Should Quebec be recognized as a nation in the Constitution? Michael Ignatieff thinks so. In his view, ”œQuebecers…have come to understand themselves as a nation, with a language, history, culture and territory that marks them out as a separate people.” He thinks it is symbolically important to put this in the Constitution.
So far this has raised a couple of issues. The first is whether recognition of Quebec’s distinctiveness in the Constitution really is symbolically important. I think it is and beyond that I won’t say more about it here.
Second, Ignatieff has been roundly criticized outside
Quebec for suggesting that we reopen the Constitution. He has since retreated somewhat, suggesting that what he real- ly means is that eventually the Constitution will be reopened. When that happens, we should be ready.
While I am opposed to constitutional discussions now, I agree there are issues that will need to be dealt with soon- er or later, such as Senate reform. I see no problem with adopting a position on recognizing Quebec’s distinctiveness in anticipation of that day " any more than I see a problem with having a view on Senate reform.
My problem is a different one. It is with Ignatieff’s proposal that we rec- ognize Quebec as a nation. This would only obscure the important strides Quebecers have made toward civic ”œnationalism” by blurring the lines between it and old-style ethnic nationalism. It is a step backward, rather than forward.
My task in this article is threefold. First, try to sharpen the lines between civic and ethnic identity; second, pro- pose that Quebec’s emerging civic iden- tity is what we should really be trying to recognize in the Constitution; and, third, suggest that Ignatieff find some new and imaginative language to cap- ture this. My own preference is for something I call a community of purpose.
When we ask Quebec nationalists what it would mean to recognize Quebec as a nation, they often say that Quebecers are a nation in the ”œsociological sense.” Calling them one in the Constitution simply acknowl- edges that fact. But what does ”œin the sociological sense” mean? Is it ethnic?
Ignatieff assures us it is not. ”œQuebec is a civic nation, not an ethnic nation. It is composed of all the peoples from many lands who have come to Quebec and associate them- selves with the values and traditions of Quebec and Canada.”
Now whatever Quebecers may mean when they say they are a nation in the ”œsociological sense,” I’m pretty sure it’s not this. Nor is this what they seem to want recognized in the Constitution. On the contrary, it is their distinct cultural identity that they want recognized and affirmed. Ignatieff himself says as much when he argues that the reason for recognition is that their ”œlanguage, history, culture and territory” have made them a ”œseparate people.” So whatever he may say else- where, it is hard to imagine that this ”œsociological” identity is much differ- ent from an ethnic one.
But let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with having an ethnic identity " any more than there is something wrong with people having religious beliefs. Indeed, throughout history ethnic identities have been the norm. The Irish, Germans and Japanese all have one. Why not les Québécois? They should be proud of their cultural histo- ry. It has been a real and powerful force in shaping Quebec society.
From a liberal-democratic perspec- tive, ethnicity, like religion, is bad only when it invades our political space. A key role of liberal-democratic constitu- tions is to help us separate church and state, ethnicity and politics, by placing religion and ethnicity in the private realm or civil society.
In practice, however, things have not worked out that way. Ethnicity and politics have been deeply entangled through most of the modern era. This may have reached a peak in the 20th century as a result of the Paris peace conference, which declared the nation- state the official home of an ethnic group " a ”œpeople” or ”œnation.”
At the end of the Great War, in January of 1919, senior statesmen and diplomats from around the world gath- ered in Paris for the peace talks that produced the Treaty of Versailles. Under the leadership of the Great Powers and, in particular, United States President Woodrow Wilson, they undertook to redefine the nation-state, redraw the world’s boundaries and change how countries and the world were governed. Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, is simply superb on this.
Before leaving America for Paris, Wilson drafted a list of 14 principles to guide debate and discussion at the conference. Perhaps the most impor- tant was the principle of the self-deter- mination of peoples, which asserts that all peoples have a right to govern their own affairs without interference. It articulated some deep-seated intu- itions about cultural membership and what it means for national and inter- national governance.
