Taking the doctor’s pulse : how to misdiagnose the Quebec problem

Taking the doctor’s pulse : how to misdiagnose the Quebec problem.
A review of Charles F. Doran’s « Why Canadian Unity Matters and Why Americans Care – Democratic Pluralism at Risk »
Review published in Isuma – Canadian Review of Policy Research, Vol 3 No 2, Fall 2002, pp 129-132

Ignorance about Quebec is in very large supply in the rest of the continent. Ignorance, outdated views, prejudice. As a correspondent in Washington for Quebec media for five years in the 1980s, then while researching 30 years of U.S. political, diplomatic, financial and media attention toward Quebec for a book on the topic, I have seen the worst, and also some of the best.

Given that background, Charles Doran’s recent take on the impact of a Quebec secession on liberal democracies is clearly above par. From his long-held position at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, Doran has monitored Canadian affairs and met some of the players. It shows. The Quebec he speaks of is the “modern, liberal, democratic, urban (and urbane) society” in which I happen to live. He goes so far as to write that today’s Quebeckers “often espouse values even more liberal than those of the Americans or of their English Canadian counterparts,” which is certainly true on a whole range of social issues, from abortion to women and gay rights. (So it is a bit confusing to also read him state: “Quebec needs an amiable English Canadian counterpart to bring out Quebec’s richest tradition, to preserve it from unremitting inwardness.” But, hey, Quebec is a complex place.)

Doran understands and approves of Quebec’s effort to defend its language. He finds natural that non-francophones work in French in the Quebec workplace, just as non-anglophones work in English in the U.S. workplace. I had never encountered an American using that argument before. He believes that the survival of Quebec society and culture is “one of the great stories of North American perseverance and courage.” Especially since, in his view, “francophone Quebec has shown great patience and respect for democratic procedures, more than one might expect to find among other cultural groupings in similar circumstances in other societies.” Refreshing.

Inaccuracies abound, some silly, some the result of a lack of serious peer review by a Quebec peer. Apart from the gem, repeated three times, that Lucien Bouchard made the word “separation” fashionable during the 1995 referendum campaign, my favourite blooper comes when Doran reveals the following: “Regardless of what it said in public about the Supreme Court’s decision (on secession), the PQ government was in fact pleased with it.” Some clues actually buttress this hypothesis. One being that the PQ government always publicly said it was pleased with it.

As usual, sovereignists are depicted as caricatures incapable of depth of thought. The book examines a range of issues— from economic integration, monetary union, NAFTA, procedures toward secession, negotiations before or after a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI), the Supreme Court’s reference on secession. An uninformed reader would draw the conclusion that the pro-independence forces have no position, or counter arguments, on any of those topics. An Internet-ready reader could find out otherwise, in an hour, in English.

For instance, Doran spends an entire chapter carefully evaluating by how much Quebec’s GDP growth per capita, in purchasing power parity, would be affected in case of secession, given the lower level of economic integration that secession would entail. He uses as a benchmark the level of integration of member countries of the European Union, pre-Euro. Reading this, you wonder at what point he will integrate the essential variable that Quebec sovereignists plan to retain the Canadian dollar (or, more recently, would be tempted to use the U.S. dollar), a powerful element of economic integration. He never does, and never explains why, rendering his whole demonstration moot. On almost every issue, his failure to take into account—even simply to dismiss —core sovereignist arguments and proposals lessens considerably the value of the exercise.

Most admirably, Doran spends a considerable amount of energy explaining how a Quebec secession would be a catastrophe for the cause of democratic pluralism he holds dear, but then states that he is willing to accept it, if brought about by democratic means. He thinks the United States should not intervene to prevent it—except to state clearly that it prefers a united Canada and that inclusion of Quebec in NAFTA will warrant negotiations—which was precisely the measured U.S. stance in 1995. In the most innovative part of the book, Doran thinks the United States should be much more forceful in impeding a further disintegration of the rest of Canada and, if this can not be avoided, should propose a “regional affiliation” to the Rest of Canada. It would grant them full autonomy for domestic policy, almost none in security and international affairs. He couches this concept in terms of an “offer,” but since he believes the United States “could not tolerate a fragmentation of the North American security space, tantamount to sacrificing its strategy for the maintenance of world order,” we have the feeling this would be an offer you couldn’t refuse.

His main thesis is lofty. Canada he writes, “is a test case for democracy world wide,” “a barometer of the modern democratic nation-state’s ability to prevail over divisive nationalism.” Well, there is no denying that the independence of Quebec would mean the failure of the Canadian experiment. But of democratic pluralism? Doran disagrees with those who believe that federated pluralistic democracies can de-federate and still be democratic pluralists. For Doran, any divorce hurts the very institution of marriage. Or, to use another metaphor, Canadian federalism would be akin to a lobster trap: it is morally right to get in, morally wrong to get out.

But let’s leave that aside and ask an even more fundamental question. Is Canada such an admirable pluralistic democracy that it ranks up there, as “the city on the hill” of which the author speaks? One would think Canada would have to show a pretty good track record to meet this demanding criteria. Doran takes it for granted that Canada—and the United States for that matter—make the cut. Having presumably been spared any and all speeches of North American heads of governments of the last century, he states: “North America is quite modest about its experiment in social and political harmony.”

Yet his being a scholarly work, one can find therein the criterion on which to judge Canada’s exemplary status. Democratic pluralism, writes Mr. Doran, “establishes through a constitution or sense of comity a framework of generally agreed upon principles, institutions and law that emerges out of individual and group preference, but also surmounts that preference, such that all groups can and must accept the framework and operate within it.”

