Growing up in Western Canada after prime minister Lester B. Pearson’s Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission was set up in 1963, it was always easy to find someone who wanted to bellyache about the use of the French language in Canada.
These people were forever complaining about how “French was being rammed down their throats with their cornflakes.” I’ll leave it to readers to consider the psychological ramifications, as it were, of why that particular meme stuck in the minds of so many Western Canadians.
A relative of mine from here in Alberta – who has now passed on to his unilingual reward in the English-only section of Heaven – would regularly whine, literally whine, “Why can’t they just speak English like the rest of the world?”
My personal favourite, though, was the probably apocryphal sentiment attributed to “a farmer south of Calgary,” likely another of my shirttail relatives, who was said to have told a reporter at the roadside soon after the Bi and Bi Commission’s report was finally released in 1969, that “if the English language was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for Canada.”
Thanks to the commission, the implications of the Révolution tranquille on national unity, and the bad scare English Canadians got from the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum, which the No side won by a sobering 50.58 per cent, lots of progress has been made on making Canada, if not quite bilingual, at least a country in which speakers of the two official languages are reasonably comfortable within their mutually beneficial national compromise.
Yes, there are certainly a few die-hard separatists left awaiting their day in Quebec, and a few anti-French troglodytes driving pickup trucks festooned with bumper stickers out here in the West, but things really have been blessedly quiet now for more than a decade.
But there’s nothing like a Conservative government in Ottawa to get folks stirred up, and not in a good way. Arguably, it was Brian Mulroney’s effort to sell his version of a perfected constitution that opened the door to the 1995 referendum that came so perilously close to splitting the country.
But in Mr. Mulroney’s defence, at least he was motivated by the desire to bring Quebeckers fully into the Canadian family, and furthermore by his belief that the imperfections of the 1982 constitution left them outside. We can question Mr. Mulroney’s analysis or his tactics if we like – including his dangerous tendency to roll the dice – but there’s no doubt the man was sincere about what he was trying to achieve on the constitutional file and his actions are understandable in that context.
The so-called Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is harder to figure. On the face of it, at least, the series of symbolic and practical slaps it has delivered to Quebec just in the last 90 days seem designed intentionally to alienate Quebeckers and encourage the remaining separatists there. Some of them make sense given the Harper Conservatives’ origins and the deep resentments they harbour. Others make no sense at all. Consider:
- The peculiar decision in mid-August to bring back the “Royal” prefix to describe the Canadian Navy and Air Force. No one in English Canada cared much about this any more – it was a fight lost by another generation. Yet it remains a powerful symbol of an unequal past in Quebec. It would seem this was done in the wake of a royal visit to please a few grumpy old vets and an even smaller number of nutty members of the tiny Monarchist League of Canada.
- The decision to cut Quebec shipyards out of a $33-billion naval shipbuilding program. Much was made by the government of the “non partisan” nature of the civil-service-run bidding process – an oddity in itself given the contempt with which these Conservatives normally hold “bureaucrats.” But what are programs to build largely unneeded strategic naval vessels but domestic-make work arrangements that benefit various regions of the country? This is, after all, at the heart of the American political-economic model our Conservatives so much admire.
- The bizarre decision at the end of October push to appoint a unilingual Auditor General when fluency in both official languages was right there in the job description. The chosen one, Michael Ferguson, said he was recruited by a corporate headhunter and that he never bothered to read the job description – some auditor! This despite the fact that the understanding that key public-service jobs will be held by people fluent in both languages is part of the historic compromise that has (barely) held the country together.
- The similarly inexplicable appointment in mid-October of the unilingual Ontario judge Michael Moldaver to the Supreme Court of Canada. Justice Moldaver has promised to learn to speak French, a nice gesture, but not very meaningful under the circumstances.
- The double slap of the Conservative plan to destroy the national shotgun and rifle registry, which is popular for good reason in Quebec – where the hideous Dec. 6, 1989, massacre of 14 young women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique prompted the drive to register these weapons – and the Harperites’ adamant refusal to share the data collected and paid for by Quebec taxpayers as well as the rest of us.
Each one of these actions seems designed particularly to offend voters in Quebec. And in the great scheme of things, each one of them returns little value for the effort expended. What could explain such behaviour?
The first thing to remember about this government is that it is not the Conservative Party of John Macdonald or John Diefenbaker or Joe Clark or Mr. Mulroney. This is the embittered rump of the Reform Party of Canada that, so far, has fooled enough Canadians into seeing it as the great national party of yore with which it shares part of a name.
Moreover, Mr. Harper himself is known for his vindictiveness toward anyone who fails to support his ideas or stands in the way of his plans.
Together, these facts probably explain the government’s seething and xenophobic reaction to the sweep of the New Democratic Party in Quebec in the May federal election.
Second, these Reformers – and Prime Minister Harper in particular – are fatally addicted to the divisive but nevertheless effective American political techniques of wedge politics and fake patriotism.
And there, really, is the most likely explanation for majority the five divisive and unworthy policies noted above. Whether it is playing one part of the country against another (which the Tories also want to punish for voting the wrong way), encouraging the language resentments of a few Western Canadians who imagine they were done out of cushy federal jobs because they spoke only English, or using the inconvenience of gun registration to win a few rural ridings at the cost of alienating a province written off for other reasons, most of these decisions and the Conservatives’ response to criticism of them reflect wedge politics in action.
In the case of the unilingual judge, perhaps the desire was more to find an ideological fellow traveller. The “Royal” decision, of course, makes almost no sense at all because the designation matters to almost no one at all under the age of 70, except perhaps a few irrelevant fruitcakes from the Monarchist League.
The greatest fear, of course, is that these Conservatives see Quebec versus the rest of Canada as the biggest and best wedge issue that they’ve ever stumbled upon.
Regardless of that, one thing is clear from these most-recent developments: the Conservative Party of Canada is a divisive and destructive force in our nation’s politics. If we want our country to survive, we may not be able to afford another Harper majority government.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.