Canadians often try to explain the fundamental nature of Canada, both to themselves and to visitors, by comparing it with other countries. The United States most obviously comes to mind, especially since television has increasingly obliterated any differences in American and Canadian popular taste. But there are other analogies that are more instructive. Surface manners and dialect aside, we have much in common with the Australians. In many other respects, we resemble the Scandinavians. Many of us would like to emulate the Swiss, but fear we are rather more like the Belgians.
But an even better case can be made that we are a 20th-century reincarnation of the Habsburg Empire. Ontario corresponds to German Austria, the West and the Atlantic provinces play the part of the Slavs, and above all, Quebec is our Hungary, and like Hungary, Quebec’s nationalist aspirations threaten fragmentation of the rest of the political structure. Looking back on the sequence of events that took place in Central Europe after 1848, this parallel becomes more and more alarming. Law 101, the discriminatory language legislation introduced in Quebec by the nationalists in 1977, bears an almost uncanny resemblance to the Hungarian Law of Nationalities of 1868. Our attempts at constitutional compromise over the last decade have largely taken the form of attempting to create a Dual Monarchy in all but name. Montreal is traveling down a road taken by Budapest a century earlier.
There is little current enthusiasm among French Canadians for outright separation, or even for rejecting the capitalist and commercial enticements of English-speaking North America. The late Rene Levesque’s project to bring about “sovereignty-association” was actually rejected by a majority (60 percent) of the people of Quebec in a referendum eight years ago, and his nationalist Parti Quebecois was defeated at the polls four years later. But his principles have been increasingly implemented in practice.
The process began in the 1960’s, when the central Canadian government almost casually surrendered much of its power to the provinces, essentially to please Quebec. Quebec collects its own income tax from residents, usually more than they pay to Ottawa. It finances and runs its own social services, including a pension plan separate from the Canada Pension Plan. Above all, Robert Bourassa’s Liberal government in Quebec, while taking a conservative policy on economic and business issues, kept Law 101, which makes French the only official language in the province, and prohibits even bilingual signs.
This is to make compulsory a practice that is largely followed anyway throughout most of the province, but it is another story in Montreal, where most of Quebec’s one million Englishspeakers live. Law 101 compels all new immigrants to educate their children in French. But this has done little to change matters: while fluent bilingualism is more and more common among young people of all origins, neither the children of immigrants nor of the long-established become French Canadians, nor do they become supporters of nationalism.
Last December, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Quebec’s total prohibition of commercial signs in English violated the right to freedom of speech and expression, supposedly guaranteed in both the Quebec and Canadian Charters of Rights. But the Court did not endorse total freedom of expression, instead holding that Quebec was entitled to pass legislation designed to “protect” French: for example, requiring that bilingual signs have French in bigger letters.
While Bourassa’s election platform had included a promise to restore bilingual signs, the reappearance of nationalist mobs in the street was making him nervous. His bright idea was that English business establishments should be allowed to use bilingual signs indoors, but only French outside. To evade the Court decision, he evoked the “notwithstanding” clause of the new Canadian Constitution, which allows provinces to suspend fundamental rights. He called on everybody to be calm.
They weren’t. Immediately after his announcement, nationalists firebombed the offices of Alliance Quebec, a meek and mild lobby group for bilingualism. The Anglos, usually a quiet and law-abiding bunch, began to gather in their own wrathful assemblies, calling for civil disobedience. It is hard to believe that we could manufacture our own version of Belfast or Beirut, but if we avoid doing so, it will not be due to the intelligence, principles, or courage of our current political leadership.
Americans may be surprised that Canada is developing such unpleasantly interesting politics. Up until recently, any dark prophecies they have heard from this side of the border have usually been about the supposedly dire consequences of the Free Trade Agreement with the US. The January Harper’s, for example, carried an article by Robertson Davies, one of our leading novelists, on “Signing Away Canada’s Soul.” This essay, which undoubtedly expresses views widely held by our intellectual and cultural establishment, purports to be an account of what Canada is really all about, yet it does not even mention the issue of Quebec and the Constitution.
