Sunday, November 26, 2006

Quebec is a nation ....

Is Quebec a nation? The answer, according to Prime Minister Harper, is “yes”, within Canada. Others are less sure. Gilles Duceppe, a big fan of the “nation” designation for Quebec, waffled before agreeing to support a proposed resolution in the federal Parliament that would, in effect, say that Parliament recognizes Quebecers as a nation because the words “in a united Canada” were included in the resolution. Michael Ignatieff feels vindicated because he took a lot of hear earlier this year for suggesting something similar. Jack Layton and the NDP will support this resolution because they always have, or so Mr. Layton says. Claire Hoy, on the Michael Coran show (CTS), freaked out. Quebec, he said, is not a nation; its a province. According to Hoy, this resolution is the thin edge of the wedge. Pretty soon, he said, the Supreme Court will get hold of this designation and start doing horrible things. What horrible things? Well ... Hoy didn’t actually say but they will be truly, truly horrible .... So ... is Quebec a nation? Are Quebecois(es) a nation?

Well ... of course Quebec is a nation. The only thing Mr. Hoy demonstrated in rejecting this designation is that he has no idea what a nation actually is (he seems to have confused the term “nation” and “state”). This begs the far more important question: what does being a nation mean? If there is a merit to Mr. Harper’s it allows us to address this issue and understand its importance for Quebecers. This resolution is about how we define Quebec difference from the rest of Canada. What is missing in the discussion so far is three things: (1) an understanding of the importance of self-definition, (2) an understanding of the complex character of Quebec society, and (3) some consideration of the implications of collective definitions. A blog is too short a space to address these points systematically so let me say just a few words on each.

First, a resolution in Parliament that defines Quebec as a nation is about self-definition and having others accept that definition. Defining a group of people as a nation is not be about “making the grade”, as if this collective self-definition implied access to some sort of exclusive international club. The problem with public discourse on the “is Quebec a nation” question is that it proceeds as if we have not had the last generation of scholarship on the meaning of the term nation. It used to be the case -- when I was an undergraduate -- that the term “nation” was deployed in specific circumstances when a group of people met a series of pre-determined an abstract criteria. I can even remember a good part of the definition: a nation is a group of people sharing a coherent geographic territory and marked by a common culture, shared historical experience, and common language and/or religion. Moreover, there was an assumed equivalency between a nation and a state: where the nation existed so to did (or, should) the state.

Contemporary scholarship casts doubts on this static conception of nation. Nations, contemporary scholarship has it, are historical formations. They are “imaginative”, not in the sense that they are fantasy, but in the sense that they exist or do not exist on the basis of belief. A nation is called into being when people believe they are a nation and not because an intellectual or academic or political figure decides a nation exists. What all this means is that the ideal of nation is shifting. Contemporary definitions pay less attention to language as a spoken mode of communication and more attention to language as a shared system of signification. Older definitions of nation were one-shot deals: being a member of nation X meant that one could not be a member of nation Y (for example, one was either a Scot or a Briton; one could not be both). More recent conceptions of nation would lead us to question this zero sum approach to nationality. It is also now clear that the exact connection between nation and state is problematic, as opposed to direct. There are, in all likelihood, thousands of state-less nations in the world and no state contains only a single nation.

Does this mean that the designation “nation” is meaningless? Is it a cultural construction that has no trans-historical reality? Perhaps, but that does not mean it is meaningless. There are a variety of reasons why the designation “nation” is meaningful but, it seems to me, the most pressing is that it can involve a process of self-definition. In the past, denying a people the status of “nation” was held to be the equivalent of denying self-determination. Perhaps, but today the stakes are different. To deny a group of people a name they take on themselves is to reject their right to define themselves. For instance, if Quebecers wanted to be a considered a nation and if English Canadians rejected that, what English Canadians would be rejecting is not an international status, but a group of people’s conception of themselves. English Canadians would, in effect, be claiming the right to define who Quebecers were; to prescribe to Quebecers their sense of collective self. Infringing the right of a people to define themselves would, in my view, be deeply undemocratic. The stakes are not, therefore, meaningless. If Quebecers support this designation -- a nation within Canada -- and I think they clearly do, then recognition of this sense of self on the part of English Canada is a good thing. It shows respect for democracy and the right of self-definition.

This said, I also think it needs to be acknowledged that Quebec is not a monolithic entity. If most Quebecers support this conception of Quebec, then, there is reason, in a democratic society, to consider it seriously and, I believe, support it. Accepting Quebecers self-conception as a nation does not, of course, in a democratic society, mean that the debate is over. I suspect it is not over in Quebec. Folks who oppose this resolution and the idea that stands behind it, in a democracy, retain their right to speak in reason on the issue. Those who support it, in a democratic society, are obligated to listen in respect. Quebec is a diverse province; Quebecois(es) will be a diverse nation. Quebec will be no more monolithic than Canada. Designating Quebec as a nation within Canada will not change that. There will still be issues with First Nations to be addressed; issues of settlement and diversity within Quebec; the problems caused by socio-economic inequality go no where because of this designation. Whatever the exact wording of this resolution, English Canadians have to stop thinking about Quebec as a single entity. The longer they do, the longer they will not understanding Quebecois(es). This should be easy. After all: Canada is a pretty diverse place and its a nation. The same thing can and needs to be said for Quebec.

Finally, what are the implications of this. Is Hoy right? The resolution opens the door for Supreme Court meddling in political affairs that will bring disaster in their wake? Well ... the short answer is we don’t know. I’ve argued that this resolution is meaningful in a cultural and discursive sense and that culture and discourse are important. Is it meaningful in a constitutional sense. I suspect it is, but in ways that actually work with existing divisions of power in Canada and the already established differences (noted in the constitution) between Quebec and the Rest of Canada. In other words, there is a framework that the court will need to consider if it has to rule on anything that involves Quebec’s national status. But, prognostications of disaster are clearly premature and, in fact, irresponsible. The simple fact that Hoy could not tell us what disaster was about to happen is a mark of the fact that he’s just sowing discord. Let’s wait and see. There are implications to this resolution but they are not clear. And, if they are not clear, I see no reason to assume they will bring disaster in their wake. The opposite is just as possible.
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