Realist Reflections on an International Relationship

Denis Stairs
Centre For Foreign Policy Studies
Dalhousie University

This 'Background' section introduced a full paper dealing with the relationship after secession, a relationship between foreign countries. An abstract of the full paper will be set out in next set of research material. Notes on the author are attached.

BACKGROUND: The Political Discourse Of The Referendum Debate

During the debate leading up to the recent secessionist referendum in Quebec, the prevailing assumption in Ottawa was that the separatist cause would fail. The margin in the vote might not be massive, It might not even be comfortable. But it certainly would be adequate. In these circumstances, the most sensible strategy for federalists outside Quebec was to lie low.

One of the practical implications of this general conclusion was that no significant challenge would be mounted against the explicit operating premise of the PQ government, which was that a vote of 50%-plus-one would be sufficient to legitimize an act of secession, not only in Quebec, but in the rest of Canada as well. A confrontational posture on this issue, as on others, could be inflammatory. In the absence of any serious prospect of a majority vote for the Yes side, advancing it could serve no useful political or constitutional purpose.

A defense of the national union at the level of principle - a defense that would be aimed directly at the philosophical underpinnings of the Pequist position - was similarly avoided. The Pequists linked their case for an independent polity to the needs of a homogeneous linguistic, cultural, and social identity. But a philosophical defense of the more cosmopolitan alternative that Canada represents would have to rest on arguments that were rooted more in the cool politics of "reason" than in the hot politics of identity. This would be a hard sell. Political communities that seek to legitimize themselves by reference to the advantages of unity in diversity, as Canada does, depend for their survival on a form of empathetic tolerance. This requires (for most of us) hard work and self-discipline to sustain. In the battle against inter-group prejudice, the mind must constantly watch itself. But in the world of ordinary political discourse, minds rarely do. Relatively to the politics of cultural pluralism, the politics of identity is comforting to hear and easy to practice.

It can give (or appear to give) new meaning to lives rendered anonymous by a homogenizing and impersonal world, and it can help to provide a secure anchor in a sea of change. For good or ill, it also makes it possible for the citizen--any citizen--to identify the boundaries of that particular community of persons whose collective interests his or her polity is obligated to serve (and also, by implication, the communities whose interests--by virtue of their being resident elsewhere--it can reasonably ignore). This is a luminous political formula. In the late summer and early autumn of 1995 federalist leaders assumed that attacking it head-on would make it more attractive, not less. And so it was that the counter-arguments were left to federalists inside Quebec. In the political environment within which they operated, the latter determined (rightly or wrongly) that the union could be most effectively defended on the premise that it was practically useful. More specifically, it was asserted that Quebec' s membership in the federation is a significant source of material advantage. Given the importance of this economic payoff, all that was required to save the day was to make the citizens of Quebec more fully aware of it. Issues of political philosophy (together with their constitutional and public policy implications) could thus be left to one side. The case for Canada was a case for prosperity.

This strategy (how explicitly it was intended as a 'strategy' is unclear) to have a number of drawbacks. One of them was that the argument from economic utility had negative overtones. It implied, after all, that the best option for Quebeckers was not the exhilarating pursuit of a new and refreshing national vision, but simply "more of the same. Another was the fact that, in giving so much emphasis to material gain, it played into the Pequiste interpretation of Canada as a geographical expression held loosely together by nothing more than the attachment of its elites to the prosecution of an increasingly soulless commerce. It was this interpretation, after all, that allowed PQ leaders and their articulate intellectual supporters to propagate with so much conviction the view that the financial and industrial interests of Ontario would move quickly in the wake of secession to make a deal. This commercially-fired desire for accommodation would be more than sufficient to ensure that the acquisition of political sovereignty for Quehec would be accompanied by an uninterrupted economic association with Canada. The French were once again thinking of the English as a nation of shopkeepers!