This curious myopia can be largely explained by the fact that, in Canada, intellectual conservatism, unlike that found in Britain and the United States, is still heavily influenced by Toryism, and often by what is called “red” Toryism. Red Tories claim some affinity with the paternalist and statist element that so often dominated the British Conservative Party, until that element was cast into the wilderness by Mrs. Thatcher. The real father of the movement was George Grant, a philosopher and essayist who was a highly influential teacher at Ontario and Maritime universities for over three decades.
Grant evolved a synthesis of classical philosophy, Christianity, and Marxism into a coherent but pessimistic vision of Canadian nationalism. From the 1950’s to the 1980’s, he produced a series of small, closely argued, stimulating, and exasperating books about big subjects: Technology, Empire, Justice. Most of them had a small audience, but one. Lament for a Nation, which appeared in 1965, had a wide and profound effect.
Grant argued that liberalism, capitalism, and Americanism were all pretty much the same thing, a Behemoth that was probably irresistible, but to which we should give no encouragement. All over the world, he pointed out, the combination of liberal ideology and capitalist technology was eradicating traditional culture, religion, custom, the sense of history and the tragic. Canada, which had remained something of a Tory bastion as late as the Second World War—loyalist, agricultural, provincial in an admirable sense—was now in the process of being dissolved in this universal solvent.
As might be expected, Grant was not much concerned with providing “practical solutions,” the eternal preoccupation of the liberal capitalist. Ironically enough, however, this is just what red Tories set out to provide, solutions that amounted to support for socialist policies at home, protectionist economic relations with the United States, and facile moralism in foreign policy. In fact. Grant’s bleak vision wound up as a comforting rationale for the conventional prejudices of fashionable liberalism. The efFect has been very strange, like hearing the policies of John Kenneth Galbraith being advocated with arguments from Malcolm Muggeridge.
Grant had flashes of brilliant insight, but he was trying to square a circle. Economic nationalism and statist intervention became highly fashionable doctrines in Canada from the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s, but when the Trudeau Liberals actually implemented them as policies, the results were mostly disastrous and eventually became highly unpopular. Furthermore, they did nothing at all to halt the growing Americanization of Canadian life; many Canadians began to believe that they might actually do more for their identity by open competition with Americans.
The most astonishing thing about those who liked to call themselves red Tories throughout this period was that they seemed incapable of recognizing the full implications of Pierre Trudeau’s determination to provide the country with a written constitution. This document does not guarantee private property rights, so it can never be a great force for individual liberty. Its charter of rights explicitly recognizes trendy causes like feminism and homosexual equality, and includes a provision that laws intended to favor these causes cannot be struck down because they violate other principles of individual rights. On the other hand, as already noted, it provides no real protection to provincial minorities, since provincial governments can always use the notwithstanding clause. Most ironically of all, it calls on Canadians to abandon their former attachment to common law and common sense and to appeal to rights and freedoms spelled out in detail, apparently with the implication that any others have gone down the tube. This is a far more serious departure from Toryism than is opening our borders to American trade.
It is also the reason that the political situation in Quebec is potentially more explosive now than it was in the period of noisy nationalism 20 years ago. Trudeau tried to provide a means by which bilingualism and biculturalism were made national rather than provincial, at least on the official level. Mulroney bought Quebec support by offering them explicit recognition as a “distinct society.” Bourassa has now shown what it means to have a distinct society; it means you ignore decisions of the Federal Supreme Court. Mulroney, neither red nor blue, but an amiable pragmatist and Quebec native son, will probably dither and equivocate. As we stumble toward disaster, those who call themselves Canadian nationalists and red Tories will still be maundering on about the menace of free trade. They have swallowed the camel and are straining at the gnat.
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