Part 3: When separatism was king
The future of Canada then and now; or, “History and mutual understanding have a way of making fences disappear…”
The 23 January, 1968 edition of the Sault Ste. Marie Star featured a news story with a simple headline: “Students Back Separatism.” In the body of the story we are told that, in the course of a debate over the issue of the potential separation of Quebec, the chief judge of the competition, Trent University founder and Ontario Advisory Committee on Confederation (OACC) member Tom Symons was “visibly shaken” by the 186-84 vote for independent nationhood for Quebec by young students. Symons told the audience that night that the issue of Quebec independence was a matter “of life and death” to English Canada, and compared the outcome of the debate and vote to “the historic Oxford Union debate of 1935 when members voted they would not fight for King and country.” The story of the students who supported separatism ran in many newspapers Ontario-wide, and was also featured in the Globe and Mail.
On 29 January 1968, Symons received a letter from Michel Trudeau, one of the two students who had argued for Quebec separatism at the Trinity College School event. Trudeau tells Symons that “We were deeply moved by your hospitality…We wanted very much to accept your invitation to tea but we absolutely had to take the afternoon train back to Montreal…We might be on opposite sides of the fence concerning the issue of national unity, but history and mutual understanding have a way of making fences disappear.” Trudeau also tells Symons that he is planning, on the strength of meeting him, to take his honours year at Trent University. Symons, in his reply, declares his “hope that we may the pleasure of entertaining you in our home on another occasion” and implores Trudeau that “if there should be any way in which I might of assistance to you with your plans and arrangements” with respect to enrolling at Trent, Symons would be “delighted.”
It would be absurd to generalize French-English relations from the basis of a limited exchange between two people, but there may be something telling in even this smallest of dialogues.
Symons, the committed federalist, and Trudeau, the young Quebecois separatist, were able to arrive at a place of “mutual understanding” in spite of the “life and death” nature of the national unity issue, and the process of constitutional reform this discussion operated in. This exchange represents a somewhat utopian idealization of French-English relations, but Symons, like other members of the OACC, ACC, and other prominent leaders in the Ontario government through the Cabinet Committee on Confederation, believed implicitly and promoted explicitly the notion that constitutional reform in Canada was meaningless outside of broader social and cultural reform. The brand of social and cultural reform pursued was not separate from or secondary to the reform of the institutions of Confederation – but social and cultural norms and attitudes were seen by the most prominent government leaders and advisors in Ontario as institutions, and as such were seen as subject to and capable of reform and restructuring. Although the content of this restructuring would shift between 1964 and 1982 from an emphasis on a French-English ideal to a Canadian pluralist vision, the premise did not waver: if national unity, as an end unto itself, was to be preserved, then relations between people and peoples would necessarily have to be remade. Symbolism in this context is not a cynical instrument of political opportunism, but served as an essential tool of nation, citizenship, and identity building, and Ontarians, along with Quebecers and other Canadians, as the subject of that symbolism, were at the heart of the process of constitutional reform in this crucial period. It wouldn’t be enough to change the rules of Confederation; the relationship between groups of people had to be mended if Canada was to survive.
This is not a story we hear often when we talk or read about constitutional reform and separatism in the 1960s and 1970s. Too often, we are overwhelmed with tales of the political battles of Trudeau and Levesque – the “Champions,” as the National Film Board has recounted (albeit fairly accurately and effectively). Without a doubt, the politics and hard edges of federalism and separatism in the Trudeau-Levesque battles were very real, and historical inquiry into these battles well justified. But the other side of constitutional reform – the aspects of constitutional reform that we see in the Symons-Trudeau exchange – has been ignored by historians has been. Reformers in Quebec and Ontario appreciated that if they did not effectively change the minds of the Canadians about the role of French Canada, then constitutional reform or the terms of Confederation wouldn’t matter all that much.
|It wouldn’t be enough to change the rules of Confederation; the relationship between groups of people had to be mended if Canada was to survive.|
The dichotomy between what is presented to the public in newspapers and what might be said in private ought not be surprising. What emerges from these two snapshots of one event illustrates a tendency in Canadian constitutional historiography. Much of what has been written, while valuable, has been informed by what we might call the public sphere of discursive sources such as newspapers, speeches, and press releases, and hence has tended to reflect the at-times narrowly politicized elements of the debate surrounding constitutional reform in post-1960’s Canada. Other studies, such as those by Edward McWhinney, Peter Russell, Richard Simeon, and Kenneth McRoberts, have provided encyclopedic accounts of the major conferences, commissions, actors, and moments of change. What is missing from almost all scholarly inquiries into the process of constitutional change in Canada since the “Quiet Revolution” in Quebec through the 1950s and 1960s is an inquiry into the social and cultural debates and changes that underlie the political process of change and reform. The chief insight of the Trudeau-Symons exchange offers that in sharp contrast to what appears on the surface, constitutional reform cannot simply be studied or conceptualized as a function of what politicians and their advisors say and do. Valuable studies into the question of how conceptions of identity, citizenship, and nation changed and were contested from the post-war period in Canada until roughly 1970 have contributed greatly to historians’ sense of cultural and social change, but these studies are largely divorced from engaging the pattern of constitutional change, opting to see social and cultural change as a process unto itself.
In modern terms, the relationship between French and English Canada has improved drastically. Some commentators have gone so far as to urge that, in fact, English Canada has overcome its concern over whether Quebec might separate – that the psyche of English Canada is charged with a sort of separatism-fatigue. This is probably fairly accurate in describing the attitudes of many English Canadians and Third Wave Canadians. But let us not overlook the recent major changes in Quebec that will have enormous implications for Canada’s future. When Quebecers broke sharply for the NDP on the federal election of 2, May 2011, they overcame their own psychological dependency. In casting so large a vote for the NDP and fleeing from the Bloc Quebecois, Quebecers overcame the psychological dependence they have had since at least 1976 on separatism as a political activity. It is not a critique of Quebec voters to argue that they had developed a dependence on separatist politics and politicians – we all have psychological connections to parties or leaders we think serve our interests, and in the case of the BQ and PQ, the interests of Quebecers were well served by generally good governance.
However, we cannot fully understand the outcome of 2 May, 2011 – the psychological death of separatism in Canada (for now) – outside of the context of the efforts of 1960s reformers who wanted to remake not just the institutions of Confederation, but the relationships between peoples. French/English relations are not perfect in modern day Canada, and the relations between Third Wave Canadians – those Canadians who are neither French nor English, and whom have done so much to shape the cultural fabric of Canada – are also imperfect.
Separatism is dead in Canada, and the divide between French and English Canada – that great, apprehended threat so clearly realized by reformers in the 1960s – has been bridged. The future of Canada will depend on the nation’s continued ability to peacefully co-exist culturally, politically, and socially. Canada is going to become more, and not less, culturally diverse in the next 50 years, and I have high hopes for what this will mean for our ability to lead the world as an example of cultural integration and accommodation. The challenges and debates we face in the modern context – reasonable accommodation, debates over immigration and multiculturalism, and so on – pale in comparison to the mortal threats faced from decades of ignoring the relations between people that began to be resolved in the 1960s. Smart, forward-thinking, and radical politics managed to avert a disaster then, and I have every confidence the same strategies will assure Canada of a bright future.
|John Mullin is a co-founder of Thought Out Loud. He currently lives in Peterborough, Ontario and North Bay, Ontario. He writes most often about politics, current events, culture, and history. He will be moving to Kuwait in September of 2011 for two years, where his Masters in Canadian history will prove useful in teaching Grade 5 math, English and science.|