Quebec Freedom Network: Redefining nationalism

Published on May 11, 2016

I delivered this speech today before 450 participants at the first conference of the Quebec Freedom Network in Quebec City.
--23 October 2010

Redefining nationalism
Maxime Bernier
Quebec City, October 23 2010

First of all, I would like to congratulate the organizers of the Freedom Quebec Network for this initiative and to thank you all for being here. It’s quite impressive to see so many people assembled to talk about freedom! Nobody will be able to say after this that Quebecers are deeply committed to having a government which constantly meddles in their daily lives!

Individual freedom and responsibility are the fundamental values that motivated my involvement in politics. These values have for too long been considered retrograde by our elites. It’s about time that groups such as yours put them forward in public debates.

We’ve been asked for this panel to “redefine nationalism.” I prefer to say that we should reject one of the two common definitions of nationalism and put the emphasis on the other one.

imagescae34dm8 Nationalism is a negative force when it promotes intolerance and division, when it tries to exacerbate what differentiates us from other, or to impose to the minority the characteristics of the majority. In the history of the world, this type of nationalism caused a whole lot of conflicts and wars.
But nationalism also expresses attachment to a national community. It becomes a positive force when it motivates us to show solidarity and to voluntarily help others, when it protects a distinctive feature, when it defends local autonomy against the homogenizing forces of larger entities.

If we are gathered here today to discuss this question, it’s for a simple reason: because New France was conquered by England 250 years ago. The French and English societies that emerged from this event have since gone through several political regimes.

As Quebecers, we now have a choice between three national projects. One rests exclusively on Quebec nationalism and leads to independence; another rests on a dominant Canadian nationalism and promotes a centralized type of federalism.

These two options only get support from a minority of Quebecers. Despite that, they are the two main choices that we have been offered for decades.

To these two options, we can add a third, which proposes a more balanced coexistence between our two national identities: that of a more autonomous Quebec in a united Canada. Although it is supported by a large majority of Quebecers, this option never managed to get to the top.

Why is that? Why is it that the two most extreme national perspectives, the perspective of the separatists on the one hand and of the centralizing federalists on the other hand, of René Lévesque and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, have been monopolizing our political debates for the past fifty years?

To understand what went on, I believe we have to set this debate within the larger context of political evolution in the 20th century.

There has been everywhere a significant growth of government. The role, size and powers of government have drastically increased. The portion of the overall economy controlled by government in most western countries has gone from

10% a century ago to more than 40% today.

Here at home, Canadian nationalism was reinforced by a centralizing and interventionist outlook on the role of the federal government. After the Second World War, federal politicians wanted to have their say on all sorts of social issues, despite the fact that these matters were the responsibility of the provinces in our Constitution.

Canada always had a relatively modest government, just like the United States. So, to distinguish Canada from the US, Canadian nationalists invented the myth of a social-democratic Canada, with its public health care system, its numerous social programs, its national norms and cultural protectionism.

Today, the federal government intervenes massively in areas of provincial jurisdictions, and in particular in health and education. Without Quebec nationalism acting as a counterweight, Canada would very likely be an even more centralized federation today.

In Quebec, starting during the Quiet Revolution, Quebecois nationalists did exactly the same thing as Canadian nationalists. Before 1960, Quebec had had one of the least interventionist governments in North America. But then, after 1960, they developed a whole mythology around the so-called “Quebec model,” which is just another social-democratic model as there are everywhere around the world.

What is a social-democratic model? I think the former American president Ronald Reagan is the one who expressed it best: if it moves, tax it; if it keeps moving, regulate it; and if it stops moving, subsidize it!

See how absurd the situation has become. Canadian nationalists tell us that Canadian identity is based on having a bigger and more interventionist government than the Americans. Quebec nationalists tell us that Quebecois identity is based on having a bigger and more interventionist government than elsewhere in North America. In both cases, this was completely false 50 years ago. But nationalists have invented identities that correspond to their big government ideology.

And the funniest thing is that the roles are now being reversed. The US government, who wants to nationalize health care and is busy spending and piling up debt at staggering speed, will soon be larger than Canada’s government. Imagine, those Americans are stealing our identity!

Those two nationalist visions have been fighting each other for 50 years. Jacques Parizeau used to say that he and Pierre Trudeau agreed on almost everything, except where to put the national capital. Separatism in Quebec grew fastest during the Trudeau era, as a reaction against central government activism.

Stuck between these two extreme options, the view of a more autonomous Quebec in a united Canada never succeeded in bringing about change.