While these arguments fueled the debate inside Quehec, Canadians elsewhere in the country looked anxiously on. Among them were some (how many is not clear) who thought that events might conceivably unfold, should a Yes vote be obtained, more or less along the lines the secessionists predicted. Most of these, almost certainly, lived in Ontario. Others, in keeping with their attachment to the conflict-resolution tenets of their liberal political culture, believed in addition that responsible citizens of good will in the new Canada would press for an amicable accommodation. They would do this, in spite of their disappointment over having to reconfigure their much-diminished country, because they would judge it to be the sensible way to sustain a civilized politics north of the American border over the longer run.

But there were also many who had grave doubts, believing (at best) that the post-secession bargaining would be very rough, and (at worst) that it would be inflamed by a politics of rage that would ensue from the sudden realization that the Canadian experiment had been destroyed by the willful act of an uncaring minority. The captains of the secessionist campaign, they thought, were seriously misleading their followers in predicting an easy transition to sovereign status. In the practical event, there would be no facile accommodation. There might even be vindictive behaviour. And there would be plenty of righteous causes --excited by minorities in Quebec-- that could be deployed as moralistic cover for a vengefully recalcitrant Canadian response.

But most of those who harboured such anxieties took their cue from Ottawa, as well as from their own instincts, and said very little, fearing as they did that warnings might be perceived as threats. These would only fertilize the secessionist mission. In retrospect, the assessment of the Prime Minister's Office may appear to have been sadly misplaced. But the disciplined quiet that prevailed throughout Canada (outside Quebec) during the early months of the referendum campaign suggests that the government's tactical assessment was widely shared by its constituents. They were following its lead at least partly because they had made the same judgment.

The strategy that resulted might have worked well enough, moreover, but for the entry of Lucien Bouchard. It seems in some respects unfathomable that the course of an issue of such fundamental import should be so profoundly influenced by the charismatic rhetoric of a single personality. Pre-Bouchard, the campaign in Quebec did not go particularly well for the secessionists. Post-Bouchard, its temper was transformed. The fate of the entire country seemed suddenly to rest on the platform skills of an individual whose political career had been nothing if not a demonstration of seemingly unbounded flexibility. Bouchard was not in uniform. But he was certainly on horseback. And he nearly won his war. Those who descended on Montreal in the final days of the campaign to demonstrate their attachment to the union were responding to the sudden discovery that its disintegration was a serious possibility. They now realized that the strategy of quiescence in Canada outside Quebec might not work. In the end, Bouchard lost the battle. But the closeness of the result served only to encourage the further prosecution of his mission.

It should be noted, however, that the strategy of quiescence in Canada outside Quebec may also have reflected something else. It was a phenomenon whose signals Quebecois, given their previous experiences of the pragmatic give-and-take of Canadian politics, would find it hard to recognize. For in addition to the delicate balance of strategic calculation, those familiar with the atmospherics of national politics elsewhere in the country could detect in the suspenseful silence an ominous combination of battle-fatigue and grim determination.

There was a desire in some quarters to finish the issue, once and for all. And if, in the process, the union was lost, a new game would begin, with different rules. The substance of these rules was still unclear. But one thing was tacitly understood: whatever they turned out to be, they would not be influenced (after secession) by any willingly-accepted concern in Canada for the welfare or the sensitivities of Quebec. Admirers of the Canadian political culture could note with a kind of desperate pride the observation that in few other countries could a secessionist campaign hope to be greeted with so tolerant an abnegation of will by the citizen majority. Canada's pluralism was facing, after all, the ultimate test: Would its tolerance extend to acquiescence in the rejection of itself? And the answer seemed to be, "Yes". Ironically, for Quebecois nationalists this was an answer that could only confirm what they already knew, and what Bouchard was later to make so offensively explicit: Canada was not a real country. It was an economic contrivance.

But those who had a better understanding of Canadians elsewhere in the federation knew something else - that the acceptance by the Canadian majority of the legitimacy of the referendum initiative was not so much generous, as ominous. For many, particularly but not solely in the West, it meant simply: If you want to change the game, get on with it, so we can take the gloves off!


Dennis Stairs is currently the McCulloch Professor in Political Science at Dalhousie University.
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