|Montréal, 7 juillet 2001 / No 85|
by David MacRae
The annual Battle of the Flags, the never-ending war of symbols between the feuding Quebec and Canadian nationalists, is over for yet another year. As always in the years since Canadian nationalism has become politically-incorrect in this province, the Fleur de Lys has scored another smashing victory over its perennial rival: the Red Rag.
Despite the fervour of the Flag War, the battling symbols have little real
relationship with the entities they are supposed to represent. The maple
leaf is quintessentially Québécois and cannot be found
in the western half of the country at all, while the Fleur de Lys
is the emblem of the greatest of all oppressors of the people of Quebec
– the King of France. Of course, the flags were never chosen for their
historical or representative accuracy but rather for their power to oppose
What's your symbol?
The Maple Leaf draws its power, not from its ability to represent the whole of Canada, but rather from its disavowal of the British connection; it emphasizes the indigenous character of the Canadian people and downplays our European roots. Monarchists understood this very well and opposed the adoption of the flag unanimously.
The Fleur de Lys was chosen for the exact opposite reason – to emphasize the European connection. It does not represent the
One unintended (but surely gratifying) side-effect of the adoption of the Fleur de Lys came a few decades later, when a new people called the Québécois suddenly appeared on the North American continent. Until the sixties, the people of Quebec divided their loyalties between the Canadian nation and the French Canadian people. Suddenly, a plurality came to view themselves as neither French nor Canadian but rather as Québécois – a clear victory of Quebec nationalists over their Canadians rivals. And also a clear illustration of the power of symbols.
All states use nationalism and national symbols to legitimize their power. It is not by accident that Quebec's first great nationalist, Maurice Duplessis, introduced the Quebec flag. Similarly, it is no coincidence that the man who gave us the Canadian flag, Lester Pearson, was also the great aggrandiser of federal power, the man who brought us the joys of Social Insurance Numbers and socialized medicine. Symbols cover the depredations of the state and provide a cover for their actions.
Guy Bertrand has famously observed that nationalism is the new Quebec religion, which presumably arose to fill the vacuum left by the sudden collapse of the power of the Catholic Church forty years ago. In this he is certainly right.
Last year Alain Dubuc ran a series of articles in La Presse which attempted to outline a future for the province in an era where the péquistes are old and tired, where three-quarters of Québécois are fed up with the constitutional wars and want nothing to do with another referendum. Despite a valiant attempt, Dubuc was simply incapable of thinking outside the box – of repudiating the cause of forty years of sterile debate. He repeatedly argued that Quebec must re-define its nationalism to fit the twenty-first century, instead of acknowledging the central position which nationalism has held in the stagnation of the Quebec people.
Dubuc is viewed as a moderate who has bravely questioned the old orthodoxies. In reality, he clings to them tenaciously, even desperately, while simultaneously acknowledging their inability to respond to the needs of Quebeckers. He is the Tony Blair of Quebec politics. He sees the failure of the old collectivist dreams, whether nationalist or socialist, to address the real world. Yet he is unable to abandon his fantasies and instead dreams of a Third Way.
The Quebec nationalist's belief in democracy stops when communities aspire to manage their own affairs without interference from their neighbours. Josée Legault has the unmitigated gall to resort to constitutional arguments to justify riding roughshod over the almost unanimous desire of the people to remain independent. Of course, she simultaneously refuses to acknowledge the same constitution's jurisdiction over the Quebec people's right to choose their own future. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
While Guy Bertrand quite accurately understands the duplicity and self-deception of his enemy, he obstinately refuses to see that he is guilty of the same error. His war against Quebec nationalism has all the earmarks of a jihad, conducted with all the fervour of the recent convert that he is. He takes his war to the courts in an anti-democratic attempt to force Quebeckers to remain Canadian whether they want to or not.
Other Canadian nationalists, such as Andrew Coyne of the National Post, have the same mystical belief in the eternal indivisibility of the Canadian state. In this way they are no different than the Quebec nationalists who pay homage to the Inviolable Borders of Quebec or the Divine Principle of Quebec Democracy. The war between the two nationalisms is ultimately a war of duelling hypocrisies. Each refuses to concede the justice of other's desire to fulfill his aspirations, while insisting on the inviolate nature of his own right.
