The Sovereignty Warchest: Features, Contradictions And Threats

* Note that ROC = Rest Of Canada in this blog

As we move into 2014, I would like to shed a little light on what the separatist movement actually has going for it, and also what it has going against it in broad terms. In this way, we can be annoyed at each piece of news, but also say to ourselves, ‘ahhh, I get why they are doing this!’. There are many ways in which two cultures can live in one nation, but the cases where it doesn’t work as well, there are often historical and cultural forces at play that we are not immediately aware of because of our gut reaction. The process in my own and many peoples minds when confronted with the ‘shit disturbing’ and ridiculous ideas for policies that the PQ come up with follows a pattern that goes something like this:

1. Anger. ‘Bunch of hillbillies , whiny babies ! They are destroying this province! What is their problem ?’
2. Acceptance. ‘Oh well, can do much about it anyway, that is Quebekistan for you!’
3. Reflection. ‘But why are they doing this ? What is the root cause of this ? What do they hope to accomplish ?’

The aforementioned emotional response and process is so familiar to many of us, that it has become a ritual that has almost etched itself into Quebec federalist culture as it relates to the assault on Canada by the separatist establishment. As a federalist, one needs to work hard to a certain extent, if one understands Quebec and Canadian history, to dismiss that there is any kind basis for the sovereignty movement. In fact it is dangerous to do so. At 44 % support for sovereignty in the last CROP online poll or 3.5 million separatists – thare are alot of separatists out there.

In short, dismissing sovereignty as the crusade of a bunch of Lac St-Jean hillbillies is natural because you are ideologically opposed to it (step 1 above). We dismiss the sovereignty movement in such a way because we do harbor a tacit fear that there will be another referendum, so we diminish and trivialize its actual magnitude in our minds, in this way it becomes unsubstantial and therefore nothing to fear. But make sure that you follow-up with steps 2 and 3. It is important to do this, because if you want to effectively mobilize and develop your ideas against it,  you need to hone these ideas. Simply put, the weapons against sovereignty are ideas that are founded in a careful study and interpretation of Quebec and Canadian history and culture.

That being said, Canadians need to be laser aware, in my estimation, of 3 powerful elements of the sovereignty movement, and take with a grain of salt the many other elements, which I call ‘noise’ (I talk about ‘noise’ at the end of this blog). These 3 elements are : 1. History, 2. Culture and Philosophy and 3. Religion. Each of these elements create ‘cultural schisms’ between Quebec and Canada and pose the greatest constitutional threat to this country. I will discuss some interesting features of these 3 elements, and briefly outline how they can be both constitutional threats, as well as actually contradict themselves and promote unity. One of the main reasons that Quebec is still in Canada in my estimation, is that there are opposing forces (contradictions and threats) in each of these three elements that hold the country together.

History

StEustache

The battle of St-Eustache

The first element that Canadians need to be aware of, is history.

Canada as a concept is used in a sense to ‘wipe the slate clean’ of the bloody conflicts that took place in the 17th and 18th century between British North America and New France. The development of Canadian solidarity (Quebec included) that culminated in Confederacy in 1867 may have arguably started with the repeal of the British corn laws that gave ‘tariff protection’ to Canadian imports into Britain. With the repeal of the corn laws, and the loss of tariff protection (effectively making it too expensive for Britain to use the colonies as a source to import corn), the seed was planted for Canadians to start considering charting a course of their own, as an independent country. In the same stroke of time, the foundations were laid for allowing Quebec (then lower Canada) to continue as a distinct society of its own (notably in terms of a common religion and legal system).

The British were the rather conclusive victors by the time that the wars for North America had ended. From Port Royal, Hochelaga and the Plains of Abraham to the Patriot Rebellion of 1837 and more than a hundred years later , the Quite Revolution, the October Crisis, Meech Lake, 2 Referendums and many other significant events in between, there have been many acrimonious events that stained our common history. Separatists appear to be psychologically ossified by Quebec history, and to persist in this means to exist suspended in the ‘me versus you’ attitude. This idea has diluted in the federalist conscience perhaps in part intentionally but also through time, and because of the changing ethnic and demographic makeup of Canada. Canadians have essentially ‘moved on’ by simply following a similar trajectory as the Americans,  accepting the realities of globalization and by the making the pursuit of prosperity and happiness instead of identity the central concern of socioeconomic life.

