November 1, 1996 Halifax Herald

Time to settle Quebec question, for Canada's sake

The arrival of a new breed of politician on the Quebec political scene in the early 1960s helped herald the death of Canada's old social structure. This development probably caused many members of Canada's status quo club, smelling danger to their privileged status, to choke on their cocktails.

However, with Quebec's full participation, the drive started by the country's oppressed peoples, for revolutionary changes and equal rights, became unstoppable. They demanded, and saw enacted into law, regulations designed to end gender, linguistic, racial and other forms of intolerance. Caused by these efforts, minority and women's rights have been accommodated to a previously undreamed of extent throughout the country, and there has developed a commitment among most political parties to continue the effort to instill in the system social justice for all.

But during the drive towards remaking Canada into a tolerant society, as often occurs when implementing positive change, a negative developed. In Quebec, separatism raised its ugly head. The Quebeckers advocating this solution for Canada's language-based bigotry problems apparently believe that contentious issues cannot be resolved satisfactorily between civilized peoples by using accommodation and dialogue.

A good example of what this kind of thinking can produce is the fragmentation of Christianity. Its early participants rejected accommodation and dialogue, which has resulted in the movement splintering into thousands of sects.

No informed person can deny that, in the past, Quebeckers had plenty of grievances to enrage them; i.e., financial exclusion, language discrimination, etc. However, most of these have now been settled handsomely. Today, Quebeckers enjoy an influence that is second to none, they are well placed in all aspects of Canada's power structure and have seen, with each passing year, the country become more bilingual. Today, an unilingual speaker of French can be served in most parts of the country.

The only lingering problem in this area is that there is a small minority in English-speaking Canada who are anti-anything geared towards ending intolerance. However, Quebeckers should not, because of negative encounters with these people, label all unilingual English speakers bigots.

Beside the revenge seeking Quebeckers who hold grudges for past humiliations, there are those in Quebec who try to justify their wish to break up Canada on the premises that Quebec is different from the rest of the country and as such, needs space to carry out its agenda. There isn't any argument with the assessment that the province is different, because each province is different. But valid arguments can be made against a contention that Quebec has to separate in order to do its own thing, or protect its culture.

Foremost among these is this: Separation will, in the long run, probably destroy the very culture that the separatists claim they want to protect. By removing the prime reason for English-speaking Canadians to keep trying to accommodate French language usage throughout the land, they eventually will, if successful in their efforts to separate, restrict the use of French to Quebec.

Separatists should begin to appreciate that being part of a country that is willing to insure the protection and promote the use of the French language across the continent gives Quebeckers a buffer between themselves and the English-speaking giant to the south. A giant which has begun to enact laws geared towards assuring it doesn't become bilingual.

One can bet the farm on this: If separation comes to pass, the rest of Canada will become unilingual English speaking within the space of a few years. After separation there won't be any reason or justification for the expense associated with trying to accommodate the use of French within the remainder.

Thus, Quebec's separation will have a very negative effect upon the hopes for continued existence among French-speaking communities outside Quebec. And further, if separation comes to pass, eventually the young people of Quebec, surrounded by an indifferent unilingual English-speaking population, will feel very isolated. After all, the combined English speaking peoples of North America represent the most powerful economic block on the face of Mother Earth. Why would they want to accommodate or communicate in another language?

Quebec can grow and prosper within Canada. It can also be assured that its distinct identity as a North American French language-based culture will be protected within the country's framework. And, most important, it can continue to take a lead role in developing a truly tolerant society for the entire country.

The final decision on retaining and strengthening a united Canada needs to be made without further delay. This must be done because the uncertainty surrounding possible separation has caused, and is causing, financial and political instability among us. Just how much grief and human suffering has the 30-year-plus debate over separation caused? One wouldn't be far of the mark by stating that the financial cost in lost investment and the social cost of the unemployment caused by it has probably been such that it is incalculable.

Quebeckers, before leaping into the unknown, should ask the citizens in the Slovak part of the former Czechoslovakia about the cost of ethnic nationalism. Slovaks permitted their politicians to go against their wishes and break up their country and in exchange, ended up waving flags amid a higher level of poverty.

Daniel N. Paul


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