DON'T GIVE UP ON CANADA
Quebec separatists have long accused federalists of conducting a fear campaign against their dream of a sovereign nation aimed at striking terror into me hearts of Quebeckers that their old-age pensions might be cut off or that their standard of living would plummet. This threat has been made for so long that many Quebeckers discount such gloom-and-doom economic scenarios as political manipulation even when there is something real to fear.
Ironically, Canadians in the rest of the country who sincerely want Canada to stay united have also been subject to a type of scare campaign, though it has not been based primarily on economics. Instead, it feeds on English-Canadian self-doubt.
The rest of Canada will never survive Quebec's departure, we are told. Not only will we suffer economically, but our will to hold together as a country will be destroyed forever. Quebec is what keeps us distinctive. Quebec, even though it has been threatening to secede for twenty-five years, keeps us united.
In recent years, this fear campaign has convinced many Canadians that they have to accommodate Quebec's demands even if they don't really think them a good idea. This was the "logic" used by Brian Mulroney and his allies in the referendum campaign on the Charlottetown accord. Agree to this constitutional concoction and Quebec might be satisfied, at least for a few years. Refuse it and risk Armageddon. Remember those threatening television ads of a pot boiling over on a hot stove, the image of Canada's fate if we voted no?
Canadians didn't buy that line during the debate on the accord, probably in part because it was being sold to them by an unpopular Brian Mulroney. Yet the fear that Canada will somehow collapse if Quebec ever separates is still felt profoundly by many Canadians. With Quebec gone, won't those wealthy Albertans and Ontarians simply cast the Atlantic provinces off like poor relatives they're tired of supporting? With Quebec gone, why would the West want to remain in a country dominated by Ontario?
The fear of a rapacious United States is also usually served up. A Canada without Quebec will never resist the tug of union with the United States, we are told repeatedly. Without the French fact, Ontario is no different from Michigan and Alberta is indistinguishable from Montana. "What are we going to do? Form our own country?" was the plaintive cry of former Nova Scotia premier John Buchanan in 1990 when the threat of Quebec separation seemed imminent. "That's absurd. Stay as a fractured part of Canada? A good possibility, but that's all. Or be part of the United States? There's no choice."
If it's not union with the United States, then there are those who speak of sovereignty for everyone. British Columbia and Alberta will be making their own unilateral declarations of independence within months and Ontario will be right behind. As for Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the four Atlantic provinces, they'll be left as orphans.
The problem with all these scenarios is that they shortchange Canada and shortchange us as a people. There is no doubt that Quebec has been an integral part of Canada politically, economically and culturally since its inception, that Canada would be damaged politically, economically and psychologically by Quebec separation. But if Quebec goes, there will still be a Canada, a perfectly viable country of 22 million people with a common set of shared values and a desire to live together. Quebec has no desire to take our defining symbols and institutions with it when it goes. We will still have the maple leaf flag,the RCMP, the CBC and even the industrious beaver. Canadian literature and arts will still flourish. The Canadian landscape will be just as awe-inspiring as it was when first captured on canvas by the Group of Seven. Canadians will still be the best hockey players in the world. Companies like Northern Telecom will still be among the world's most technologically advanced. In their day-to-day lives, most ordinary Canadians, from Vancouver to St. John's, will not even notice that Quebec is gone.
What Canadians desire most is for Canada to remain united. A 1990 Canadian Facts/Globe and Mail public opinion poll, taken in the emotional aftermath of the collapse of the Meech Lake accord, found that 93.6 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec wanted Canada to remain as an independent country if Quebec separated. The strongest sentiment in favour of Canada's staying togethercame not from Ontario but from the farthest reaches of the country,in British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces. Only 3.6 per cent of all Canadians wanted Canada to join the United States.
Even Jacques Parizeau has more faith in Canada than many of us do. He told Laurence Richard, "Many people who don't know English Canadians tell themselves that Canada is an artificial country, and if Quebec leaves, all the other pieces will fall. This never seemed to be believable to me. There will certainly be people who favor annexation to the United States, But I'm not sure this will happen. In fact, I'm convinced of just the opposite."The Atlantic provinces, which will feel most isolated by Quebec separation, might be inclined to explore their prospects in Joining up with New England. But they will quickly realize that they are better off remaining part of Canada. Atlantic Canadians will be in for a rude shock when they realize that equalization payments and regional development aren't part of the American way. The American response to regional inequalities has been depopulation. If you want proof, visit North Dakota or the northern part of Maine sometime. Neighbouring parts of Saskatchewan and New Brunswick look positively prosperous in comparison.
