World history, both ancient and modern, demonstrates that in countries inhabited by more than one significant identity group, national unity can never be taken for granted. Inter-group relations can never be “solved” for all time, but are a constant challenge that must be regularly managed and occasionally re-examined in depth as circumstances change.
Canada has had at least five constitutional regimes since European settlement. Our current framework dates from 1867, and although it has been subject to frequent tinkering – especially in 1982 with the addition of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – it has never had a complete overhaul.
Even Great Britain, which has never had a written constitution on the theory that an unwritten one is more adaptable, is now facing a serious secession movement in Scotland, and in September the Scots will hold their first referendum ever on their independence from the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, much has changed since 1867. Instead being one of four provinces, Quebec is now one of ten plus three territories. Instead of 3.5 million people, Canada now has ten times that number, and we have been accepting another quarter of a million immigrants yearly since 2006 – a record high number, with most belonging to “visible minorities”. Instead of making up a third of the population as they did in 1867, francophone Quebeckers are down to about a fifth and falling. Rather than being staunchly Christian and largely Roman Catholic as in 1867, modern Canadians are generally far less observant while professing a kaleidoscope of religious beliefs, with recent immigrants often being the most fervent. And today’s Canada is overwhelmingly urban, as opposed to largely rural at Confederation.
In the face of such vast domestic demographic and economic change, not to mention the rise of a global economy in which everyone must compete with everyone else (largely in English), perhaps it is time for a major rethink of the basis on which we all share the northern half of our great continent. Is the deal struck 150 years ago by the Fathers of Confederation still appropriate for today’s vastly different realities? After all, there is a point at which a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind.
The responsibility for managing national unity in any country belongs to the political class. Its first job is to develop and maintain a broad consensus that the nation in question is worth preserving. In Canada, our political class is failing at this basic task.
So – is Canada worth preserving as a single country? And if so, who will make this happen?
To judge by much recent commentary, even though in theory the answer to the first question may be Yes, many Canadians outside Quebec are just too weary of the matter to bother. Margaret Wente says the marriage has grown cold, and we don’t love them (Quebec) any more. Rex Murphy says that English Canada has exhausted its sympathies and energy for the topic, and has moved on. John Ibbitson says that Albertans have no interest in Quebec’s election or possible referendum. But none of them considers the potentially disastrous consequences of such apathy for all Canadians.
In the end, almost everything in human affairs comes down to leadership. It was the leadership of Macdonald, Brown, Cartier and others that brought about Confederation. And it is leadership that must hold Canada together in our time, or else opposing leadership in Quebec may tear it apart.
As a Canadian and a Quebecker, I and millions like me want Canada to survive. But we need evidence that the rest of Canada wants the same thing. Above all, we will need leadership from our political class in Ottawa and our nine provincial capitals east and west of Quebec.
And be warned: if we escape the bullet this time in the event the Parti Québécois fails to win a majority on April 7, the reprieve will be only temporary. One day a PQ majority will come, and their careful plan to take Quebec out of Canada will be set in motion, perhaps irreversibly.
As Edmund Burke observed, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Peter G. White was president of the Council for Canadian Unity during the close-fought Quebec referendum of 1995. He lives in Knowlton, Que.