The real nation

  • November 30, 2006

The air in Canada these days has the acrid odour of Rome burning while Nero fiddles. All the debate over whether Quebecois (presumably francophone Quebecers) constitute a "nation" provides a convenient distraction from the real challenges facing the real nation.

Let's pray the resolution supported by all parties in the House of Commons to recognize that Quebecois are a nation in a united Canada puts an end to this interminable discussion. As long as we stay away from constitutional change, all this talk about "nation" is academic. If Quebecois are a nation, along with the First Nations, then we are a country of nations. Come to think of it, Toronto offers as distinct a society as can be found anywhere in Canada: Any takers for "Leaf Nation"?

Meanwhile, there are disturbing signs from the ruling Conservatives that their newfound embrace of the Quebecois "nation" is a symptom of a growing taste for decentralization. At the same time as Prime Minister Stephen Harper dominated the headlines with his resolution, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was serving notice to the other nation – that is, Canada, the only one recognized as such by the United Nations – that he intends to reduce the role of the federal government to chief headwaiter to the provinces.

Flaherty has proposed a long-term agenda of tax cuts, reduced debt and reduced central government. These are not terrible in themselves; debt reduction in particular helps reduce interest payments and frees up money for real needs. However, the plan raises questions about who will be responsible for strengthening the bonds that unify Canadians. If the provinces are going to have to bear increasing responsibility for taking care of the least among us, for protecting the environment, for teaching our young, for caring for the sick and elderly, we face even greater disparity between have and have-not provinces and between Canadians from different parts of the country.

A true nation should not be bound only by accidents of language and geography. It should be one with common purpose, grounded in a united determination to provide equal opportunity to all its members. Someone or some institution must be the champion for this common good. If the central government is going to abdicate this role, it bodes ill for the country.

Modern nation states such as Canada don't exist for ethnic or even cultural reasons. They are a way in which diverse peoples gather together to work toward beneficial common ends, ensuring that even the weakest are not left behind. In fact, Canada's history is a textbook case of just such a happy collaboration. Its own Constitution makes a point of protecting its minorities (Catholics in Ontario and Protestants in Quebec who feared being dominated and oppressed by the majorities in their provinces). It is a national project of greater worth than any of the ersatz "nations" eager to carve up Canada to their own advantage.

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