Federalism vs. the Unitary State: Options for English Canada in the Event of the Separation of Quebec

By Usher, Dan | Atlantic Economic Journal, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Federalism vs. the Unitary State: Options for English Canada in the Event of the Separation of Quebec


Usher, Dan, Atlantic Economic Journal


My contribution to this discussion is to put forward and defend a proposition that is almost the reverse of Gordon Gibson's proposal. He has argued that the appropriate form of government for a Canada without Quebec would be a looser federation than Canada is today. By contrast, I assert that the only rationale for Canadian federalism is to accommodate English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking Canadians within a single country and that federalism would serve no useful purpose in the English-speaking country left over in the event that Quebec chooses to go. In that event, English Canada should move at once to the very opposite of Plan B. A Canada without Quebec requires no constitutionally-sanctioned provinces and should reconstitute itself as a unitary state like the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, or Norway, rather than as a federation like Belgium, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, or the United States. Four preliminary observations before stating my reasons for this view:

First, in speaking of English Canada, I am speaking about language, not national origin. For the purposes of this discussion, an English Canadian is one who, in this bilingual country, prefers to communicate with his fellow Canadians in English rather than in French. An English Canadian need not trace his ancestry to the British Isles. His parents or grandparents may have come to Canada from Germany, Sweden, China, Poland, India, Lebanon, or any of a hundred other countries. He may prefer to speak a language other than English at home or among friends. He is an English Canadian all the same, as long as he prefers to speak English rather than French in transactions with his fellow Canadians in the public domain.

Second, an ethnically diverse society such as English Canada has become requires for its cohesion that a clear line be drawn between the public and the private sectors. In the private sector, I may be as ethnically distinct as I please. I may speak or transact business in whatever language I please. I may form associations with whomever I please. In the public sector, I have the same rights and obligations as every other citizen, and I relate to my fellow Canadians as an individual, not a member of this or that ethnic group. A clear line is essential, for, without a clear line and if public rights become attached to the group rather than to the person, a diverse society tends to disintegrate as every ethnic group becomes the enemy of every other in a general scramble for public largesse.

Third, Canada as we know it is the product of a two-fold compromise between the English and the French. It is a compromise over language and a compromise over the institutions of government. The compromise over language is straightforward. Our Federal institutions are bilingual. Provincial governments adopt the language of the majority in the province with some rights for significant minorities in the other language. The language in the private sector is, with some exceptions, a matter for individual choice. The compromise in institutions is over the powers of the provinces. These are more extensive than is in the interest the English (a point that Gordon Gibson would be inclined to dispute), but less extensive than is in the interest of the French. Both parts of the compromise are essential for the preservation of a country that includes Quebec.

The fundamental interest of French Canadians is the preservation of their language. The French language is inevitably under pressure because French-speaking people are a minority within Canada and because of the role of English as the international language of commerce. There is always a danger of assimilation. A smaller and more dispersed minority would have no choice but to take up the language of the majority. The French minority in Canada with its territorial base in Quebec is large enough to preserve itself, and it means to do so. A minority in Canada but a majority within their province, the French in Quebec would never have accepted the common country in 1867 and would not consider remaining in Canada today without bilingual Federal institutions and without constitutionally-sanctioned rights in Quebec to conduct their own affairs in their own way.

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