Weissenberger & Koch: The power of nationalism in Quebec

March 17th, 2014
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Pierre-Karl Péladeau’s sudden entry as a Parti Québécois candidate tells us something about nationalism — something that politicians and many people in the Rest of Canada don’t seem to understand. Quite simply: tribe trumps.

What could explain the decision by an ostensibly committed small-C conservative and/or libertarian business leader and public figure to run for one of the most leftist and statist parties in Canada? When it first gained power in the late 1970s, the PQ was arguably a fairly broad coalition — mainly left-leaning, while inspiring people of various ideological inclinations to march under the banner of independence. Along the way, however, the PQ jettisoned any pretense to centrism in economic, social or even international policy.

The editorial positions of Péladeau’s media properties, like Sun Media Corp., are pretty clear and not exactly muted. Many assumed they at least broadly reflected Péladeau’s personal convictions. And he was given to voicing opinions such as this one, published several years ago, where he excoriated Quebec’s pro-union policy, which he said “…forces taxpayers who are already among the most heavily burdened on the continent to finance the positions taken by unions.”

Beyond whatever personal ambition underlies Péladeau’s decision, his move underscores that for many Québécois, nationalism outweighs other political or philosophical consideration. This is something that, since the rise of Québécois nationalism in the 1960s, most of us failed to recognize. With a few exceptions, the blindness has been worst among Canada’s political class.

One need only look at the multiple, misguided attempts at accommodation, political brokerage and deal-making undertaken by apparently well-meaning English Canadian politicians to see the costly disconnect. How many rounds of negotiations with Quebec were undertaken, with each federal concession met by further demands, fracturing federal parties and at times bringing Canada to the brink?

Federal politicians didn’t realize the other side was playing the long game. Each concession was not, as most assumed (or hoped), the last item of a final unity deal. It was merely an increment in a game of “Fabian Separatism”, the next step in a long and unwavering march toward secession.

It’s difficult to understand the visceral nature of nationalism if one isn’t oneself a nationalist, or hasn’t profoundly experienced it. This led to very personal miscalculations, like Brian Mulroney trusting Lucien Bouchard in the late 80s, promoting him so fast and far that Bouchard’s betrayal and formation of the Bloc Québécois became all the more damaging to Mulroney, and all the greater a triumph for Quebec’s separatists.

It also generated supremely naïve ideas, like Joe Clark’s encouraging Canadians to “get in the car and drive to Quebec” to convince them not to secede in 1995. At times, when appeasement overreached, some in the West to consider seceding themselves. But such flare-ups were limited and transient, illustrating the weakness if not plain incoherence of policy-driven rather than tribal nationalism.

Even if one can’t share the nationalist impulse, the inability or refusal to acknowledge and study it is inexcusable. Analysis of worldwide nationalist conflict — in Europe, Africa and Asia — would reveal a similar pattern to that seen in Quebec. Importantly, that nationalism is very difficult to appease, placate or bargain with.

The very starkness — and, typically, the violence — seen in these other cases should illustrate the power of the tribal impulse, while revealing patterns shaping the usually peaceful version unfolding in Quebec. Instead, western elites have been more likely to deny tribal nationalism, often claiming it was a “construct” from “the legacy of colonialism”, or a projection of European disputes into a Third World context.

There are, however, instructive parallels in political organization. Nationalist parties, whether in Vietnam, Bohemia or Scotland, often start as big tents. Initially, bonds of blood and external enemies — real or imagined — gloss over any political differences. Only after things have run their course, particularly if power is attained, do factions split apart or purges begin.

We need to realize that nationalist activism isn’t just part of a normal political spectrum. It’s a different kind of politics. What else could make political bedfellows of Péladeau and Pauline Marois?

Yesterday’s announcement demonstrates the enduring point that all other political differences can be put aside for the nation, and dealt with after entering the Promised Land. Whether Quebec becomes a socialist workers’ paradise or libertarian island of light is, for now, unimportant.

—National Post

John Weissenberger, a native Quebecer, is now [a] Calgary geologist; George Koch is a Calgary journalist.


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By John Weissenberger and George Koch