Patrick Grady
The Québecois Nation versus Multiculturalism
December 9, 2006

On November 16, 2006 the House of Commons passed a historic motion proposed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper recognizing that “the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.” While 216 MPs from all parties voted in favour and only 16 against, two-thirds of Canadians were opposed according to an Ipsos Reid poll. Of the fifteen MPs voting against the motion, all but one Independent Garth Turner were Liberals, including Liberal leadership candidates Ken Dryden and Joe Volpe. Only one Liberal leadership candidate, Gerard Kennedy, publicly opposed the motion, but others including Stéphan Dion, who was elected leader of the Liberal Party last weekend, had expressed serious reservations about opening up the issue, which may have played a role in his defeat of Michael Ignatieff. In addition, Intergovernmental Affairs Michael Chong resigned as a result of the motion. So in spite of the overwhelming support for the motion, it certainly was controversial.

To understand why, it’s necessary to consider our history. Canada has always been a fragile country. It began as a remote French colony in the St. Lawrence Valley, trading with a vast hinterland inhabited by Aboriginal peoples. After being conquered on the Plains of Abraham, its sturdy habitants were permitted to keep their religion and culture under the terms of the Quebec Act.

Following the Revolutionary War, loyalists fled to Ontario and the Maritimes to escape from the wrath of their republican neighbours. English and French Canadians found themselves huddling together on the northern fringe of the North American continent under the protection of the British Crown.

The two founding nations struggled for control of the new land. In his famous report after the 1837 rebellions, Lord Durham described Canada as "two nations warring within the bosom of a single state." Yet the Fathers of Confederation still managed to assemble the feuding colonies into the Dominion of Canada in 1867 under the British North America Act.

Aside from the hanging of Louis Riel and the First-World-War conscription riots, the next hundred years passed relatively peacefully. Quebec was left alone to grow and prosper. Fears of being overwhelmed by the “revanche des berceaux” notwithstanding, English Canada grew even more rapidly as immigrants poured in from Europe and the United States.

In spite of the high level of immigration, the confident Canada that celebrated its centennial in 1967 could still be divided into an English and a French nation. Many of the immigrants who came to English Canada were settlers from Great Britain and Ireland who shared a common English culture. Most of the rest had been successfully assimilated into the critical mass of English or French Canadians who welcomed them.

Even though Quebec had embarked on its own “quiet revolution,” which questioned its Catholic and socially conservative roots, it still found itself partnered with a comfortably familiar English Canada. But not for long. A new point system for selecting immigrants, which was introduced in 1967, brought a flood of immigrants from non-traditional source countries mostly to English Canada.

The character of English Canada dramatically changed. Many of the new immigrants did not wish to be assimilated, but instead clung tenaciously to their home ways and languages. In response to growing political pressures, particularly from Toronto and Vancouver, where the largest communities of immigrants had settled, multiculturalism emerged to replace biculturalism as the country's defining characteristic. Competing for the urban immigrant vote, the Liberals introduced multiculturalism as an official policy in 1971. Not wanting to lose out, the Conservatives enacted the Multiculturalism Act of 1988, and opened the door wider.

Multiculturalism, which became the ideology promulgated by the CBC and the rest of the national media, promotes diversity for its own sake. It holds that all cultures are equal and have no special status in Canada. English Canadian culture is the exception to this rule. Because it was once dominant, it can no longer be tolerated because it might exclude others from participating fully in Canada.

Meanwhile, in Quebec where “survivance” still resonates in the collective psyche, “pure laine” Québécois have made nationalism their new religion. Its two commandments are: preserve the French language; and maintain Quebec's “distinct society.” Newcomers are expected to fit in. Those who try to change Quebec to be more like their homelands are not welcomed.

Not surprisingly, the most outspoken opponents of the motion recognizing the Québécois nation are the greatest supporters of multiculturalism. Similarly, multiculturalism is probably the main sources of the serious misgivings about recognizing the Québécois nation expressed by Canadians in the Ipsos Reid poll.

There is clearly a logical inconsistency between a special recognition of the Québécois nation and multiculturalism that cannot be just swept under the rug. What exactly is the Québécois nation? If it is Québec, it might be an inclusive civic nation encompassing all ethnic groups living in Québec. If so, and regardless of it being in a united Canada, it is a step towards sovereignty. But if it only includes “francophones de vielle souche,” it is exclusionary as well as ignoring the significance of French Canadians living outside of Québec. And, of course, it also overlooks the special place of English Canadians and Aboriginal people in Canada.

Québécois may take some comfort in their heart from the Parliament of Canada’s gesture of “appreciation” and “reconciliation.” But in our heads, all Canadians must worry about what this all means. Without mutually-agreed specific changes to the constitution, the gesture will be empty and embitter relations between Québec and the rest of Canada. And multiculturalism has become one of the biggest obstacles to any accommodation.