The Monarchist League said Michaëlle Jean should “clear the air” about her views on Quebec. That was going too far. There’s been nothing clear in Quebec-Canada relations for decades. Those who want it clear, like Jean Chrétien, soon become irrelevant. I prefer people who can operate intelligently inside the murk, like Yvon Deschamps, who said Quebeckers want an independent Quebec in a united Canada.

From the other pole, separatist militants accused her of “soaking for ages in the sovereigntist atmosphere.” Well, I should hope so. You’d be mentally comatose in Quebec if you hadn’t. Especially if you came from Haiti, the first non-white nation to win independence, and crucified ever since. You’d vibrate to the strains of Quebec nationalism. Then you’d try to decide what that implied concretely in the Canadian situation.

The new G-G has now spoken “unequivocally” (her term), and I’m disappointed. I favour a ration of ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty. I have a bias for any political position that starts, “It’s hard to say . . .” or, “It depends.” That’s the nature of politics in real time: It unfolds and surprises. When Lenin the Bolshevik took power in Russia, he decided a little capitalism was in order. When Churchill, who tried to “strangle Bolshevism in its cradle,” allied with Stalin, he said he’d join the devil himself to beat Hitler.

Similarly Quebec: At times, I felt a sovereign Quebec and Canada with good relations would be better for us all than the hateful embrace in which we were locked. Other times, I felt it would be better for us if they left: e.g., when Parti Québécois leader Jacques Parizeau supported free trade with the U.S. because it would speed the demise of Canada. Ambivalence has been rife in Quebec. A former FLQ terrorist is said to have entered the booth for the 1980 referendum to vote for his lifelong dream, and found himself asking, “Do I really want this thing?”

Andrew Coyne in the National Post wondered whether the new G-G believes in Canada. Since when is Canada a religion? For that matter, it’s not so easy to say if you believe in God. It depends, doesn’t it, on what the term means? Venturing an opinion, though, I’d say I don’t believe in a Canada of eternal values like national unity or even public health care. I “believe in Canada” as a co-operative venture, in which its various people struggle democratically to accommodate their various needs and ideals.

We’re the Arars, not the Osbournes: A filmmaker I know was thrilled when her request for rights to the Maher Arar story was rejected. Not just hers but all requests. The family is resolved, it seems, to preserve its privacy. So there are still those among us who value privacy deeply, in case you thought the concept was extinct.

If it’s endangered, it’s not because so many people let cameras into their homes and lives. It’s because they don’t seem to realize you can’t “go public” and retain privacy. You keep at most the trappings of privacy: the fact you live in a home etc. But there is no such thing as public privacy.

What’s interesting about the Arars is they are already public, but for public, political reasons. They are model citizens, really. They demanded justice for themselves and others treated brutally in the post-9/11 era. They are having a hellish time at the public inquiry on their case. The government stonewalls over security at every point. They must be tempted to give up. But they soldier on, for the public good.

Perhaps their strength comes from their sense of privacy. It seems to me it is hard to have a healthy public life without a healthy private life. The latter cushions the blows of the former. But also: If you destroy the realm of the private by invading and broadcasting it, then that realm tends to slither across into the public arena and take it over. Politics comes to be about the sex lives of leaders and the private concerns (abortion, sexual preference etc.) of citizens. True public issues — justice, social equality, relations among nations and peoples — get elbowed out. We owe a debt to the Arars. (Hmm. A potential G-G couple? Maybe next time . . .)


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.