As for the Americans themselves, they aren't particularly interested in annexing Canada, despite the insistence of groups like the Council of Canadians that the American wolf is always at the door. America's nineteenth-century credo of Manifest Destiny is long gone. The Americans no longer look covetously at their neighbour to the north for territorial expansion. They don't need to take over Canada to take advantage of our resources. They can simply buy them.
Even annexing the wealthier parts of Canada would be of little benefit to the United States and would drastically alter the balance of political and economic life in a way that would upset many Americans. U.S. politicians, particularly those on the right, are unlikely to welcome millions of new voters used to socialized medicine and bigger government.
Rather than setting Canada on a road to breakup, Quebec's departure may very well bring Canadians closer together. Most Canadians still look to their national government for leadership, a leadership that Ottawa has often been reluctant to provide over recent years for fear of upsetting Quebec. The people who favour strong policies from their national government will no longer be gagged by those who warn that these views are constitutionally unwise because they're likely to inflame passions elsewhere.
It is true that many Canadians have a strong regional identity, and there's no doubt that Canada is simply too big and too diverse to be anything but a federal state. But aside from Quebeckers, how many Canadians feel a sense of provincial patriotism so strong that it overwhelms their loyalty to Canada?
Canadians are very mobile and many have lived in other provinces or have relatives in other provinces, but most of them see themselves as Canadians first and foremost. And this is not about to change if Quebec separates. For Canadians, one of the most irritating aspects of Quebec separatist rhetoric has been its belittling of things Canadian- Le Devoir's Lise Bissonnette told the French news magazine L'Express in the fall of 1994, "I don't believe in Canada because it does not exist." She is wrong. Canada does exist and will continue to do so.
Pundits like Gordon Gibson believe that with Quebec gone, resentment towards the federal government will only grow because it will be seen as being dominated by Ontario, which will have just about half of the Canadian population. What this argument fails to recognize is that in a united Canada, Quebec and Ontario together now account for 62 per cent of the population, and it has not been Ontarians who have been prime ministers for twenty-six of the past twenty-seven years. With Quebec's departure, central Canadian influence will necessarily decline.
The most dramatic change after Quebec's departure will, in fact, be the increase in Western influence. From 29 per cent of the population, the four Western provinces will jump to almost 39 per cent, and that proportion is likely to grow if Alberta and British Columbia continue to boom. The new Canada will be much more centred on Western Canada. No federal government will be able to take the West for granted again.
Many of the values that Canadians have always cherished--our love of democracy, pluralism and individual rights and freedoms, as well as a strong sense of community--will remain even if Quebec departs. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms will still protect us. Our distinctly Canadian approach to universal health- care and other social policies will remain, albeit subject to the financial constraints that beset these programs now. So will our support for cultural institutions like the CBC, the national museums and the Canada Council, which are necessary to promote a distinctive Canadian culture against the homogenizing pull of North American culture. Our belief in peace, order and good government will also remain and will continue to drown out the cries of Canada's new right for a handgun under every pillow,
Most of us will regret the loss of the extra dimension that Quebec and its language have given to Canada. But the ethnic diversity that has made Toronto, Vancouver and other large cities afascinating multicultural mix will still be with us, along with our open-door immigration policy. Canada without Quebec will be English only insofar as English will remain its dominant language.
Despite all the media talk of solidarity, Quebec remains a profoundly divided society over its relationship with Canada. There is nothing more quintessentially Quebecois than electing separatists to a federal Parliament and telling pollsters that they want the separatists to continue to represent them in Ottawa even if separatism is rejected in a referendum- Many Quebeckers seem ready to live with this indecision indefinitely, using it as a lever to keep the fiscal benefits coming from Ottawa and to dominate the Canadian political agenda while their province's demographic and economic influence continues to dwindle.
Most Canadians, no matter where they live and what their political allegiances, profoundly want Quebec to remain in Confederation. But our patience is being strained to the breaking point. Nothing is really wrong with the constitutional status quo,as the collapse of both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords demonstrates. Politicians who want to toy with the fundamental nature of our institutions should have learned by now to tread softly in that territory. Canadians will not be held to ransom.
The time has come for Quebec to decide. The choice will be between the Canada of today and a sovereign Quebec with all that that entails. If Quebeckers are convinced that, after 127 years of flourishing as a predominantly French-speaking society within a prosperous, tolerant country, they would rather be independent, then so be it. We will mourn the loss, but Canada can and will survive. With good leadership and hard work, it will not merely survive but prosper. As it enters the twenty-first century, Canada will still have more going for it than any other country in the world.