What’s in a Nation?

By Jason Menard

While Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff brought this particular Pandora’s Box to the party, it seems that the Bloc Quebecois is ready to pry that sucker open and unleash its contents on the country – for better or for worse.

The Bloc has submitted a motion to the House of Commons, to be debated on Thursday and voted upon early next week that reads: “Que cette Chambre reconnaisse que les Québécoises et les Québécois forment une nation.” Simply put, the debate will be open as to whether the people of Quebec represent a nation.

… And with the children of Canada all tucked snugly in their beds, visions of Meech Lake and Charlottetown will dance through their heads!

But could this work? Could the age-old issue of Quebec separatism really be solved by a House proclamation that Quebec should be recognized as a nation? Will millions of Quebecois suddenly be comforted by being able to say “Canada is my country, but Quebec is my nation”? And if this motion doesn’t pass, does this mean that we’re headed down the path of another linguistic crisis?

Surprisingly, this latest round of the “My Canada includes Quebec” debate has largely slipped by unnoticed by the masses. And this has happened because the debate has been restricted greatly to the confines of the Liberal leadership debate. Ignatieff’s use of vocabulary to solve this challenge has been met with opposition – not with the concept, as such, but rather with the timing and the designation — by his fellow candidates, including noted federalist Stéphane Dion and former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae. However, at last month’s meeting, the Quebec wing of the Liberal Party did, in fact, adopted a resolution to recognize Quebec as a nation within Canada and to call for the establishment of a body to determine how to best make this a reality.

The funny thing is that although this is truly a federal issue, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been able to tread lightly around the issue, not even dipping a toe into the water.

Well, it’s everyone in the pool now – and the Bloc have pushed Harper in with both hands. And once again the question is… what is the question? Perhaps we need Dion to draw up another Clarity Act because this idea of recognizing Quebec as a nation, while it does have merit, leaves too many Questions unanswered.

As shown by the lessons learned by Meech Lake, before it fell victim to the public relations nightmare of the use of the Notwithstanding Clause to defend Bill 178, the Canadian public is willing to acknowledge Quebec’s unique status within the country. However, it’s safe to say that special should not mean superior.

So what does the word nation mean in this context? And where do we stop? If Quebecers are a nation, are not the Cree of Quebec also considered a nation? In fact, we already have the First Nations, so where do we stop? Can it not be argued that Acadians are a distinct society within Canada and therefore deserve nation status? What about French-Canadians living outside of Quebec? Do those living in Ontario and Manitoba become part of the nation of Quebec, or are they simply living in exile? Heck, if Quebec becomes a nation, can those living in the Anglo bastion of Westmount not rise up and claim nation status for themselves?

During the last referendum the idea of partitioning came to the fore, the argument being that if Quebec was able to separate from Canada, then segments of Quebec should have the same right to leave Quebec – and any argument from Quebec against that would invalidate the initial separation argument.

The problem with this resolution is that it’s only a word. And the great thing about this resolution is – it’s only a word. You see, words are extremely powerful things. A word can be a source of pride and inspiration for an entire people! Look at the word Quebecois – it alone is a symbol of strength and fidelity for a significant portion of our population. While simply adding an extra meaning to a word that already exists in the Canadian lexicon may not be enough to satisfy the most ardent separatist, its recognition of the distinct society that Quebec is may be enough to bring those fires to a dull ember.

However, if we start bestowing nation status on a number of groups – and it’s hard to create an argument for one group of people without allowing those same rules to applied to another – then the value and power of that word becomes diluted. And, proportionately, the impact of the word is rendered negligible. In the end, recognizing Quebec as a nation within Canada is a no-brainer and it should be done. It’s what happens next that matters most. But should this symbolic recognition should open up the topic of constitutional reform – ay, there’s the rub. Those who are so happy to toss the word nation may become strangely reticent when it comes to putting those words to paper and entrenching nationhood rights and protections into the very framework of our country.

In the end, like the song states, they’re only words and words are all I have to steal your heart away. In this case, the right word can also represent our country’s soul.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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