The rise of the “Scottish question” is an exercise in reverse colonialism: The Brits are now turning to Canada for sober lessons in how to manage nationalist movements and secure the state in the face of secessionist referendums. Their presumption is that, having lived through countless constitutional rounds, first ministers meetings, referendums and federal and provincial elections centred around the fate of Quebec (within or without Canada), it must invariably be that the “Quebec question” lies at the very heart of Canadian public life.
But officials at Westminster in search of good advice from Canada might be surprised – indeed, puzzled – to find that, some two decades after the deaths of the Meech and Charlottetown accords, no new generation of thinkers, practitioners and “stars” has yet emerged in Canada to lay claim to sure-footed stewardship of the question that has suffused most key debates over the Canadian project since Confederation.
While Canada has progressed into this new century, the law schools have ceased to produce great young scholars of federalism, prime minister-chaired first ministers conferences no longer take place, and a new coterie of politicians has moved to the fore with precious little familiarity with, immersion in, and instinct for the Quebec question and its peculiar nuances.
In short, on the Quebec question, there has been no passing of the torch or changing of the guard. In Quebec political circles, the repli sur soi is nearly perfect: The social imaginary abstracts brutally from the idea of a larger Canada. In Ottawa and other Canadian political capitals, professional and personal relationships with the next generation of important Quebec political actors and thinkers are perfunctory at best, and non-existent at worst.
A combination of scar tissue from past battles and the supposition – self-fulfilling or not – that the old dances around the Quebec question can only issue in pain (for one or more sides) have led to an awkward conspiracy of silence in our national political discourse: Everyone knows that the Quebec question exists, and that it has a certain import, but no one wishes to discuss it openly or often. Of course, over time, people forget how to speak about the question altogether.
What’s wrong with silence if it keeps the country together? Answer: problems of judgment and problems of system. Far from being certain about the wisdom of their silence on the Quebec question, new-generation political actors with no felt history on the issue, or deep friendships with “the other” to tap, will have great difficulty making proper policy assessments on matters of state ranging from national unity to immigration, regional development, language policy and institution-building. And on constitutional matters – Quebec-centred or not – political and intellectual virginity on the Quebec question can only result in incompetent weighing of the pros and cons relating to particular amendments. The consequences of such incompetence are notorious.
The systems critique of this silence is as follows: Without Quebec in the mix, and notwithstanding the recent economic rise of the West, few policy initiatives of pan-Canadian scale and impact can be realized. In a complex federation with ever-complex, new-century issues, the pretension to each level of government living blissfully within its own solitude is, in the end, a recipe for Canadian stasis and underperformance vis-à-vis other more dynamic political units.
Great projects require the dynamism of the whole, and Quebec, with its vast geography, demographic weight and unique vocation – has always been a key impulse in that whole. Indeed, in addition to the major Canadian policy achievements that have near-direct Québécois inspiration (bilingualism and the Charter, for example), it’s the very instinct to engage in, and be master of, the Quebec question that has driven successive generations of political leaders to deliver results, by proxy, in analogous areas such as majority-minority relations, social policy and even foreign policy.
The antidote to an impoverished national politics is the deliberate fostering of a new generation of top thinkers and public practitioners that engages, head on, the Quebec question on its own terms. This generation must be identified (or must self-identify), and it must frame the Quebec question in a way that’s true to the times and challenges before us.
The Brits – the Scots perhaps chief among them – and many other countries will be taking careful notes, and praying we have something interesting to say.
Irvin Studin is program director and assistant professor in the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. He is also editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief magazine.