The partitionists have a better case. They claim that, if Canada is divisible, then so is Quebec. This argument is unassailable; yet the obvious truth of this argument is simply brushed aside. For the most part, even the Canadian nationalists ignore it. Part of the reason may be a sub-conscious recognition that partitionists too are hypocrites. They do not advance this case because they truly believe in the aspirations of minority Quebeckers, whether aboriginal or English or simply non-nationalists. Rather they use it as a bludgeon to scare the Quebec nationalists. Not that it works.
The more fundamental reason why the partitionists are ignored is that they attack the basis of the modern state – the belief in the magical power of lines drawn on a map. Modern statists believe in the right of the people of Kosovar minority in Serbia to separate from Serbia, but not in the right of the Serbian minority in Kosovo to separate from the Kosovar mini-state. While Serbs, Croats and Muslims all want to partition Bosnia, their NATO overloads refuse to let it happen. After all, if you change the demarcations between states, who knows how far people will go? They might actually get this idea that they have the right to choose for themselves.
Canadian nationalists cannot let this notion take root, anymore than Quebec nationalists. Should Quebec ever separate the partitionists will be ignored. The aboriginals will be bought off. The rest will have the same choice as Kosovar Serbs – either leave the place or stay and deal with the new political realities.
The writer and columnist Richard Gwyn believes that Canadian nationalism is a response to Quebec nationalism. According to him, Canadian nationalism is an attempt to keep the country together and would not have arisen except in response to this menace to the Canadian polity. While it is possible that the development of Canadian nationalism has accelerated due to this internal threat, he is certainly wrong if he believes that it would not otherwise have grown.
This year, I happened to spend Flag Season in Prince Edward Island (from where I write these words). The Island glories in its role as The Birthplace of Confederation. This year a new Founders' Hall, subsidized by the provincial and federal governments, opened to commemorate the participants in the 1864 Charlottetown Confederation Conference. A huge celebration was held July 1st with flags everywhere and the obligatory fireworks.
Despite this, the undeniable fact is that PE Islanders did not want to join Canada. They only accepted when bribed. Canada assumed a huge railroad debt incurred by the colonial government (the idea that, in the 1860s, a small island with dozens of superb natural harbours and a fine road network could need a railroad is the kind of absurdity that only a government could dream up). Furthermore, Confederation was an unmitigated disaster for the Island, as for the rest of the Maritimes. In the mid-nineteenth century, they were the industrial powerhouse of British North America. Then, when MacDonald's National Policy cut off trade with the United States, the manufacturing base shifted to central Canada. The Maritime Provinces' natural advantage of being on the route between New England and Old England was forcibly ignored. A hundred years later, they have still not recovered.
Yet Islanders celebrate this destruction of their society, their history and their economy. Thirty years ago, it would have been rare to find a flag anywhere. If you could find one, it was more likely to be the Island's Triple-Tree than the Canadian Maple Leaf. Today flags are far more common and almost all of them are Red Rags.
Guy Bertrand is perfectly accurate – Quebec nationalism is a religion. What he fails to see is that all nationalisms are. Thus the need for symbols like Maple Leaves and Fleur de Lys. They re-enforce the mystical belief in the state and the legitimacy of its power.
Canadians and Québécois share the curious feature that their respective nationalisms are based, not on what they are, but rather on what they are not. English Canadians desperately search for symbols to separate them from Americans. They latch onto their atrocious health system and oppressive gun laws and somehow come to the perverse conclusion that this proves their superiority. Yet, until the sixties, Canada was less socialist than the United States.
The Québécois, in contrast, have no need to search around for ways to differentiate themselves. They know the difference between themselves and other North Americans – the sounds they utter as they watch American television, drive American cars and eat at American restaurants. All the while, the truly unique features of French Canadian culture, its Catholicism and its closeness to the land, have disappeared.
It is hard to judge which of the two nationalisms are more absurd. The one clutches at inferior institutions to prove its separate character. The other chooses irrelevancies. The one clear conclusion is that symbols matter and that states use them to manipulate their citizens.
This Flag Season, refuse to fly either the Maple Leaf or the Fleur de Lys. Landry was right; the former is nothing but a red rag. What he refuses to acknowledge is that the only difference between it and the other one is colour.
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