Quebec and the rest of Canada: Why we shouldn't fear conversations about sovereignty

| September 5, 2012
Photo: Alexandre Guedon

“If you look at Québec solidaire, they’re a hard left political party that believes in the separation of our country” -Ian Capstick, former NDP staffer, with some unhelpful rhetoric this morning on The Current.

 Tonight, eyes across Canada will be on Québec. It's nice to have everyone pay attention. I didn't feel like during the last Ontario election the outcome mattered all that much and so no one was watching. It was clear that the PCs had fumbled and the NDP would pick up a few protest votes cast to spite the Liberals more than support the NDP. In retrospect, there probably would have been no difference between a McGuinty ultra majority, or a Conservative majority, so Québec's election is a good reminder that sometimes, yes, elections matter.

There's been a lot of scary writing by people about how we're all doomed if (when) the PQ wins.

In the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election, the best insult Liberals could hurl at Mulcair is that he's a separatist (which, to argue this must ignore nearly all of his political past).

Inspired by what I've seen online this past week, I'm writing to assure you, dear Canadian, that there's no reason to be worried about the future of Canada as it may or may not hinge on tonight's results. No, you should worry about the future of Canada for other reasons.

Some people use Québec to scare non-Québec Canadians to whip up nationalistic feelings of patriotism so that we simply fall in line. Just like Marois has done to avoid talking about real policies, commentators in the ROC are doing the same thing.

It's easier to scare people with the belief that Canada is about to collapse because of Québec than to allow Canadians to see which public policies are possible, like 7$/day daycare. If Canadians knew about Québec's approach to social programs they might just start demanding them in Nova Scotia or Ontario. They might start taking to the streets in the hundreds of thousands.

Instead: fear separation. Fear the separatists who hate Canada like terrorists hate freedom.

I can't bring myself to the level of nationalistic, Canadian fervor to become concerned with the protection and maintenance of Canada's borders. Despite being an Anglophone living in Québec, studying in Saskatchewan and with all my family in Ontario, I don't understand the fear that it seems folks have with having this discussion.

Our borders are invented. They run through national lines that had evolved through war, cooperation, familial lines and trade. We had no part in shaping them. They were imposed upon this land by a few people in England and a few people in Canada. Like the myths that surround Pierre Trudeau, our borders have taken on a place in our consciousness that builds them up to be something that they aren’t really.

Québecers have a history of being hyper aware of their place, or non-place, in the Canadian confederation, so it's no surprise to me that the conversation has traditionally been of sovereignty or federalism. But this dichotomy isn't good enough. It's clear to me that we have to evolve this discussion beyond "will I need a passport to visit Québec?"

Québec isn't going to change the make-up of this Canada. New models of self-governance emerging from First Nations communities are the biggest "threat" to Canadian federalism, and I support these struggles. If First Nations communities can succeed in winning their autonomy from local authorities, and if they can enter into new kinds of relationships with existing provinces or municipalities, well then, we will have a new model on our hands. And it may work for the rest of us too. It would change the face of the Canadian federation for the better.

When I hear about sovereignty, I hear people who are legitimately frustrated and angry with a federal government that they, by in large, did not elect. I hear people outraged that their money is being spent on war rather than education or pharmacare. I hear people who are scared that the relentless drive toward English that exists around the world through the movement of global capital will also wash out the French from this province.

I hear similar frustrations in Ontario and Saskatchewan too. The difference is that the answer isn't to have a full-scale reexamination of our borders. Instead, there is no answer. It's normally just sighing, disenfranchisement and anger washed down by a a beer.

Our people make up Canada: WE are Canada and people are hurting, bad. When can we talk about the hurt that our borders and our political system have inflicted upon us? And, for the ROC, when can we/you ask the question, what must change to make it better for our communities?

I've avoided dissecting the problems with the PQ version of sovereignty so far, of which there are many, just because it's another post altogether. But the PQ's wants the easiest path to a free Québec: have a vote, win, declare independence. This isn't sufficient. It takes on the same nationalistic xenophobia that exists in the rest of Canada, translates it, and uses it to create a mini, French version of what Québec just ceded from. Parizeau's "money and the ethnic vote" comment in 1995 was a good indication of the problems with how the last push for sovereignty was formulated. I wrote an essay on it in Grade 10 history.

But the current rhetoric from Marois is just real politik. She's trying to get elected. Her polls are saying that this rhetoric will work in target ridings and she's going for it. That's how our democracy works. She's playing by the same rulebook as all the other mainstream parties. Taking issue with Marois' approach is to take issue with the manifestation of Canadian democracy itself.

This is why new discussions emerging from Québec solidaire, for example, are so important. Their’s is a new way to approach this issue. It's inclusive. It offers the rest of Canada a potential model for the reenfranchisement of people everywhere.

Why are partisan political commentators so concerned when we talk about changing those borders?

These debates are dangerous because they threaten the only thing that gives our federal government its legitimacy. Partisans know that if Québec has this discussion, confederation is threatened. Alberta will go next. Then Newfoundland. Then Northwestern Ontario. Political parties could no longer fight each other for total control of the world’s second-largest land mass, the home to 20% of the world’s fresh water.

As you've probably heard from an ex … this isn't about you. It's about them.

Handwringing over sovereignty is a game of political elites. Don't get caught up in this debate on their terms. Redefine the terms of the debate and ask yourself critical questions: is there a better way to organize ourselves? How does it look? What would it take to move us there?

As a progressive person, I have to believe that the local decision-making of engaged and involved communities is the most important node of power. I have to believe that community empowerment is the first line of defense in the struggle to take back our democracy and I have to believe that this may result in a rejection of the borders that were imposed on all of us by people we didn't elect.

I also have to believe that people are near-universally awesome and solidarity means that we create experiences for us to travel, live among communities that we're unfamiliar with, explore landscapes where we've never been and honour the traditions that have come from these lands regardless of the political structure that exists around us.

Controlling borders, granting access to some to enter and imprisoning others is all about power. I don't want to be part of a system that treats people this way and I'm prepared for the challenge and the work it will take to change this.

To end, I want to acknowledge how painful a process of going through a discussion like this is. I imagine that for many Québecers, the thought of enduring a referendum process is worse than the possible outcomes and the anticipation of this pain (and the memory of it from 1995 and 1980) is enough to not want to touch this question ever again. The question of sovereignty divided people here: neighbours, families and communities. It wasn't the process that I advocate above. Québecers who endured these campaigns are right to be nervous, frustrated and angry with the PQ's rhetoric.

But all ye in the rest of Canada do not have a similar right. It's like feeling like you earned a gold medal when you're watching someone on the TV flip back and forth on a trampoline. You didn't earn it. You can't even flip once on a trampoline.

Don't fear conversations about sovereignty. Instead, use this discussion to open a space in your community have your own discussions: does the political system we have, accompanied by the borders created to control our movement, our identities and commerce, serve us or oppress us?

And what about for people who aren't "us"?

 

Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Québec City. She is mid-way through a Master's in Education Foundations at the University of Saskatchewan. She is formerly the Editor-in-Chief of the Ryerson Free Press and the Communications and Government Relations Coordinator for the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario. Nora's music can be heard here: www.soundcloud.ca/nora-loreto and her blog is at www.noraloreto.ca

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Comments

Your observations are complex and appropriate. As a long-time Quebecer and eco-lefty, I want to reiterate your observation that Quebec Solidaire encompasses a movement that is unique and worth supporting.
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