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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Irvin Studin

Team Quebec exposes rust in Canada's game Add to ...

Passion rules the universe. - Isaac Babel

What's in a national hockey team? In Canada, almost everything.

In a country with a slender few national institutions - Parliament, the civil service, the Canadian Forces - to seriously unite the country across its vast geography, there is no institution that so poetically binds anglo and franco solitudes in psychic solidarity as hockey's Team Canada.

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Earlier this year, Team Canada's victory in the Olympic gold-medal game attracted an average audience of 16.6 million people, nearly half the country's total population - the most watched television event in Canadian history. It captured the imagination and channelled the passions of English and French Canada alike.

One would presume that the country would protect and promote this institution with all its energy. So the news that Hockey Canada has approved the establishment of a new Team Quebec to represent the province in the new Quebec Cup tournament, against other national teams from different countries, can't be seen as anything but stunning.

It may seem innocuous - after all, it's just a hockey team - but this decision sets up a competitive national hockey brand, and an entirely separate, parallel imagination for Quebec's hockey players and fans alike. Whereas Quebec's NHLers and young prodigies have long prized membership on Team Canada, at least as much as players from the rest of Canada, the creation of Team Quebec introduces a new symbol that dilutes and threatens, over time, to rival the prestige of the older one. (There will invariably be pressure for a Canada-Quebec hockey series.)

And whereas even sovereigntists, hard nationalists and skeptical federalists from Quebec have, to date, all been grudging admirers, if not great enthusiasts, of Canadian hockey and the legendary national team, Team Quebec gives them an altogether more comfortable and tribally more familiar sweater to support. Whatever its quality, Team Canada will eventually have difficulty competing for their affections.

Symbols matters. (It's no wonder that Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe has been naming his Team Quebec, player by player, since at least 2005.) And while dogmatic symbols often create refractory dynamics between the two solitudes, long-respected ones such as Team Canada ought to be safeguarded with an iron will and continued vigilance.

That such vigilance was absent in the Team Quebec decision suggests at least two things, both of which are cause for concern: First, that top decision-makers fail to appreciate the team's singular unifying value as a symbol and institution for all Canadians; and second, that our historically sharp instincts on the national unity question have been blunted over the years through the apparent absence of "action."

The first proposition suggests that Team Quebec should never have been allowed to see the light of day (and that it should be discontinued immediately after the Quebec Cup), and that Team Canada should be playing as often as possible, for all Canadians to celebrate collectively. The second proposition suggests that we had better bring adult policy and political supervision to the national unity file.

There will soon be another separatist government in power in Quebec. Not having argued over the Constitution in some time, most of Ottawa and the English-language political commentariat have little intelligence about the goings-on in Quebec City and the National Assembly, few contacts among the new generation of Quebec sovereigntists (among them a number of impressive young guns), and little in the way of strategy for dealing with eventualities that have been part of Canada's natural political cycle for decades.

Having convinced ourselves that everything on that quiet front must be fine, we should see the hockey decision as a dangerous sign of rustiness in a much larger game that can't be lost.

Irvin Studin is program director and assistant professor in the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto.

 

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