In this view, first and fore- most, we are members of nations or peoples. Our values, customs, practices, beliefs, lan- guage " our identity " are inseparable from our member- ship in these groups. If the fam- ily is the basic social unit, the nation is the basic political unit. The nation-state is the political expression of this shared identity. It is the natural home of a people. It provides a bulwark against threatening forces from ”œoutside.” The state also concentrates a people’s col- lective power so that they can use it to nurture their language, cul- ture, religion and history and achieve its fullest expression. We can call this nation-building.
This vision of the world as a system of culturally distinct, self-deter- mining nation-states was a decisive departure from the past. Before the war, many countries were ruled by colonial powers, such as Great Britain and France. The new principle of self- determination challenged the legiti- macy of empires and provided the basis for a far-reaching vision of a new world order.
Throughout the 20th century Wilson’s vision exerted a powerful grip on the imagination of the western world. While that period also revealed some of the greatest horrors brought on by nationalism, our ongoing attachment to it shows that we believe there is something deeply right about it. Nevertheless, this vision raises trou- bling questions for the politics of our day in at least three ways.
First, many countries are ”œmulti- national” in the sense that they are home to more than one nation. Often they are situated in ways that would make division of the territory impossi- ble or highly destabilizing.
Second, many countries today are culturally heterogeneous to the point where calling their citizens a ”œpeople” seems odd, if not misplaced. Canada is a conspicuous example of such a ”œpost-modern” community. Our country has had an open door to waves of immigrants, who have lived and worked together, and alongside indigenous peoples, since the begin- ning. As a result, respect for our cul- tural, regional and linguistic diversity is now regarded as a defining feature of Canada " one of which Canadians are rightfully proud.
Third, thanks to new technologies, a new global economy has emerged. In Wilson’s day, the economy was among the most important institutions of the nation-state and a key tool for nation- building. Today, in countries such as Canada, the national economy has become deeply integrated with the glob- al one. International treaties restrict the use of domestic ”œlevers” in ways that might disadvantage competitors from elsewhere, making old-style nation- building difficult, if not impossible.
The debate launched in 1919 led to a new political vision for the 20th century, one in which the overarching purpose of the state is to build the nation. Today, in countries like Canada, that vision seems increasingly anachronistic. Our diverse population makes talk of ”œnational identities” and ”œnations” sound strained and awk- ward. At the same time, new social, technological and economic forces leave the world looking less and less like Wilson’s system of self-determin- ing nation-states, and more and more like Marshall McLuhan’s global village.
Still, we are rightly reluctant just to let the vision go. Partly because we have no clear idea what should replace it; and partly because we continue to believe that countries and peoples have an important place in the global village. The challenge is to redefine the vision for the 21st century.
Canada today is a very different place from the Canada of Wilson’s day. Back then life was slower and people were less educated, mobile and politi- cally aware. If they travelled, it was likely by rail or ship. Few had more than basic education. They communi- cated by letter and telegraph.
Today we can reach the farthest point on the globe in a day. Many people will live in different cities " and even countries " at least once in their lifetime. Countries like Canada have a highly educated and well- informed population. Information flashes around the globe at lightning speed, letting us communicate, organ- ize and act to achieve goals in ways that would scarcely have been think- able in Wilson’s time.
Developments like these link peo- ple in new and often surprising ways. We participate in national and global advocacy groups, conduct business on sites such as e-Bay and strike up friendships online with people from across the country or around the world that we have never met. Many of these relationships cut across the boundaries of Canada’s traditional communities, as well as its international borders. Canada is being trans- formed from a smallish group of regional, linguistic and cultural communities into a burgeoning network of people and organiza- tions.
As a result, we Canadians today are far less inclined to see ourselves, first and foremost, as members of a sin- gle nation-state, or even one of Canada’s traditional communities. We recognize that our identities, like our society, are diverse and complex. Someone can be a Canadian, Albertan, Muslim, Pakistani, environmentalist, musician, member of the Rotary Club, parent, teacher, liberal and disabled, all at the same time. Each of these ”œpartial identities” may bring us in contact with a very different group of people. Each of us has links to many groups. Our identity is a constellation of all these relationships.
These changes present a challenge for conventional nation-states. They were not designed for such a complex, cross-cutting, collaborative world. They evolved in a time when things worked differently. The nation-state was thought to represent the highest aspirations of its citizens and to com- mand their respect and allegiance. The national government stood at the pin- nacle of this hierarchy. It was the insti- tution that led the nation forward along the path of its destiny.
