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Howard Anglin: Country, Province, and Nation: What makes the Québécois a nation?

Commentary

Part II:

Part I began to explore the distinction between a nation and a province in response to Saskatchewan’s recent white paper “Drawing the Line.” This Part II provides an answer to why the Québécois are a nation, and why Saskatchewan isn’t. Part III will explain why the distinction shouldn’t matter for the proper working of Canadian federalism.

“Drawing the Line,” the recently-published white paper by the Government of Saskatchewan that advocates a more aggressive assertion of provincial autonomy, repeats Premier Scott Moe’s statement last year that “Saskatchewan needs to be a nation within a nation.” It’s a curious inclusion. Why is it not enough to demand more power for the province qua province? Why introduce the sticky subject of nationality and nationhood? It must be because a nation is something more than a province (or a country), and the government thinks that whatever this is adds to its constitutional claim. It is right on the first point, but not on the second. 

The claim that Saskatchewan needs to be “a nation within a nation” asks implicitly why we recognize the Québécois (or Quebec) as a nation and not Saskatchewan. It is an important question, though not a particularly difficult one. The answer is that there is something about the way the Québécois are different from other Canadians that transcends the ways in which the people of the other provinces are different from each other. In the case of Quebec, those ways are clear. You don’t even have to accept the continuing relevance of the idea of Two Founding PeoplesOr “two founding races,” to use the old and now unfashionable term. See, eg, Mr Pearson’s 1963 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which was to “inquire and report upon the existing state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada and to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races, taking into account the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada.” to recognize that the Québécois (and, for that matter, Quebec) are uniquely distinct within Canada. 

The claim that the Québécois have a qualitatively distinct culture (or that Quebec forms a distinct society) worthy of “national” status is inextricable from the fact of the French language. Charles Taylor has written extensively about how, in our post-Romantic world, the need for identity (and, importantly, recognition of one’s identity) is also a project of emancipation.See, eg Charles Taylor, Why Do Nations Have to Become States?, in Stanley French (ed), Philosophers Look at Canadian Confederation (1979). Writing about Quebec specifically, he has explained that “the singling out of linguistic nationality as the paradigm pole of self-identity is part of this modern drive to emancipation.”id. There is simply no comparable drive for generative self-creation in any other province.

But if the most obvious difference is linguistic, the differences aren’t only linguistic.At least since the 1960s, the Government of Quebec has claimed to be the political expression of a Québécois nation but it doesn’t seek to include Franco-Ontarians or New Brunswick Acadians within the definition of “Québécois” or to expand the borders of Quebec to include these contiguous people, which would be logical if the identity were purely linguistic. This is a consequence of the separatist movement’s recognition that the French language and a distinct culture were best defended by a political entity that was majority French Canadian. Hence the definition of the Québécois in geographic terms as well as along cultural (and, usually, linguistic) lines. René Lévesque even went so far as to label French Canadians outside the province “dead ducks.” By contrast, Pierre Trudeau insisted that “the Quebec Legislature has no authority to speak on behalf of ‘French Canada’” because of the reality of non-Quebec French-Canada, though even he accepted that “because of historical circumstances Quebec has had to, and must still, assume responsibility for the French language and culture.” While the French language is the central feature of Québécois nationalism, the fact that some provincial residents included among “the Québécois” speak French imperfectly and others not all, while other people just across the Ottawa and Restigouche rivers who speak fluent French are not included within the nation, means that there must be a component of national identity beyond language. For want of a more precise term, this extra-linguistic component of identity is culture, and specifically “culture” in a deep sense that goes beyond what we mean when we talk about the culture of Calgary being different from the culture of Edmonton. 

For culture to be a definitive component of national identity, it must be rooted in and reinforced by factors that are separate not just in degree but in kind from anything experienced in other parts of the country. Where, then, does Québécois culture come from? Once again, linguistic difference matters. The idea that the language we speak influences the way we think is not new. It is likely that simply by dint of speaking (and thinking in) another language, a people develop a distinct culture. The predominantly French-speaking parts of Canada can be said then to have a separate culture in a way that no predominantly English-speaking region can. 

Nor should we underestimate the effects of the closed media environment that this linguistic separateness requires. More than any other region, Quebec speaks to itself. Most Québécois consume news of the rest of the country second-hand, only after it has been translated both literally and culturally by the province’s media. This linguistic isolation appears to be self-reinforcing: small differences are exaggerated, while large differences are entrenched as cultural and political dogma.

