It’s always been debatable whether we really did federalism any favours, the thousands of rest-of-Canada anglos who descended on Montreal in October of 1995.
I distinctly recall standing alongside a few other students on a subway platform, waving paired Maple Leaf and Fleur-de-lis flags at an oncoming train, and getting an almost indescribably hostile face from its driver in return. It’s unlikely he was planning to vote “non” regardless, but suffice it to say we didn’t convert him.
So maybe it would be a good thing if another sovereignty referendum – a possibility we have to at least consider, with the Parti Québécois potentially reclaiming power in less than two weeks – didn’t prompt so unsubtle a response from those who don’t really understand Quebec’s dynamics.
Still, there is something unsettling and slightly depressing about the prospect of the country splitting in two being greeted with a collective shrug by Canadians. And to consider where our heads are at now, and how different that is from where they were a generation ago, is to wonder if that would indeed be the reaction.
In some ways, our patriotism is more muscular than ever. Stick a maple leaf on an athlete, and watch TV ratings go through the roof. Honour troops at a public event, and listen to the crowd roar. Ask us about the Far North, even if we’re not sure where it is exactly, and we’ll tell you we own it.
Heavily promoted by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, these are all fine symbols to celebrate. Along with other, somewhat more dubious sources of national pride – a certain doughnut chain, for instance – they unite Albertans and Ontarians and Newfoundlanders. But with the exception of hockey, they don’t translate especially well into Quebec.
Mr. Harper is the first prime minister in modern history who’s neither from Quebec nor needs its support to remain in power, which might explain the lack of bridge-building. But there’s also an underlying phenomenon to which he’s been responding.
While it’s long been on shaky ground in Western Canada, the whole “two solitudes” bit has probably never been less meaningful nationwide, including heretofore receptive Ontario. The more that our cities are defined by multiethnicity, the more our two founding people are something for the history books. That’s doesn’t mean most Canadians, new or otherwise, want Quebec gone; only that the attachment is less emotional than practical.
Unfortunately, the practical isn’t trending real well, either.
Seventeen years ago, the notion of a hole in the middle of the country was inconceivable. In a much more globalized world, with physical boundaries impeding communication less than ever before, it might not seem a death wound.
Globalization has also involved a near-universal commitment to reducing trade barriers. Having watched what’s happened in Europe in particular, the notion of Quebec going it alone – a debt-ridden province abandoning the shelter it’s provided by an unusually stable country – is so absurd that many Canadians would be disinclined to take it seriously.
Based partly on Montreal’s status as a hipster mecca, Quebec has until recently at least had a certain left-of-centre appeal to 20- and 30-something urbanites elsewhere. But if the PQ wins the Sept. 4 election, it will have done so while campaigning on an overtly anti-immigrant agenda that could – probably should – jeopardize that affinity.
When an Ipsos Reid poll released earlier this summer suggested that roughly half of Canadians outside Quebec didn’t care if it separated, it wasn’t counterintuitive. It’s improbable those attitudes have improved much, from a federalist perspective, during the campaign.
And yet, for all that, frustration does not necessarily equal commonsense, and neither does indifference. To have that hole in the middle of the country, to be proven divisible, to abandon a mostly successful experiment that began a century and a half ago – these are not things that a government, or a country, should want to do.
It’s impossible to know what sorts of raw emotions will rise to the fore in the event of a unity crisis; maybe other Canadians will be painting their faces red and white and boarding buses again. Maybe it’s better if they don’t. But would complacency send a much better signal?