By Conrad Black, National Post, November 17, 2012
What is needed now is an omnibus clearing of the air. Any province that votes by 60% or more to secede can do so, provided that any federal voting constituency that votes by 60% or more not to secede will remain in Canada, and referenda cannot be more frequent than every 10 years. Any seceding province will assume half the percentage of the Canadian federal debt that the seceding province has as a population of Canada’s (pre-secession) population. If necessary, joint censuses will establish these figures. Any federal government assets in the seceding province will be paid for, if the seceding province wants them, over 10 years, at a price agreed by joint commissions, with a casting vote, if necessary, from the International Court of Arbitration. If the province doesn’t want those federal assets, the federal government may sell or keep them as it wishes. All normal intergovernmental matters, such as ease of passage, trade and so forth, will be negotiated de novo, as between sovereign states, but existing contracts not abrogated automatically by the dissolution of the federal relationship, will continue.
Such measures as these should be enacted by Canada as a whole and it should be understood that in the event of violations, resolution could be by armed force. There should be no doubt of retention of the required level of force by the federal state to enforce such a policy. It won’t happen. But the maxim that the surest guaranty of peace is preparedness for war applies equally to civil as to foreign conflicts.
Mr. Black's piece documents, in his own ascerbic prose that evokes parlours of the past and its elite power, some of the history of the quest for sovereignty among Quebecois, and the federal responses, including Trudeau's constitutional "exclusion" and Mulroney's attempt at Meech Lake, Chretien's narrow referendum win and then his appeal to the Supreme Court with the Clarity Act.
Black, in his incisive proposal, is attempting to cut through the fog of ambiguity, and the smog of both uncertainty and "settling" that clokes Canadian culture, politics and especially the complex and unresolved relationship between Quebec and the rest of the country.
Quebec, just like any other self-respecting person/family/entity will not, in the long run, permit herself to be "bought" with the short-term rush of cash from Ottawa, collected from the provinces then categorized as "haves". We have tried that (Chretien and Mulroney) and achieved more papering over of the divide but certainly not a bridge of confidence between Quebec and Canada. Federalism, if it is worth respect, is much more than a commodification of a culture or a people, and certainly worth more than merely another transactional exchange, like buying laundry soap.
Reducing the meaning of a community, like Quebec, to the numbers of exports, imports, immigrants and roads and bridges, escapes and denies the much more complicated matters of pride of identity, language of both arts and culture, theatre and the creative imagination, cafes and bistros and 'ethos'....something that much of the rest of the world does not include in the political calculations. How Quebecois see, feel and express the world is not reduceable to political, minimalist rhetoric, as most politicians seeking a "solution" would prefer, and especially male politicians, endowed with the biology of "fixing" whatever is broken or threatening to break. Perhaps a poor analogy might be the archetypal difference in perception between a man and a woman, in a marriage...that the man considers he has "contributed" to somewhat generously while the woman believes something important is "missing"....without being quite willing or able to articulate that missing "sine qua non"....The man scratches his head in confused puzzlement, listing all the various gifts and compromises he has proferred, while the woman tells the therapist 'he really doesn't understand me or know who I am'...
There is a qualitative difference between the two realities: one based on the perfunctory, the measureable and empirical, the other based on the spiritual, etheral and unmeasureable...the feelings about the divide...
Only with Quebec, history, language, the relationship to the religious community, the homogeneity of the struggling 'minority' in a 'majority sea' of both precedent and assumptions make the divide more layered and complicated.
Trudeau railed against 'nationalism' or any kind of 'special status' for Quebec, firm in his belief that Quebec was not, and never has been, in need of special support in the melee of the federalist state. Black, on the other hand, seems to want an even more "declarative" and final and formal clearing of the legal, fiscal, air within which any province might divorce from Canada, including a military punishment should agreed terms not be assiduously and carefully adhered to.
He seems to be writing the first draft for a prenuptial agreement, well into the second century of the marriage, as if divorce were now the most likely and perhaps most preferred outcome, based on the high percentage of divorces that emanate from the marriage altar in domestic relations.
And yet, Canada has a history of leaving the terms of relationships sufficiently vague, incomplete, pliable and open to interpretation, a condition that might have resulted from benign neglect or willful disdain or some combination, but has resulted in a flexibility permitting this federation to bend, sway and not break in many winds from different directions. Duties and responsibilities have been spelled out for provinces and for Ottawa, but even then, literalism has not triumphed, as it has in so many micromanaged interpretations of reality recently.
There is a reasonable and sustainable case to be made for leaving some things unwritten, unpredicted, and off in the mist of both consciousness and mystery, in order to provide maximum flexibility and openness to change, should those in positions of leadership wish to negotiate new ways of doing "Canada" under an umbrella that leave such options available.
Debating tightly defined terms for the breakup of the country, would not only be untimely and irrelevant for most Canadians evoking instead complex and bitter confusions about our attempts in the past, but would anticipate a fate most Canadians, even the most detached from the political process, do not wish to even imagine, let alone pre-negotiate. Our ambiguity may be one of , if not our most treasured, if somewhat denial-inducing and complicating, Canadian qualities, on both sides of the Ottawa River. It could well be the glue that has made this loose federation hold, however awkwardly that "holding" has proven to be given its many dysfunctional and technically impaired sins of both commission and omission.
On the international stage, however, things are changing around the question of secession, especially from those who, in some cases, consider themselves the cheque-writers for their poor cousins, from whom they wish to separate:
- Catalonia, the rich uncle in eastern Spain is about to hold a referendum on separation from Spain, at a time when that country is facing mounting pressure over its debt and deficit problem,
- Flanders, the northern and more wealthy segment of Belgium, is seeking separation from their French-speaking "countrymen and women" in the south
- Prime Minister Cameron has recently agreed to terms under which Scotland, the poor cousin of Great Britain, may form its own country, in the reported hope that it will then be able to dig for oil in the North Sea, and improve it's economic prospects
Does this argument not sound remarkably familiar to the perception of the Republican candidate for president, in the U.S. that 47% of the people in that country are "takers" who would never vote for him no matter what he did.
Not incidentally, in the U.S. a movement on the White House website includes the names of hundreds of thousands of individual people, from a large number of differenet states, who wish their state to secede from the union, the largest and most vocal and most reported of these states is currently Texas, while some 120,000 people have signed to leave the union.
So the historic context for secession is changing by the minute, on more than one continent and in multiple locations....we will have to continue to watch to see where these streams lead, and whether they gather strength from each other.