Yet, we have a Constitution that leaves a lot of autonomy to provinces. If we respected the division of powers prescribed by our Constitution, Canada would be a lot less centralized that it is today. And we could solve most of the conflicts between the two orders of government.

This is what I argued for in a speech in Toronto last week. I suggested that Ottawa put an end to its so-called spending power, completely get out of areas of provincial jurisdiction and transfer tax points to provinces. To reach that goal, there is no need to once again begin constitutional negotiations or to change the Constitution. What we need is simply to respect the Constitution. This is a very strong position from a moral viewpoint.

A Constitution is not a flexible arrangement which evolves from one decade to another depending on political expediency. When we tolerate violations to the Constitution, the entire moral foundation of our political system is shaken to its core. Asking our partners in Ottawa and in the other provinces that we cease to violate our Constitution should be the easiest position to defend.

In reality, this autonomist position has always been badly defended. One reason is that for 50 years, successive Quebec governments have weakened it by constantly asking for more.

Some of Quebec’s demands imply special privileges. Essentially, we’re saying to the rest of the country: we are the only ones here who are special and we should be getting more power and influence than all of you.

Among other things, we demanded that Quebec be recognized as a distinct society and that this distinction serve to interpret the Constitution; that Quebec get more seats in Parliament than what its demographic weight warranted; that only Quebec get a veto on constitutional changes. And we made these demands with a knife on the throat: you better say yes or else we separate.

Just put yourself in their shoes: didn’t they have some good reason to be reluctant?

The other explanation for the failure of the autonomist option rests on this fusion between nationalism and the big government perspective on society that I was talking about earlier. These demands were first and foremost aimed at feeding our big government in Quebec City, at giving it more “levers” to intervene ever more in our daily lives and curtail our freedom.

All political parties, including the Action démocratique du Québec, took part in this race to get more and more powers in addition to those that the Constitution gives us. But it would be like trying to add new floors to a building while its foundations are unstable.

Moreover, Quebec’s constitutional demands were always coupled with demands for more money, more transfers, more equalization payments, once again to feed our big provincial government. Quebecers claim that they want more autonomy or even independence, but all we have succeeded in doing so far is to become financially more dependent on the rest of Canada.

The moral authority that we could have mustered by asking for the Constitution to be respected was repeatedly compromised by a series of unrealistic demands to increase the powers and the financial resources of the Quebec bureaucracy. How can we be surprised that we haven’t got anywhere for the past 50 years?

After two referenda that ended in defeat for separatist forces, Quebec has no negotiation power anymore. A majority of Quebecers don’t want to separate. And nobody in the rest of the country, or here too for that matter, wants at this period in time to reopen the Constitution. And so, if we want to go forward towards the goal of making Quebec more autonomous and more prosperous, we have to adopt a completely different approach.

First of all, Quebec should stop making unrealistic demands. If we try not only to get the Constitution to be respected, but also to get additional powers, a special status, a veto, more money from the federal government, more equalization, we simply won’t get anything, as history has shown. Let’s concentrate on the most important goal, which is respect for the 1867 agreement, and we’ll have much better chances to succeed. We’ll see after that if other changes are called for.

In any case, Quebec society has no need of new powers or of special recognition to prosper. Is it because our politicians in Quebec City don’t have enough powers that we are one of the most indebted societies in the world? Is it some constitutional clause that will guarantee that our culture thrives and that the French language survives?

We should not measure the dynamism of a society by the number of laws and regulations that its government adopts, or of public entities and programs that it creates; but rather by the entrepreneurial spirit of its members, by their creativity and their ability to become self-reliant.

For Quebec to get ahead, we must also rely on the positive aspects of nationalism and set aside the more extreme, intolerant and divisive aspects. Since Quebecers have chosen to continue to live in Canada, they must learn to perceive other Canadians as fellow citizens and partners.

There are many Canadians in the rest of the country who share this vision of a society less dominated by big government, this vision of a less centralized federation. We should seek them as allies.

Supporters of big government have been in power for fifty years. They have brought us to a constitutional and economic dead end. Every day they endanger our prosperity and freedom a little more.

It is high time for supporters of freedom to get together and propose a new realistic vision of Quebec’s future.

Let’s state it loudly and forcefully: we need a smaller, less interventionist and less centralized government in Ottawa; but also a smaller, less interventionist and less controlling government in Quebec City.

A new chapter in Quebec’s history is being written beginning today. And together, through the strength of our convictions, we are the ones who shall be its main characters!

Thank you.