January 7, 1996
I have always enjoyed New Year's Day because, more than any other holiday, it represented pure optimism. However bad the previous year may have been, Jan. 1 is a chance to start over: I make new files for my clipping library, store last year's tax receipts out of sight, at least for a while, and take solace in the fact that Christmas is 51 weeks away (Yikes, is it that close?!)
Of course, I know that the importance of New Year's Day is a pleasant fiction; it has no more or less importance than any other day, yet the idea of starting afresh has a satisfying, cathartic feel to it.
Jan. 1, 1996, though, did not fill me with the usual sense of relief. What has cast a pall over 1996 for me is the Oct. 30 Quebec referendum, but not for the reason one might initially suspect. True, French Canada outdid itself in xenophobia and demagoguery, and it was good luck, not good management, that helped the federalist forces defeat les misérables.
What distresses me more than anything is how feeble English Canada looks alongside French Canada. As much as I loathe the chauvinism of les Québécois, I have to envy their cultural pride and sense of self—their nationhood. Every French-Canadian in Quebec is brought up to feel that he or she is a member of a great culture. Since 1997 will see the next federal election and (probably) yet another Quebec referendum, 1996 seems caught between two anni horribili, which means there was little to be happy about this New Year’s.
In past years when Quebec threw a constitutional fit, no one really thought Canada's survival might be in jeopardy. Arguing amongst ourselves is, after all, the great national pastime, but living together more or less amicably despite our differences is a quintessential Canadian achievement—or at least it was. Compare the House of Commons today with that of 20 years ago.
The federal parliament in 1996 consists of one national party (the Liberals), a Quebec protest party (le Bloc Québécois), a western protest party (Reform), and two rump parties (the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democratic Party). In 1976, the Liberals, Tories and NDP were all respected national parties with good leaders and strong power bases.
Also, provincial leaders used to see a move into federal politics as a career boost. Now, federal politicians Lucien Bouchard and (as seems likely) Brian Tobin are set to become the leaders of Quebec and Newfoundland, respectively. Somehow, Canada seems to be fracturing at the provincial seams. The real difference between then and now is that in 1976, English Canada provide a stable nucleus for the nation. No longer.
I felt helpless and dispirited as I watched Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau manipulate facts and inflame the passions of an audience eager to lap up every hubris-intoxicated utterance. Were it not for three non-French enclaves in Quebec, we'd be in serious trouble.
Politically, geographically, economically and culturally, Canadians have always been torn by divisions—“cleavages” in the political argot—but always we seemed to survive and keep our sense of humour. Not any more.
There is a malaise today in Canada that is part anger, part indifference. Voting for protest parties is one way people opt out of a system. Too many Canadians feel alienated and angry. In Quebec, this is nothing new, but anger and resentment toward Ottawa and Quebec have reached new levels in English Canada, and this is why the lacklustre federalist performance during the referendum was so disturbing.
What do I mean by “English Canada?” I mean simply Canada outside of Quebec; that part of Canada where citizens live under British parliamentary tradition and British democratic principles. Within English Canada are peoples from scores of different cultural backgrounds. Immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Japan, Germany, Kenya or Poland are just as much a part of English Canada as anyone of Anglo-Celtic descent. “English Canada” is not primarily a cultural designation.
Unfortunately, in the name of such hoary absolutes as tolerance and diversity, official multiculturalism encourages us to deprecate, or at least deny the value of, Canada's British traditions in favour of “historically disadvantaged” groups. Thus, as Quebec has grown more and more assertive, English Canada has become more and more fragmented. This is why the referendum seemed to be an unfair fight. There is no one defend English Canada for its own sake.
In no small way, I see the referendum as a consequence of the last 20-odd years of official bilingualism (as a means to appease Quebec) and official multiculturalism (as a means to appease everyone else). Multiculturalism, of course, is not solely to blame for our problems, but it has rationalized the idea of a common Canadian culture out of existence.
So concerned are we to cater to minority interests that we expend valuable energy promoting “diversity” instead of promoting national unity, which is strange given our obsession with the subject through the 1970s and ’80s.
Supporters of multiculturalism say the policy was designed to strengthen Canada. If this is true, then there appears to be a serious gap between theory and practice. What, if anything, has gone wrong? Over the next two weeks, I will try to shed some light on this question.