A separate reality

Separatists should not be treated as villains, but as responsible citizens looking to make Canada better

Yes! The Bloc Quebecois is on the move again. A recent analysis presented by the Globe and Mail shows Gilles Duceppe and his Bloc Quebecois on track to win a record number of seats in Quebec if a federal election happens soon. I was pretty happy to hear it. With the other three parties on pre-election tours, I was wondering whatever had happened to the Bloc.

I must say, it pleased me to no end when Gilles Duceppe announced St. John’s as the first stop on his Bloc Quebecois 20-year Anniversary Tour last year. And not just because of my own political views. Gilles is my favourite separatist, hands down. Nobody else comes close.

And the world’s got some doozies. There are the Bavarian separatists, for instance, who want to break Bavaria off from the rest of Germany. Their strategy is to convince other Germans they’re too annoying to keep around. In 2009 they ran a campaign featuring posters of badly dressed Bavarians, titled “Don’t you want to get rid of the Bavarians?” They begged other Germans to vote for their party, in order to kick them out of the country.

A similar strategy actually worked in Belgium, where last year a separatist party won the national election. However they only won a minority government, and may have no choice but to form a coalition government with a non-separatist party, thereby keeping the country together. In the immortal words of their most likely coalition partner, “You don’t have to like each other to work together.” Clearly not. More than 7 months after the election, they’re still trying to put together a coalition government (the King is kindly looking after matters until they do).

Then there’s the Cornwall National Liberation Army, which wants independence from England. After a 2007 campaign of scratching cars that had non-Cornwall license plates (and accidentally burning down their training camp), they decided freedom would best be served by targeting British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. One of their members was finally arrested after threatening to bomb Jamie Oliver’s new restaurant in Cornwall (and scratch up his cars), but the CNLA bravely issued an ultimatum declaring that “graffiti operations” would continue.

The Bloc isn’t alone

While the Bloc is the most famous separatist group in Canada, it’s by no means the only one. By some counts, Canada has close to 20 separatist-minded parties. And not just in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador. Alberta and Cape Breton have separatists. The Prairies have separatists. There was an Ontario Independence League, and even the Province of Toronto Party is seeking freedom from the oppressive yoke of Ontario.

So separatism is a fine Canadian tradition. But the Bloc still wins. After all, which other party would celebrate 20 years of separatism with a tour of the country it wants to break up?

And we can’t forget the events of the 2005 election. While the Conservatives and Liberals were (yawn) battling it out over the economy and spending scandals, Gilles spent the election campaign proudly unveiling plans for a post-independence Quebec national hockey league and a post-independence Quebec international spy agency. Whatever you think about Quebec sovereignty, you gotta love the audacity.

But I don’t love the way people – Stephen Harper foremost among them – respond to my favourite Canadian separatist (did I mention I have a Gilles Duceppe action figure and a Gilles Duceppe finger puppet?). The Conservative strategy for battling separatists seems to be to demonize them. Remember when the Bloc almost formed a coalition government with Liberals and NDP? Harper’s response was to paint the lot of them as plotting some sort of underhanded treachery. The rhetoric seems to sink in easily: witness the comments on local news sites in response to Gilles’ St. John’s visit. Many of them said he was an “enemy” seeking to “destroy” their country.

Nothing is farther from the truth. In fact, separatism is a cause which has an important role in Canada. It reminds us that Canada is not a country with a single unitary history – like some ancient European state – but a confederation of different regions and peoples brought uneasily together. It’s a flimsy construction, and that’s the way it’s meant to be.

In many ways, that’s Canada’s strength. There is nothing “un-Canadian” about separatism, because quite frankly there is nothing “Canadian” to define us. Canada is a confederation of different peoples, different communities, different values and attitudes. It is socialist and capitalist. It is progressive and conservative. It is Aboriginal, Anglophone, Francophone, Chinese, Ukrainian, Filipina, and more.

Vital wake-up calls

The remarkable thing about Canada is that it has held together, not because some political party “defeated” the forces of separatism, but because the flare-up of separatism has always been a wake-up call that something is wrong with our Confederation. If our distinct provinces are to stay confederated, we must listen to those voices and fix that which is not working. At one time, it meant adopting bilingualism across the country. At another time, it meant adopting a socialist health care system.

Whatever the challenge, the members of this confederation have risen to meet it. The voices of separation are not dangerous “un-Canadian” villains, but responsible citizens who are neither unwilling nor afraid to expose the cracks in our society, and to demand they be fixed – or else they will walk away.

Stephen Harper and his Conservatives appear determined to do everything in their power to avoid fixing those cracks. Instead of recognizing them and working together to solve them, they’re seeking to keep them hidden, sweeping them beneath an ever more threadbare carpet. And in doing so, they are only making those cracks wider.

A good example is Harper’s refusal to keep his word on the Atlantic Accord – even when we sent a very clear warning of the consequences by lowering the Canadian flags. As the most recent members of Confederation, who voted grudgingly to join, we ought to have a very clear sense that Newfoundland and Labrador didn’t surrender its identity in 1949, but chose to try a partnership, for so long as it suits our purposes and brings us the benefits we voted for.

Vilifying separatism is the most dangerous threat facing Canadian democracy today. So long as the Conservatives seek to rule through bullying rather than reasoning, so long as they seek to denounce rather than include, they will succeed only in turning this Confederation and its members against each other. And if they continue, they may soon discover that instead of having crushed the seeds of separatism, they have fanned its flames into a force they will not be able to stop.

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