We no longer live in that world, if we ever did. Most Canadians, even in Quebec, would have a hard time think- ing of themselves in these terms. We are less romantic about our citizen- ship. Governments and countries play a pivotal role in our lives but the idea that this relationship should be so highly privileged as to eclipse almost all others save, perhaps, the family, is increasingly counterintuitive.
So Canada has changed. That change needs to be recognized and accommodated in our institutions and our politics " perhaps even our Constitution. But it is not just that we have come to see ourselves as a ”œmulti-national” state, as Ignatieff claims. Increasingly, we see the very idea of a liberal nation-state as anachronistic, if not a contradiction in terms. We see Canada as a different kind of community altogether, something that is new and still evolving " a work in progress. But what kind of community is it?
Perhaps ironically, Quebec has been a pioneer and a leader in struggling with this kind of question. In the 1980s and 90s Quebec nationalism was stung by criticisms that it was inward-looking, ethnically based and intent on build- ing a society that would exclude the growing population of allophones and anglophones as full members. Over the last decade many nationalists in Quebec have worked hard " and cre- atively " to respond to the charge by repositioning the old ethnic national- ism as a new civic one. They have done it by shifting the emphasis away from protecting ethnicity " member- ship in a particular cultural group " and onto the goal of establishing a thriving francophone society in the heart of North America.
This fundamentally changes the basis of the project and of member- ship in the society. In this case, the ”œnation” includes anyone who is committed to the goal, who wishes to participate in its realization and who chooses to reside in Quebec for that purpose. This is a very different way of defining the ”œnation.” It is through a mission, rather than ethnicity. It transforms nationalism into a shared commitment to an overarching " and worthy " goal that is inclusive in the sense that an ”œoutsider” can join it by making a personal commitment to the goal. It exchanges the traditional view that nation-states exist to preserve and promote the interests of the ”œnation” for a progressive one of the society as constituted through choice, commitment and an act of will. We can call such a society a com- munity of purpose.
Such a community, then, is not an old-style, self-contained nation-state.
Different communities of purpose can and do cross-cut one another in all kinds of ways, as does our personal membership in various groups. Our membership in different communities of purpose is determined by our com- mitment to the goals that define them. Each community is bound together into a cohesive force by its members’ shared commitment to its goal. There is thus no reason that Canada and Quebec cannot be part of a single political community provided the overarching goal of Canada as a com- munity of purpose " its mission " is compatible with that of Quebec.
So, in this view, Quebecers are part of an innovative and exciting experi- ment in community-building that the rest of Canada and the world could learn from. I think that this idea of Quebec as an emerging community of purpose is closer to what Ignatieff really wants to recognize in the Constitution. If so, it may be worth doing for more than symbolic reasons.
As we already noted, a key task of liberal constitutions is to help separate ethnicity and politics. If Canadians " or perhaps Quebecers " are breaking new ground in the effort to articulate and build a civic identity, perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether the Constitution would be a useful tool in helping them to achieve it. After all, it has been a useful tool for deepening our commitment to indi- vidual rights through the Charter.
So Ignatieff may be quite right to look to the Constitution for help. After all, constitutions are the quintessential tool of liberal nation-building " or, in this case, community-building. But, if he does, he should use language that genuinely captures what is distinctive about Quebec from a liberal-democrat- ic viewpoint. The word ”œnation” fails that test. It is too heavily freighted with old-style, ethnic nationalism. Far from affirming Quebec’s commitment to building a new kind of civic identi- ty based on a shared commitment to a mission, it affirms the primacy of the old ”œsociological” one. That is precise- ly what the new civic nationalism is struggling to overcome.
The challenge for Ignatieff, then, is to propose new and imaginative lan- guage that conveys the real vision he has for Quebec and, indeed, for Canada in the future. That will require a willingness on his part, in the event he wins the Liberal leadership, to speak frankly to Canadians about the need to move beyond the old visions of Quebec and Canada toward some- thing genuinely new and unfamiliar. There are people on both sides of the Quebec border who will take offence at that. It will take deftness, commitment and courage.