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The elaboration of a national affirmation initiative in Quebec is always welcome. For proponents of Quebec’s self-conception as an internal nation free to determine its collective future, inertia cannot be relied upon as the path to recognition. Indeed, we’ve been exploring these questions for a long time, and recognition should remain a significant objective. However, it takes two to tango, and while affirmation, with or without the rest of Canada (ROC), has been proceeding in an organic process in Quebec, I want to talk about the other side of the equation – recognition.  What are the sources of this seemingly insurmountable roadblock from the other side? I will look at four broad lines of argumentation, which, while not scientifically rigorous, will provide a broad picture of some of the obstacles confronting Quebec.

First, at a conceptual/ideational level, we see a fundamental disconnect with the way certain concepts are understood to frame the debate. In my reading of the literature and in my interaction with students, the questions “What does Quebec want? Or what does Quebec represent?” almost invariably result in responses around the notion that Quebec’s traditional demands represent a movement for the protection of culture, not an expression of national self-determination.  Thus while we’re examining questions concerning the relevant demos; the clash of national integration projects; the boundaries of sovereignty, and so on, many in the ROC see the debate in culturalist terms, which are deemed to be easily accommodated through our present institutional arrangements.  In Quebec, the implications of national affirmation are the development and flourishing of a host society – the right to determine the very boundaries of cultural relations as one element of a larger societal project, not the simple desire to promote an ethnocultural movement.  Recognition thus challenges the ROC’s particular conception of national identity – Quebec is simply not taken as a majoritarian political space, and instead is lumped in with other constituted collective actors such as linguistic groups, cultural groups, Indigenous peoples, and so on – part of a non-differentiated, pan-Canadian diversity mosaic.

A second thread can be described as sociological, or realist in its diagnosis. This is related to the first, but more centred on the notion that Quebec is caught in somewhat of a structural bind due to forces related specifically to the country’s political sociology.  Canada is organized around collective groupings, with some having attained a status as constitutional actors, that precludes the recognition of a minority nation.  As such, while Quebec undertakes sophisticated debates around minority/majority cultural relations; internal citizenship; cultural pluralism; secularism, and son on, this all proceeds under the dictates of a conception of Canada that is civic and universal in its orientations. Thus Gérard Bouchard’s contention, for example, that any model of cultural integration in Quebec ought to be premised on a dualist paradigm that builds upon majority/minority dynamics and must inevitably involve some ad hoc recognition of the ‘preferences’ of the majority group is dismissed outright as illiberal in this sociopolitical structure. Even though Bouchard takes special care to circumscribe the nature of this power dynamic between cultural groups Quebec, there is simply no room for the attribution of a certain political salience to a majority culture in Canada. Interculturalism, if it is acknowledged at all in the ROC, is only deemed legitimate if it is subsumed under Canadian multiculturalism within a bilingual framework. This provides a sort of civic superstructure for groups in Quebec that seek to reject Quebec’s efforts to affirm itself through a national integration project, instead providing a permanent opt-out in the form of the national integration project of the larger associative community.  Quebec is thus faced with framing citizenship status without a complete toolkit, and in the ROC there is very little incentive to accept the principle of differentiated citizenship and thus no reason to rectify this structural predicament.  It is simply easier, as a majoritarian principle, for the community of reference to continue to be Canada.

The third broad area I want to examine is political/institutional.  Affirmation usually implies demands for some form of asymmetry.  Presently, the Trudeau template prevails as a broad structuring configuration in Canada: multiculturalism within a bilingual framework; an equality of provinces doctrine; and the universalist thrust of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The kind of limited asymmetry that has been adopted historically in Canada has proceeded through a political/pragmatic approach centred on ad hoc federal-provincial wrangling and the under-institutionalized world of intergovernmental relations – political (Defacto) asymmetry as opposed to constitutional (Dejure) asymmetry.  Quebec’s position has always reflected a desire for entrenched asymmetry, in order to serve as a bulwark against majoritarian political forces, yet the ROC sees this arrangement as a virtue – the elaboration of a sort of flexible federalism, or a living-tree, based on a problem-solving approach, and so on.  Yet this forum for the negotiation of asymmetry is subject to certain power dynamics, most notably through the federal spending power, that leaves the minority nation in a vulnerable position.  In the ROC, this is seen as a better way to ‘do politics’, undergirded by functional considerations and premised around the notion of federalism as an independent variable that may or may not be a hindrance to good policy outcomes, rather than as a tool to promote and protect national pluralism in Canada.

Finally, there is much divergence on a normative terrain as well.  Bluntly stated, the recognition of Quebec’s national affirmation project is simply taken as unfair, based on a sort of rudimentary ‘team analogy’ where being a team player requires an acceptance of sameness in political status – equality over equity.  It is thus difficult to make the case that recognition of Quebec’s national integration project is legitimate because of the normative force of universal liberalism.  Otherwise stated, it is hard to make a case in the abstract against the liberal credentials of the Charter, multiculturalism, bilingualism, the equality of provinces, etc., when the force of ethical individualism dominates. In Quebec, many arguments for formal recognition are premised around the normative force of self-determination; some appeals to a federal compact and/or a compact between founding nations; or even on a doctrine of minority rights, while in the ROC the normative bedrock is established and Quebec’s demands are thus taken as cynical expressions of self-interest and Machiavellian.  In this view, Quebec holds the Sword of Damocles over Canada as a wrecker of a very progressive liberal project that provides the ties that bind for Canadians, and that any inch ceded to Quebec will result in a slippery slope away from a liberal-pluralist consensus to a perpetual pattern of demands for more concessions.

In short, it is difficult to fathom that recognition is on the horizon.  This admittedly rough sketch of the sentiments emanating form the ROC that are confronting Quebec are difficult to overcome. It would, at a minimum, require the self-conception of the ROC to change drastically and begin to see itself as a distinct nation that seeks to enter into a partnership with Quebec as negotiating partners.  Instead, it seems as though absent the sort of political leadership such an endeavour would require from outside of Quebec, we are seeing a conception of federalism that is increasingly premised on appeals to flexibility, with a problem-solving bent, that promotes the virtues of multilevel governance, and is unwilling to embrace national pluralism as a constitutive principle –  perpetually prone to the perils of majoritarian nationalism.

Raffaele Iacovino
Department of Political Science
Carleton University