But language is only part of the story. The other source of Quebec’s cultural difference is religious. This was clear for the first half of Canadian history when the province stood out as a distinct Catholic society within an increasingly-Protestant Canada. The revolutionary rejection of the province’s Catholic identity in the last three generations means that the weight of cultural identity that once rested on three pillars—language, culture, and religion—is now borne by language and culture alone, which increases concern about linguistic survival and awareness of cultural differences.

More importantly, it means that Quebec’s attitude towards religion is, uniquely within Canada, defined by a conscious rejection of religion. In a relatively short time, a profoundly Catholic society became radically anti-clerical. Nothing like that happened in any other province. As Marshall McLuhan described it (in his strange review of Pierre Trudeau’s 1967 collection of essays Federalism and the French Canadians for the New York Times), “French Canada leapt into the 20th century without having had a 19th century.” This is an exaggeration, but only a slight one, and the legacy of this sudden leap can be puzzling to non-Quebeckers.The speed of the Quiet Revolution is captured in a poignant scene from Denys Arcand’s Les Invasions Barbares in which a priest showing an auction-house rep around a warehouse of surplus Catholic statuary explains how one day in 1966 everyone stopped coming to church and never came back. 

To an outsider, Quebec’s insistence on militant laïcité as a distinct cultural value is more than a little ironic. Secularism emphatically is not a traditional Quebec value, as the illuminated cross on Mount Royal shining down a forest of silver spires across the city of Montreal attests.The cross, which is a reminder of the original cross erected by Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve in 1643, was installed in 1924 by the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste. It is lit in purple to mark the death of a Pope. Within the lifetime of the current premier, the province’s hospitals, schools, and houses of charity were still staffed in part by priests and nuns, whose prominent religious symbols and head coverings were an obvious example of Quebec’s distinct society. And the province remains dappled with the memory of its first four centuries. From riversThe St Lawrence river. and lakes,Lac Saint-Jean. townsSaint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. and mountains,The Notre Dame Mountains. hospitals,In Quebec City alone, there are hospitals named: Hôpital Saint-François d’Assise; Hôpital de l’Enfant-Jésus; Hôpital du Saint-Sacrement; and Hôtel-Dieu de Québec. universities,Université Laval (the successor to the Séminaire de Québec, now named after the first bishop of New France). and metro stations,Metro Pie IX; Metro Lionel-Groulx. the province’s traditional identity suffuses the landscape.

Pointing this out, however, invites the accusation that, as a non-Quebecker, you simply can’t understand the continuing legacy of La Grande Noirceur. This is of course true, but it also illustrates how quickly even a recent mythopoeic change can assume mythic cultural status. Until the 1950s, the Government of Quebec unofficially regarded the post-revolutionary government of France as a usurping regime. Then, in the space of a decade, the province’s leadership traded a historic domestic identity for one based on the secularist ideology of a foreign country.For an English perspective on this process, see Charles Taylor, “Nationalism and the Political Intelligentsia: A Case Study,” Queen’s Quarterly (Spring 1965). One has to admit that the transplant has been successful: imported by a small class of Quebec intellectuals, the fashions of post-war Parisian philosophy have been adopted so completely in Quebec that it is now hard to tell the graft from the rootstock.One can imagine an alternative history in which Quebec remained Catholic and defended its traditional religious-cultural identity against claims by competing religions instead of policing them as a violation of a newly-adopted secular cultural identity (with possible exceptions for religious symbols and references magically denuded of their religious content and existing now as purely “historical” objects and customs). It could be argued that this reactionary path would have been more consistent and coherent. However, Charles Taylor was probably right when he wrote that “the context of a federal Canada would never permit a Quebec leader” to repress democracy enough to allow Quebec to follow the contemporary example of Salazar’s Portugal. See Charles Taylor, “Nationalism and the Political Intelligentsia: A Case Study”, Queen’s Quarterly (Spring 1965).  

These distinct features of Quebec society—linguistic (by birth) and cultural (by adoption)—are real. Together they make the Québécois, by any normal definition, a nation. The belated recognition of this by the federal parliament in 2006 was just an acceptance of reality. By the same token, Saskatchewan is not a nation. Saskatchewan is certainly different from, say, Ontario, and both are different in their own ways from British Columbia and Newfoundland.Years ago, Charles Taylor wrote that “for all people east of the Rocky Mountains, British Columbia is a strange place, not quite believable,” and yet even he didn’t believe this grounded a claim for nationhood. Charles Taylor, “A Canadian Future?”, in The Pattern of Politics (1970). Nobody would deny that. But they are each different within the normal parameters of difference for a vast and diffuse country. It makes no more sense to say that Saskatchewan is a nation than to imagine that Wyoming is a nation within the United States of America.