This concept of divergent views with respect to the relevance of certain aspects of our common history represents a fundamental schism between Quebec and Canada. Canadians are more or less focused on the contemporary realities of North American life whereas separatists are shackled to the idea that they have been oppressed and mistreated, embodied in the expression ‘nous vaincrons’. Vengeance is a major element of the separatist cause. While the historical debate continually hijacks focus on the more pressing matters of Quebec governance, it is a powerful force because it is fairly easy to foster negative feelings towards Canada  if you are reminded repeatedly that it represents your historical enemy. This is more of a ‘front-line’ (ie citizen) assault on Canada, in other words, one never hears separatist politicians speaking specifically about 1837, but they speak in broad terms such as ‘Sovereignty itself is rooted in our collective history’ , from which the impressionable young Quebecois can research the concrete events to which the government literature is referring.

There is an active proposal by the PQ to resurrect within Quebec youth a sort of antagonism to Canada and in turn an increased allegiance to the idea of sovereignty, as articulated by education minister Marie Malavoy. Here is a quote from an article by Graeme Hamilton entitled ‘Quebec puts brakes on intensive English language program aimed at improving rates of bilngualism’ in The National Post, March 7th, 2013,  that references Malavoy’s idea of altering history teaching in grade school:

Her announcement [Miss Malavoy] comes as the government looks at tinkering with history textbooks to ensure thorough study of events seminal to the nationalist narrative, such as the 1760 Conquest, the 1837 Patriotes rebellion and the sovereignty referendums of 1980 and 1995. 

Clearly the goal here is to highlight among Quebecois youth not only the relevance of history (the culture schism) but also a certain animosity towards the rest of Canada – the  immortalization of the sovereignty debate and in turn the creation of more separatists. However, our history also demonstrates a certain solidarity and synergy between two peoples. Furthermore, our national ethos, embodied in the Canada of Trudeau and the promotion of bilingualism reinforces a unique national character.

Culture and philosophy

René Descartes (Left) , John Locke (right)

René Descartes (Left) and John Locke (right)

The second element, is of course the cultural, philosophical (and to a certain extent language) divide.

Let’s face it, there are cultural differences between the two founding peoples of Canada, these differences stem on first impression from a difference in religion, customs, and traditions, but in some ways more primordially, they stem from the different philosophical models adopted by England and France. The rest of Canada is historically rooted in English (British) culture and Quebec is historically rooted in French culture, and with these roots was inherited the philosophical traditions of their respective European countries.

To say that there are two fundamental models of philosophy that developed in Europe is a bit of an oversimplification, just like saying that left and right are the  two fundamental and polarizing political views of our time. But two broad categories of philosophical tradition have been defined, which I will get into next.

Let’s digress a little and have a look at a few 16th and 17th century European philosophers and compare them to Quebec and the ROC based on the philosophical school of thought that they belong too. Why do this ? Because the philosophical foundations of our societies are quite deeply rooted in the European traditions that we inherited, and Quebec and the ROC inherited different ones, shaping them in different ways.

There are characteristic differences between the philosophies of Locke and Hume on the one side and Descartes and Leibniz on the other. The difference is that the former (Locke and Hume) were British philosophers that were of the Empirical school of philosophical thinking, whereas Descartes and Leibniz were Continental philosophers (France and Germany). As a starting point, I would like to quote something from ‘The History of Western Philosophy‘ by Bertrand Russell:

The difference of method, here, may be characterized as follows: In Locke or Hume, a comparatively modest conclusion is drawn from a broad survey of many facts , whereas in Leibniz a vast edifice of deduction is pyramided upon a pin-point of logical principle. In Leibniz, if the principle is completely true and the deductions are entirely valid, all is well; but the structure is unstable, and the slightest flaw anywhere brings it down in ruins. In Locke or Hume, on the contrary, the base of the pyramid is on solid ground of observed fact, and the pyramid tapers upward, not downward; consequently the equilibrium is stable, and a flaw here or there can be rectified without total disaster. The difference of method survived. (The History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, page 645)

Think about how this applies to the difference in the tone of the debate between English and to a certain extent the totality of federalist Canada versus that of separatist Quebec. The English are notorious for ‘muddling through’, in other words, using perception to make pragmatic decisions without constructing a vast castle in the sky which can be annihilated with a single idea that reveals a fundamental flaw. This leads to a more pragmatic society in the rest of Canada than exists in Quebec. Quebec likes to construct grand social ideas and make rules. Rules about language, rules about what you can and can’t wear, rules about conduct in society, higher taxes because it leads to a better society, etc… The aforementioned quote by Russell mentions that Leibniz (and essentially Descarte’s) approach is to create a situation where ‘the structure is unstable and the slightest flaw anywhere brings it down in ruins‘. Think about how easily all of these silly social rules and taxes in Quebec are to bring down with the slightest flaw. Think about the dysfunctional $7 a day daycare where very few people actually benefit from it, or the tuition freezes that actually benefits the rich more than the poor. Or even worse , think about how dumb it is to force people to speak a certain language in the workplace.

