Magazine article Canadian Dimension

Canadian Nationalism and the Struggle for Popular Sovereignty

Magazine article Canadian Dimension

Canadian Nationalism and the Struggle for Popular Sovereignty

Article excerpt

During the past year or two we have seen evidence of a resurgence of Canadian nationalism reminiscent of that of the 1 960s or of the period surrounding the debate over the Charlottetown Accord. The question being debated in the Canadian Left is whether this nationalistic sentiment plays a positive or negative role in the struggle for social progress.

During the 1960s and 1970s Canadian nationalism figured prominently in anti-imperialist and socialist politics, aimed primarily against American economic, political and cultural domination and a desire to defend Canadian sovereignty. There were also currents of economic nationalism, in sections of the Liberal and Conservative parties, although it was always difficult to distinguish how much of this was based on a desire to defend Canadian independence and how much was based on narrow, economic self-interest. For its part, the NDP rejected the nationalism of the Waffle and expelled its leaders.

During the 1980s, Anglo-American. imperialism adopted the strategy of neoliberalism in response to a crisis in profitability. One aspect of this strategy was the destruction of whatever remnants of socialism remained in the countries of eastern Europe, and the crushing of the nation-building in the liberated former colonies in order to bring these countries fully into the capitalist market. The embracing of those policies by the Mulroney and Chretien governments has placed in jeopardy whatever limited sovereignty Canada previously enjoyed. The resulting concern and apprehension generated amongst Canadians has given rise to this new wave of sentiment for Canadian sovereignty.


While the Canadian Left has generally had little trouble accommodating itself to Quebec nationalism or to the pro-sovereignty sentiments of Aboriginal peoples, there has been a historical split on the issue of Canadian nationalism. This has mirrored to some extent the dichotomy within Canadian nationalism, itself. The anti-imperialist nationalism of a section of the Canadian Left has been counterposed by the anti-Quebec nationalism of some sections of the Right, including a significant section of the Liberal economic nationalists. In fact, many of the latter brandish their "nationalism" only in opposition to Quebec sovereignty, while at the same time advocating greater economic, political and cultural integration with the United States.

In my view, there is nothing inherently positive or negative about nationalism. What ultimately determines whether nationalism plays a progressive or reactionary role is the overall political context in which it is placed, that is, whether the movement for nationalism links itself to progressive or reactionary politics.

Human beings are social by nature. We simply cannot survive without a community. A community has been necessary for protection against the forces of nature, as well as to facilitate economic activities. Historically, as technology developed, especially the technologies of transportation and warfare, the need for larger and Larger communities also arose. Tribal forms of social organization gave way to towns and cities, then empires and countries. However, as the sizes of human communities increase, so do the disintegrating forces arising from conflicting individual interests. So, a greater unifying concept has been needed from the earliest days of large-scale human societies to ensure that communities remain united.

The first such unifying concept was based on family ties -- the tribe. When communities outgrew this concept, it was replaced with others -- language, religion and ethnicity being the main ones. However, with the rise of mercantile capitalism during the late Middle Ages, even those concepts became restrictive and limiting, and the concept of the modern nation state began to emerge, especially in western Europe. The main purpose for the construction of nation states was to secure domestic markets in the hands of a particular grouping of capitalists and to use the collective economic activity of the workers under their control to enable them to compete effectively with other groups of capitalists. …

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