The Crisis of Multi-National Federations: Post-Charlottetown Reflections

By Resnick, Philip | Review of Constitutional Studies, January 1994 | Go to article overview

The Crisis of Multi-National Federations: Post-Charlottetown Reflections


Resnick, Philip, Review of Constitutional Studies


Let me assure you that I do not intend to re-visit the field of our recent referendum battle, or to dwell in loving detail on the provisions of the late and unlamented Charlottetown Accord. We all deserve a respite. But I am also convinced that we are by no means out of the woods where deeper issues of national identity and political restructuring are concerned. Six months from now, or twelve, or twenty-four, they will return to haunt us. So why not address them when, for once, we do not have a figurative gun to our heads?

Beneath the particulars of the Canadian debate lie issues that have surfaced in recent months and years in a number of other multi-national federations. The break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in 1991 the latter accompanied by devastating bloodshed and population displacement--and the more recent break-up of the Federated Republic of Czechs and Slovaks on January 1, 1993 serve as an immediate backdrop to these reflections. The ongoing difficulties faced by states like Belgium(1) or Spain in making a federal system function or by third world states like India or Nigeria suggest that federalism in ethnically or nationally-divided societies is fraught with problems.

Such problems are inherently different in character from those faced by federal states with ethnically or linguistically unified populations in countries like Australia, the United States or the Federal Republic of Germany, since there are no significant sub-units or regions aspiring to independence--whatever may have been the case in the past. Notions of citizenship and nationality overlap, even as nation and state tend to fuse into the' single concept of nation-state.

For a long time, we in Canada, especially on the English-speaking side, but to a certain degree on the French-speaking side as well, might have assumed that ours was a federation in which a single concept of nationality and national sentiment prevailed. This was certainly the aspiration of the original Fathers of Confederation like John A. Macdonald and Georges-Etienne Cartier arid of as recent a federal Prime Minister as Pierre Elliott Trudeau --one whose views in matters constitutional still carry great weight. It is a feeling that was certainly fostered by Canada's progressive emancipation from British tutelage, through two world wars, the Statute of Westminster, membership in the League of Nations and the United Nations, and beyond.

Yet when one examines the course of Canadian history since 1867, one is struck by the latent difference in national sentiment and identity between English-speaking and French-speaking- Canadians. On a whole series of issues, from the hanging of the Metis leader, Louis Riel, in 1885, to the suspension of French language instruction in Manitoba in the 1890s or Ontario in the 1910s, to the conscription crises of this century's two world wars, to the patriation of the Canadian constitution in 1982, differences between public opinion in the English-speaking provinces and in Quebec have often been, acute. Even, the "Nos" in English Canada and in Quebec on the night of October 26, 1992 were not the same.

In a more general sense, as I have argued elsewhere, the English Canadian, sense of nation has itself been very much a by-product of the creation of central government in 1867, the year of Canada's Confederation. (2) The sense of identity and citizenship for most English-speaking Canadians has been caught up with that level of government. Though regionalist sentiment has not been lacking, especially in the Atlantic provinces or in western Canada, the vast majority of English-speaking Canadians define themselves as Canadians first. Nor have there been serious secessionist movements in English-speaking Canada in recent times comparable to the sovereigntist movement in Quebec.

The French-speaking residents of Quebec had an identity as canadiens (in contrast to les anglais) long before Confederation in 1867. …

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