The old Progressive-Conservatives and the Liberals) with parties that are basically regional. Even if the names don't change, the fact is that the Liberal brand in Quebec - and perhaps all of Canada - is broken and hasn't been fixed yet. The Conservatives are perhaps the most national party in terms of seats at the moment, but they have a basically non-national view - that Ottawa is the enemy. The Bloc, which should be smaller than the NDP by right, controls many more seats and is avowedly anti-national.

This brings us to another point of similarity - the disappearance of any kind of national consensus, and the replacement with competing, mutually antagonistic views of what the country should be. I disagree with both Harper and Duceppe's vision of Canada, but your average Albertan Conservative probably disagrees with your average Quebec separatist even more. Whereas I find the idea of a legally-sanctioned Quebec "nationhood" troubling, many westerners seem to find it downright offensive.

The final point of similarity I'd like to suggest is that we are all fundamentally wrong about the legitimacy of the Canadian Constitution. It's been a quarter-century, almost, and Quebec has grown more powerful as a Province, and Quebeckers have their rights more protected. We need to disabuse ourselves of this notion that the country won't work right until we somehow convince the separatists to sign up.

The federalists in Quebec won't endorse the Constitution so long as the separatists are there, simply because they want to win the next election and they believe the people of Quebec will punish them for it. And the separatists will never endorse a truly national document for Canada, because they don't believe in it. Neither of those pragmatic political decisions actually impact on the legitimacy of the Canadian Constitution.

The National Assembly (apparently, a label only the Quebec Provincial Legislature gets to use) has spent almost 25 years operating quite well within the Constitution. The people of Quebec have had their rights protected, and have benefited quite a lot from the Constitutionally-entrenched equalization program. At this point, we should be willing to accept that the Constitution is a fully legitimate document. What more do we need in this country?

I asked a few weeks ago a similar question: Is there anyone in this country's Parliament who believes that this country works, as it is? Is there anyone willing to defend the Constitution of Canada as it exists, today? In the last election, we had one party that said it would "Stand up for Canada." That party won the most seats and formed the government. But for the life of me, I can't find them today.

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