Howard Anglin: Country, Province, and Nation: How Saskatchewan is right and wrong in its bid to end asymmetrical federalism  

Commentary

Part I:

This is an essay in three parts. Part II will run tomorrow, Tuesday, and Part III on Wednesday. 

While Alberta’s constitutional convulsions have received most of the national attention, for several years Saskatchewan has been quietly asserting its own claims to provincial autonomy. This culminated two weeks ago in a government white paper titled “Drawing the Line: Defending Saskatchewan’s Economic Autonomy.” 

Much of the report is taken up with recounting the province’s historical fight against the federal government to own and control its natural resources, but its purpose is to remind the reader that the fight is not over. Today, it says, the challenge is intrusive environmental regulations that, while claiming a federal purpose, vitiate the province’s right to manage and export its natural resources, as enshrined in 1982 in section 92A of the Constitution. 

To defend its rights and interests, the report says that it is “exploring all options to fully assert our existing powers, rights and privileges under the Constitution.” It even hints at something like the Alberta Sovereignty Act—”Provincial legislation to clarify and protect constitutional rights belonging to the province”—but the Government of Saskatchewan seems to want to wait to see how that plays out next door before committing itself to a definite course of action. 

That combination of courage and caution runs through the white paper. While it is billed as an emphatic proschema to Ottawa, its ultimate recommendations are tentative and couched in caveats and equivocations. By the time you reach the end, the defiant title has fizzled to a short list of “next steps and ways in which the province could conceivably defend and act to assert greater autonomy in Confederation.” It is a journey from provocation to polite suggestion in 24 pages. An exercise in audacious prudence.

What follows is a digression on the style of the white paper. My main intent in this article is to defend the case for provincial autonomy, but I cannot resist a few words about how the shoddiness of the document undermines its case. Skipping this section will not affect the argument, which continues after it.  

“Drawing the Line” is a new low in political communications in Canada. It is doubtful that any government in the history of Confederation—federal, provincial, or municipal—has published something so badly written. My first thought was that an early and unedited draft had been posted prematurely, but after almost a week it has not been replaced. The text is not so much spoiled by errors as composed of them and the run-on sentences meander more than the South Saskatchewan river.

Consider, for example, this paragraph on page 3, which makes a good case for radical educational reform in the province, at least when it comes to literacy: 

As perceived by Saskatchewan’s earliest leaders, such as Fredrick Haultain, the last Premier of the Northwest Territories before Saskatchewan became a province, said ‘all of our public revenues go to swell the Consolidated Revenue Fund of Canada, our public domain is exploited for purely federal purposes, and we are not permitted to draw on our future.’ The ambition was to build and develop the province as a place people wanted to flock too, as set out in Premier Walter Scott’s vision, another early leader and visionary for Saskatchewan. The potential for Saskatchewan to be more than a territory within Canada was not lost on future commentators and politicians.”

Or try to grope your way through this obscure paragraph on page 14. There have been more transparent prairie dust storms.

An example few local ranchers raised on the effectiveness of telling our story to the rest of Canada was around the proposed, and eventually withdrawn, Health Canada rules on beef labelling. The public outcry from local producers in western Canada culminated in cattle raisers sharing their narrative on how devastating such federal rules and requirements would be on local operations but also how responsible and beneficial their products are for Canadians. The feeling was that this needs to continue more to assert our autonomy and express how sustainably our oil and gas and agri-food products are made to the rest of Canada to highlight Saskatchewan’s position and defend our local interests, economy and the livelihoods of our residents.

It has been said that government communications should aim for a Grade 8 level of reading comprehension, but rarely do you see government communicating at a Grade 8 level of composition. At times the report reads like the original draft in Finnish was run through Google translate; at other times it barely reads at all. I refuse to believe that anyone old enough to bike to school was responsible for a sentence like: “While our land and province may no longer be considered new, you can still find the prosperous people in both urban and rural communities as the mayor of Regina said over a century ago.” 

These are not the only examples. Even Homer nodded, so a government copyeditor may be excused the occasional lapse, but the text goes on like this page after semi-literate page. The reader must hack through a grammatical jungle to follow the path of the argument. If the Government of Saskatchewan wants its ideas to be taken seriously, it should start by expressing them in something more than pidgin English.