A good definition if I ever saw one. I will nitpick on the terms “agreed upon” and “all groups can and must accept.” Then ask the question: when did Quebeckers “agree upon” or “accept” the constitution of Canada, its basic set of rules? It is interesting to note that, back in 1867, Quebeckers were promised a referendum on the new constitution and didn’t get it. The election of September 1867 which saw the slim victory of pro-confederation forces in Quebec shows why. Voting was not held for various reasons in a third of the ridings and in a number of urban francophone neighbourhoods known to oppose the pact. Citizens were repeatedly warned by the Church that voting against the pro-confederation party was a mortal sin. The ballot was not secret, as was the rule at the time, and priests were specifically forbidden to give absolution to the unrepentant sinners. Which meant, litterally, hell. Still 45 percent of the Quebeckers permitted to vote put their eternal souls at risk. There is no question that, but for blatant fraud, Quebeckers would have rejected the pact.

But why live in the past? The issue is clearer for the 1982 constitution, that shrank Quebec’s autonomy generally speaking, and specifically in education and language. Again, no referendum was held. Both parties in the Quebec National Assembly were opposed to it. In the following federal election, 66 percent of the voters ousted the Quebec federal MPs who had voted for it and elected instead MPs who vowed to repair the damage. In 1992, when a referendum was held on an agreement that was advertised as a new, repaired and improved version of the 1982 constitution, 57 percent of Quebeckers still believed that this version could not be accepted, let alone the previous one. In 1999, against the wish of all parties in the Quebec National Assembly and a majority of Quebec MPs in Ottawa, the federal government and nine provinces signed a Social Union pact that attempted (so far to no avail) to further centralize social policy in Canada, with the effect of further shrinking Quebec’s autonomy. Then in 2000, against the wish of all parties in the Quebec National Assembly and a majority of Quebec MPs in Ottawa, the federal government adopted rules for secession that replaced the Supreme Court’s careful road map by a dangerous mine field.

It seems Doran missed these items— except for the Social Union, which he terms a victory for asymmetrical federalism and for Quebec. But one has to allow for the author’s only footnoted source on the issue: an editorial in Maclean’s. None of the criticisms leveled at Canada by Quebeckers—sovereigntists or federalists—are considered by the author. They are either filed under the heading of no-longer existing discrimination, or under the general “perceived grievances” label. End of story.

I earnestly insist: Doran should not be judged too harshly. After all, these fatal flaws in the basic architecture of Canadian democratic pluralism (the fact that one of the two federated nations does not agree with the rules) are routinely ignored. One has to state that the emperor is clothed. Bill Clinton did twice. In early 1995, in a speech to Parliament, he waxed eloquently on the “model” of conciliation and concord that was Canada. No matter that, in front of him, separatist MPs from Quebec were so numerous as to form the official opposition, and that, in Quebec where the constitution was still not signed, a separatist party had just been elected. How a model of conciliation could produce such results, he did not say.

In the fall of 1999, at the famous Mont-Tremblant conference on federalism, he gave his criterion for a successful federation. “One of the reasons you have all these people clamoring for the independence of ever smaller groups is that they had a kind of phony federalism imposed from the top down,” he very knowledgeably explained. “The federalism must be real,” he added. “There must be some real sense of shared authority. And people must know they have some real range of autonomy for decisions.” And then he said how much: “It must more or less correspond to what they perceive they need.”

How could he not know that Canada fails at this very criterion. That an immense majority of Quebeckers, and an immense majority of their elected officials, perceive they need more autonomy than they have now? That has been the central issue of Québec-Canada relations for 40 years.

So Doran is in good company in giving Canada a passing grade without reviewing the assignment. He repeats this feat— again as almost everyone else in anglo-America– where culture and language are concerned. “Pluralism protects the culture and identity of the respective communities, he writes. Because the culture and the identity of the community are secure, the community is able to participate in the activities of the larger polity.” That sounds fine. But what if the culture is not secure? Mr Doran states: “change has taken place for the better in English Canada towards francophones in a mere twenty-year period.” He must mean change in attitudes and in law. But what would it cost to simply check the numbers and see how secure the community is in reality? Outside Quebec, francophones who formed seven percent of the population in 1951 are now only four percent. Those who still speak the language at home dropped by a quarter in the last 25 years. Mr. Doran states that, in pluralistic democracies like Canada, “assimilation is not required”. Not by law, but it is happening fast: it now reaches 35 percent per generation outside Quebec, 46 percent outside Quebec and Acadia. The fact that English Canadian society is, as we speak, successfully assimilating what used to be its main minority— Chinese speakers now outnumber French speakers outside Quebec—is a historic event. So yes, the level of care has risen, but the condition of the patient is worsening as rapidly as before, with no sign of recovery. Doran, as do most American observers, checks only the doctor’s pulse.

This is not in itself an argument for independence. But it should give pause to those who would put Canada on the pedestal of democratic pluralisM. If secession occurs, it may be because Canada failed in living up to democratic pluralism and securing the culture and identity of its constituent communities, not despite having done so.


*  Jean-François Lisée, a former Washington correspondent for La Presse and author of a book on U.S. attitudes toward Quebec (Dans l’oeil de l’aigle, Governor general’s award for non fiction in 1990). Mr Lisée was advisor to both Quebec premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, and author, most recently, of Sortie de secours. He is currently a Fellow researcher in the Political Science department at the University of Montreal.