The continuing quest to define what Canada is all about

By David T. Jones on March 12, 2012


Washington, DC - Collectors of political trivia may remember U.S. Hollywood actor George Clooney promised to leave the United States for Canada if “Dubya” Bush was reelected in 2004.  Dubya was—but Clooney didn’t grace your doorsteps.  He would have had competence in one official language and sufficient funds not to be a public charge so he probably would have navigated your immigrant labyrinth.

Now Justin Trudeau seems to be taking a related approach to Canada, Trudeau’s comments, regardless of the context he tried to put them in, are indicative of the existential problem of Canada.  While the United State solved its national unity problem with a bloody and long-remembered civil war, Canada’s national unity issue remains extant.  Not that anyone would recommend the U.S. solution, but Canada - and some of it's most important sons - are still in search of a solution.

For Canada regardless of the dormancy of the sleeping dog of Quebec sovereignty, barely a nudge produces reaction. And massive amounts of politio-social energy are necessary to maintain the construct that is labeled “Canada.”

Inherent in Trudeau’s statement are the issues of what constitutes Canada's unfinished identity, and the still unfinished debate over it. He said,  “I always say, if at a certain point, I believe that Canada was really the Canada of Stephen Harper—that we were going against abortion, and we were going against gay marriage, and we were going backwards in 10,000 different ways—maybe I would think about making Quebec a country.”  So must one ask:


  • Are “abortion” and “gay marriage” defining elements of Canada ? Canada is the only western country without a lawon abortion of some kind.   And only 10 countries (not including the UK or France) permit same-sex marriages.   Both issues topics are almost the definition of “red herrings” as the governments  run from such subjects like scalded cats;
  • And  about those “10,000 different ways” in which Canada could be “going backwards?”  We've heard such phrases before from polemicists.  It would not be unfair to ask for some specificity once and for all. Both from commentators and from Trudeau.


The debate must focus on whether issues currently on the public agenda could be the straws that break the camel's back. Abolition of restrictions on private medical care/user fees under the Canada Health Act?  Rescinding the 1969 Official Languages Act?  Building a Northern Gateway pipeline?  Joining a military “coalition of the willing” without the sanction of the United Nations?  Are all these issues of identity or ideas that legitimately change with different governments.

Trudeau's comments, as much as I find them disagreeable, bring to lig once again that Canada  must once and for all come to terms with its never-ending identity crisis.

As an ancient combatant diplomat, my personal opinions of various foreign officials and citizens were pungent; but they remained personal.  But the core of the problem remains that Quebec would be a perfectly viable independent country.  To be sure, not without a plethora of difficulties, economic/social problems, demographic dislocations, and a legacy of lawsuits that would outlast all of its “founders.”    But it would not be a third-world basket case either.

So identity politic comments by a leading Quebec federalist are disconcerting evidence that the commitment to Canada may lie rather lightly even on the most committed. At least until Canada, and it's federalist advocates, decide what it is really all about. 



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