End of digression.

The most interesting part of “Drawing the Line” is its repeated invocation of Quebec as a model for Saskatchewan. References to how Quebec operates within Confederation appear no fewer than seven times. Here is a typical (and mostly lucid) example, summarizing the input from town halls held across the province last summer: “In discussing autonomy specifically, participants often highlighted an ask for the province to act more like the Province of Quebec. Namely, a government and province that acts instead of asks permission to defend its interests.” 

This is not a new idea. Both Jason Kenney and Danielle Smith in Alberta have used Quebec as an example to justify a more assertive use of provincial powers. But the report goes further than suggesting that Saskatchewan act more like Quebec. Early on, it quotes a tweet from Premier Scott Moe last November that said: “Saskatchewan needs to be a nation within a nation.” This may be the most interesting political statement in recent Canadian history, but the report makes no attempt to explain it, let alone justify it. If anything, the report undercuts the force of Moe’s claim by suggesting that it just means that Saskatchewan needs to emulate “how the Province of Quebec operates with broader powers within Confederation.” 

But acting like a nation and being a nation are very different things. I don’t expect the monkeys at the keyboard who drafted the white paper to appreciate this, but Moe is a serious and thoughtful leader, so it is worth taking his original words thoughtfully and seriously. The first thing to note is that Moe did not claim that “Saskatchewan is a nation within a nation.” Saying that “Saskatchewan needs to be a nation” is an aspirational, possibly hortatory, statement. It assumes that the province is not already a nation.

This prompts an obvious question: How does a non-nation become a nation? And a more basic question: What is a nation? The answer to those questions begins with recognizing that, despite the loose way we often use the terms, a nation is not the same thing as a country—or a province. It doesn’t help that, because we don’t have a common adjectival form of the word “country,” we talk of “national borders” and “national interests” when we mean the borders and interests of a country or of a state. But this confuses the fact that some nations are sovereign states and some are not. 

The obvious example of this for Canadians is Quebec. Or rather, “the Québécois.” The motion proposed by Mr. Harper and passed by the House of Commons in 2006 said: “That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.” Interestingly, it is the people of Quebec (or perhaps some of them)Recall the dispute between Gilles Duceppe and Lawrence Cannon in 2006 over who is and is not a Québécois and whether the term has an ethnic component. Around the same time, Jean Charest further complicated matters by insisting that First Nations within Quebec were included among the Québécois, raising the idea of multiple overlapping and possibly inconsistent national identities for the members of Canada’s 617 First Nations, including 70 in Saskatchewan and 39 in Quebec. who are recognized as a nation, rather than the province. This distinction was reinforced in 2021 when the House again approved a motion that included the claim that “Quebecers form a nation”—language taken from Quebec’s own Bill 96. 

Designation of the Québécois, but not the province of Quebec, as a nation complicates Moe’s plans to achieve nationhood for his province. On the one hand, recognizing Saskatchewan as a nation would be a first within Canada; on the other hand, if he truly wants to follow Quebec’s example, he will have to explain why Saskatchewanians constitute a distinct people who deserve to be recognized as a nation. 

You might say, of course, that the distinction between the Québécois people and the provincial government that acts on their behalf (through a national assembly, no less) is semantic and that, for all practical purposes, the province of Quebec and the Québécois nation are coterminous.In 2006, Gilles Duceppe insisted that a Québécois was simply someone who lives in Quebec. In one sense, this is clearly illogical, for if an Albertan who was transferred by his employer to Quebec this morning is a Québécois, then there is nothing that makes being Québécois distinct from being Albertan. Duceppe can only be correct if we allow for some fudging between the core identity of a people and the complicating realities of immigration so that applying the term Québécois to someone who arrived yesterday is a convenient fiction that does not affect the central case of a Québécois as someone who speaks and is accultured in a distinct way. As noted in the previous footnote, the case of First Nations in Quebec raises even more questions about Duceppe’s sweeping definition. But if “nation” just means “province,” then what is gained by saying Saskatchewan should be a nation when it is already a province? The answer must be that a nation is something more than a province (or a country). Assuming this is true (and it is), then what is it that makes the Québécois (or Quebec) specially entitled to nationhood? 

In Part II, I will consider the answer to that question and what it means for Canadian federalism. Then, in Part III, I will explain why the nation-province distinction shouldn’t matter for the practical working of Canadian federalism.