Reflections on Canada in the Year 1994

Article excerpt

Canada is profoundly at risk, most importantly because of the English Canada/Quebec conundrum. But the risk does not just derive from that -- this is not "the Quebec problem," this is "the Canada problem." I was reminded of just how bad things have become when our federal transportation minister announced in the Calgary Herald that "the National Dream is dead" as he warned Canadians that the $1.6 billion we spend each year on transportation subsidies -- the St. Lawrence Seaway, passenger train service, the Crow Benefit, the ferries of Atlantic Canada, the Coast Guard -- are on the chopping block.(f.1) If we end our national policy of a forced and subsidized east - west transportation system, and substitute the free market and private enterprise, another stake will have been driven into the heart of Canada's federal system.

What is most deeply disturbing is that English Canadians have not yet awakened -- though we are on the edge of the abyss -- have not yet realized the enormity of the risk facing Canada. Indeed, the mood abroad in English Canada is so cavalier that I fear we may stumble thoughtlessly through a series of crises and urgent events, and suddenly wake up to find that this great federal experiment we call Canada has failed before its 130th anniversary. And it will have been a failure that could have been averted had we had sufficient political will to concede, compromise, and innovate.

Quebec and English Canada

I am one of the large block of English Canadians -- ranging from 30 to 40 percent depending on which Gallup Poll in which year you consult -- who believe that the only road out of the English Canada/Quebec impasse is to negotiate "special status" for Quebec in our constitution.(f.2) I have believed this for over 30 years, ever since the beginning of the Quiet Revolution. Indeed, since the emergence of the Rassemblement pour l'Independance Nationale in the 1966 Quebec election I have been convinced that the Quebecois have presented English Canada with a starkly clear option: special status or sovereignty.(f.3) Ironically, the choices amount to the same thing in the final analysis -- sovereignty will inevitably lead to some form of intimate association not dissimilar from the European Union (unless English Canada goes completely mad). What English Canada faces, then, is a choice between a very long and messy road to special status in some form of negotiated sovereignty - association on the one hand, and the shorter road to the same reality via negotiation leading to harmonious and voluntary constitutional change, on the other.

But despite the fact that at 30 or 40 percent we special status advocates are a significant minority in English Canada, really on the threshold of majority status with the right leadership and commitment, the rest of English Canada, most importantly all our prominent political leaders, have exhibited a growing cranky unwillingness even to discuss the option. And in Quebec, the strong nationalists and committed separatists insist that it is too late, that only Quebec sovereignty will now suffice to realize that nation's dreams and securities. Hence, the Quebecois today face narrow and hard choices -- to accept federalism as it has evolved or to choose sovereignty. One need not belabour history's lesson that presenting an aggrieved population such a zero - sum choice can be very, very risky.

Political analysts and commentators appear profoundly puzzled as they try to understand and explain why Canadian politics and political debates have reached such a parlous state: dominated by the business lobby; an absence among established political and economic elites of a commitment to the project of the Canadian federation's survival; a separatist party as the Official Opposition in Ottawa;(f.4) a western - based protest party of the extreme right funded by oil and natural resource interests as the only other contender for the status of Official Opposition;(f. …