Talk of Scottish independence sparks memories of Canada’s fight for national unity

By on 24/05/2021
Saving national unity: working in government during the focus on keeping Quebec in the federation was exhilarating and draining, writes Michael Wernick. Credit: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels

Letter from Ottawa: In 1995, a referendum saw Quebec come close to seceding from Canada. Michael Wernick, former clerk of the Privy Council, reflects on what it was like to work in government at that time, and finds parallels in a contemporary struggle on the other side of the Atlantic

It must strike others as odd that Canadians strongly associate the arrival of warm weather with another comforting rite of spring – the culmination of the ice hockey season. Over the next two months the sport’s core audience will be joined by millions of fair-weather fans who only show up for the Stanley Cup and important international games.

A pandemic-related innovation, designed to minimise movement across the Canada-US border, has produced a rare treat for Canadian fans: two elimination rounds exclusively between Canada-based teams. The first game of the series saw Montreal, the largest city in Quebec, victorious over Toronto.

While such rivalry might threaten to pick open wounds from the 1980s and ‘90s movement for Quebec to gain independence, these confrontations on the ice will have nothing like the political overtones of an upcoming football match in London. Amidst the renewed talk of Scottish independence, England and Scotland face each other in the pandemic-delayed Euro 2020 in June.

Most Canadians are preoccupied with our exit from the pandemic and probably barely noticed the recent Scottish elections. But interest will grow not only because Britain is a contemporary partner in so many fora, but also because it was our last colonial power and a wellspring of immigration.

Emotional loyalties about England and Scotland in Canada are complex and divided. More than six million Canadians trace their roots to England, and nearly five million to Scotland. Tales of the Highland Clearances run through many family trees, while Scottish names dot our landscape and our history books.

For Canadians of my generation the prospect of Scottish independence triggers many faded memories of our own period of anxiety about national unity. Over three decades, the Canadian federation struggled for survival, dominated by the schism between Quebecers who saw a better future in a new nation state and those who wanted to remain within the Canadian federation.

The recent history of separatism

As the first wave of separatism crested in Canada in May 1980, the unity movement, led by prime minister Pierre Trudeau, promised deep structural reform – much as then UK prime minister David Cameron did in 2014.  Trudeau wrested control of the Canadian constitution from the British parliament and added a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. But he failed to secure agreement with the separatist government of Quebec.

Trudeau’s successor, Quebecer Brian Mulroney, attempted to bring closure twice: once in 1987 with a specific constitutional reform, and again in 1992 with more comprehensive constitutional reform.

This double failure led to the election of a separatist government in Quebec in 1994. And a second wave of separatism crested dangerously close to disaster: in a referendum held in October 1995, secession was rejected by a margin of 54,000 votes out of 4.8 million (on a turnout of 93.5%).

Inside the government’s focus on national unity

For a public servant of my generation the narrative of constitutional reform and referenda recalls a long era when “national unity” was the focal point of attention and careers. Working in the various special cabinet committees or policy and communications shops devoted to “Canadian unity” or “intergovernmental relations” was an essential stop for most “high flyers”.

I recall an atmosphere of camaraderie, working almost entirely in French, and an extraordinary sense of purpose and urgency to save the federation. The common experience forged professional and personal bonds that carried on for many years. In my nearly four decades in the Canadian public service, no period was as engaging, exhilarating and draining as 1995.

For Quebecers who had sympathies on either side of the wrenching debate and worked for the federal state, these were difficult times, especially for my colleagues in the national unity shops. Most had family members or friends with contrary views. Much of the Quebec media, academia and cultural elite were separatists. And while this was long before social media trolls, both sides were rough on their opponents.

Language of reconciliation

A quarter century later, passions have faded and the threat seems to have receded. The separatists briefly regained power in 2012 but only by promising not to hold another referendum. Their movement has descended into infighting and slumped in the polls, now appealing mostly to boomers.

There are various theories as to why. It cannot have been constitutional reform as it never happened, and that road seems blocked for the foreseeable future. Nor can it be because the economic costs of secession have risen: Quebec separatists soothingly reassure voters that Quebec would adhere to all of Canada’s free trade agreements and use the Canadian currency.

The reason appears to be that the original emotional impetus for separatism – a fear of losing the French language and culture – has faded over the past three decades. In 1977, Bill 101 brought in a broad suite of measures to protect the French language. While it was controversial at the time, in retrospect it appears to have inoculated Quebec against virulent and insular nationalism.

A unified future

Quebec is about to embark on another risky debate about language policies, however. The provincial government – mildly nationalist but not separatist – has tabled a suite of measures that amount to a full software upgrade to Bill 101, designed to toughen it up for the 2020s and to entrench some constitutional language about Quebec.

For some this will open old scars or inflame emotions. I may be wrong, but my best guess is that there will be no third wave of national unity crisis this time. Cohorts of young Quebecers are more multiracial, multicultural and global in outlook. They don’t share the sense of worry or grievance of their parents.

Unlike their colleagues in London and Edinburgh, younger public servants in Canada will not see their careers or agendas dragged toward national unity. The best and the brightest will be able to focus on the challenges of our time, including climate, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and building back better after the pandemic.

And we can all peaceably enjoy watching Toronto and Montreal do battle on the ice. Celebrating a cup victory in July would be the ultimate proof we live in strange times. Likewise, hopefully when we watch the football match at Wembley, we will all remember it is just a game, not a reenactment of Bannockburn.

About Michael Wernick

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