Further to this, continental philosophy is prone to collectivism as opposed to individualism, which is a an extension of empirical thinking. ‘Mysticism’ is a natural tendency that is used to explain things when they can’t be easily observed. The ‘Quebecois people’ and the ‘Quebecois nation’ are rather vague and mystical concepts that seem to fit in more in 19th century Europe than contemporary North America. Furthermore, a conclusion such ‘independence will solve our problems’ seems to me a rather massive pyramid to construct for a problem that is hard at best to identify, and that is easily annihilated with rather simple logic. No one really know what the benefits for sovereignty are – they are quite mystical and vague.

Mysticism itself is not confined to Continental European philosophy (it has reared its head in other contexts in North America, notably the Evangelical revival in the United States during the Bush era), but modern mysticism is more or less founded in the Hegelian current of Continental philosophy.

I am not trying to discredit continental philosophy by any means. Réne Descartes and Leibniz were great philosophers that contributed enormously to the field of mathematics. However, I do not think that the underlying tenets of their ideas along with their manifestations and interpretations fit very well into North American liberalism.

Having said that,  the underlying cultural and philosophical schisms that exist between Quebec and Canada represent another constitutional threat. Yes, it is true that Ontarians don’t kiss on both cheeks and probably get too drunk at times. But when there are fundamental differences in opinion about things such as shale gas exploration and the gun registry, much needed fuel is thrown on the separatist fire. But there exists a unique opportunity to capitalize on the thinking of continental philosophy. Continental philosophical thinking has been rejected in North America because of its correlation with Marxism and Nazism, however, it looks beyond intuition to explain the ideas of ‘experience’ and ‘reason’, and in this sense provides a different perspective on how to solve problems socially or otherwise. But just where it fits in is yet to be determined.

Religion

Max Weber, author of 'The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism'

Max Weber, author of ‘The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism’

As for religion, Catholicism and Protestantism differ dramatically in important ways that have shaped English and French culture in Europe and in Canada (such as penance, the papacy and the role of work in society). One important way that the ROC differs with Quebec has to do with the influence in the ROC of a concept known as the ‘Protestant ethic’. The ‘Protestant Ethic’ was articulated in Max Weber’s book ‘The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism‘.

Concerning penance, Weber makes an interesting statement about the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism :

the moral responsibility of the Protestant is cumulative: the cycle of sin, repentance and forgiveness, renewed throughout the life of the Catholic, is absent in Protestantism. (The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism, introduction xix).

Because of the Catholic allowance of ‘repentance’, there is a greater tendency towards corruption in Quebec society. Even though there has been a decisive rejection of Catholicism in Quebec, the remnants of ‘Duplessis’ style thinking still exist in the psychology of the contemporary Quebecer. The thinking goes something like this “If I do something bad, it is just the first stage of the cycle of repentance, in the end I will be forgiven.”. It is easy to see how corruption is a natural extension of this.

As for economic success, we don’t need to provide much proof that capitalist, free market societies are the wealthiest and most successful in the world. The Protestant ethic is arguably the foundation of modern day capitalism. Weber cites the works of English puritan leader Richard Baxter, who’s work he believes contains some of the foundations of capitalistic thinking, Weber says :

Waste of time is thus the first and in principle the deadliest of sins. The span of human life is infinitely short and precious to make sure of one’s own election. Loss of time through sociability,idle talk, luxury, even more sleep than is necessary for health, six to at most eight hours, is worthy of absolute moral condemnation.

Accordingly, Baxter’s principal work is dominated by the continually repeated, often almost passionate preaching of hard,continuous bodily or mental labour (page 104 – 105, the protestant ethic and the 88 spirit of capitalism)

Obviously, the ROC does not follow directly these kind of virtues preached by Baxter and the puritans (and I would hope that we allow for ourselves indulgences in our lives), but it does indicate from where the foundations of Protestantism come, and thus in part the foundation of English Canada and Capitalism itself. It also emphasizes the focus of the society – on hard work rather than social disruption , trying to get tuition for free, high taxation and concocting inane and useless social policies, etc…

A major contradiction that the separatists don’t like to talk about, is that while they preach total economic independence and doing things ‘their way’, they owe their entire livelihood to the spirit of capitalism. The totality of revenue that is generated within Quebec and that is received from other provinces in Canada comes from taxes paid by citizens working for private corporations (you can’t really argue that government employees contribute anything, because the government itself is financed by the private, tax paying citizens).  The biggest lie of them all is that separatists love to show that Quebec is in good economic standing, when it is private enterprise and capital from the government of Canada that is the only significant contributor to the wealth that Quebec enjoys – how much private capital will be left when Quebec separates ? Probably not much.

But, religion and the cultures and traditions that are influenced by it represent another cultural schism between Quebec and the rest of Canada that threaten unity. Notably how they manifest in economic policy as discussed above. Furthermore, accusations of ‘corruption’ have been neatly categorized as ‘Quebec bashing’ – so differences in culture exacerbate the divide , fanning the flames of sovereignty.

The Noise

Pauline Marois : we know what you're up to.

Pauline Marois : we know what you’re up to.

There is plenty of ‘Noise’ in Quebec these days. This is the ‘front-line’ elements and debates of the Quebec question in general – in essence, the seemingly endless and painful process of Quebec trying to decide what it wants to be. The Noise is the social media, the online and print media, the confrontations, protests and dissent in the streets. All of this noise is really the manifestation, symptoms or outward expression of the underlying identity debate that Quebec has been undergoing for 100’s of years, in a sense the items I discussed above. The noise really won’t change much in the way of reinforcing sovereignty, but over a long period time it may erode federalist allegiances in the province. I doubt even the current PQ strategy will change much in the end.

I want to end this blog with a very keen observation made by Lysiane Gagnon in a Globe and Mail article a few months back. I believe that the PQ’s strategy is to try and make the noise louder, and Lysiane Gagnon’s observation pointed out how. These kinds of article don’t get much attention, but in my estimation , they are the most important, because they reveal the ‘why’ that I spoke of in the 3rd step of the 1-2-3 at the beginning of this blog. The article was entitled ‘PQ’s charter madness has a method’, November 13, 2013. In the article Lysiane says ( in the context of the PQ making any changes to the Charter of Values ):

Such inflexibility, coming from a minority government, would be truly incomprehensible – unless the government actually wants the bill to be defeated, which it does. The PQ intends to keep the unadopted bill simmering until the next election, when it will ask voters for a majority so that it can implement the charter, which is favoured by many old-stock francophones worried by immigration from Muslim countries.

….

The party tried for a while but has now renounced its effort to attract the non-francophone voters it needed to win a majority for sovereignty (an elusive goal if there ever was one) and has unabashedly returned to playing the identity card, a strategy aimed at reinforcing its core support by appealing to nationalist passions.

If it wins a majority, Premier Pauline Marois’s government will unfold the second part of the strategy, hoping that its identity legislation will inflame the political climate, provoke an angry backlash in the rest of Canada and eventually push a majority of francophones to react by voting Yes to another sovereignty referendum. The sovereigntists will argue that “English Canada” and the federal government are imposing values alien to Quebec (multiculturalism, for instance) and depriving Quebec of the right to adopt the policies it needs for its cultural survival.

I believe that there is a good chance that Lysiane is bang on – in essence they want to get an majority, enact the charter of values, piss off the rest of Canada which in turn will piss off many Francophones (backlash), thus demonstrating that Canada doesn’t understand Quebec and this is why it needs independence.

It would be great to hear from you – please be respectful with your comments.

2 thoughts on “The Sovereignty Warchest: Features, Contradictions And Threats

  1. Excellent read. I like how you highlighted the true strategy behind the PQ’s agenda to push the Charter. I always suspected they wanted it to fail… for now, since it’s so outlandish to the culturally accepting. Having been born and raised in Montreal, I do see that they are being more xenophobic than usual these days. Most likely because (as you highlighted) the very philosophy of the separatist movement is based on vague concepts drawn from a distant past with little relation to today’s different global environment and national culture. Thus, the “pinpoint” such a separatist philosophy stands on is quite literally useless and destructive in a society where multiculturalism is actually a good thing to embrace for a nation to succeed and grow. We can see how cultural diversity and acceptance helps a nation grow by comparing the ROC to Quebec. Those separatists in the outlying regions of Quebec that are the xenophobic types you referred to are the majority in this province, and their refusal to accept the skills and abilities people from other nations can bring is forcing those talented immigrants to leave. The ROC is benefiting from that exodus. The ROC thrives, and Quebec continues its dismal spiral into oblivion all the while holding the proverbial mirror to itself in a narcissistic self-delusional grip.

    • Hi Johnny,

      Thanks for reading. You are right on… the world has moved on from dogmatic and suffocating ideologies of the early 17th and 18th century. The study of continental philosophy can help a lot to understand – if you read up on it, you won’t believe how many similarities there are between what the PQ is doing and the rise of European style racial nationalism. If you are interested in a good read on this – I recommend Karl Popper’s “The Open Society And It’s Enemies”. It traces the ideas of the Parti Quebecois all of the way back to Plato and ancient Greece.

      You also brought up a good point – that Quebec is distancing (or trying to , through the PQ) from the ROC. There is a concerted effort to eliminate Anglo-Saxon ideals from the province because of the the persistent culture of animosity held for anglophones. This is leading Quebec to becoming a more insular and backwater place , driving immigrants and business down the 401.

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