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NOTION OF `DISTINCT SOCIETY' OPENS DOORS OF CANADIAN BALKANIZATION

Pierre Trudeau, a constitutional lawyer, was prime minister of Canada from 1968-79 and from 1980-84. The following article, based in part on Trudeau's new book "Towards a Just Society," was composed for New Perspectives Quarterly. The deadline for ratification of the Meech Lake Accord is midnight, Saturday, June 23.

Without the cold breath of ideological hostility between blocs, ethnic nationalism reminiscent of Central Europe beforeYalta in 1945 or the Soviet Union before 1917 is again beginning to smolder.

From Georgia and Azerbaijan to Lithuania and Russia, from the new Czech and Slovak Federal Republic to Hungary and Romania, from Germany to Quebec, the approaching 21st century is beginning to look, alarmingly, like the 19th.

At such a pivotal moment, it seems oddly necessary to restate the modern, liberal principles of statehood once so widely accepted in the West - principles that led us away from the bloody disasters of nationalistic- and ethnic-based politics of the past.

As the prime minister who pressed successfully for the enactment of the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982 - which eschewed "distinct society" status for Quebec (subsequently granted by the Meech Lake Accord of 1987) in favor of a federalist solution - I think there is universal value in the Canadian experience for all states grappling with the re-emergence of ethnic-based nationalism.

If 6 million Canadians of French origin cannot manage to share their national sovereignty with 20 million Canadians of British and other origins, there is very little hope for far less privileged regions of the world, such as Nagorno-Karabakh (the disputed territory in Azerbaijan where the majority is Armenian), where deprivation fuels age-old enmities.

Throughout history, when a state has taken an exclusive and intolerant idea such as religion or ethnicity as its cornerstone, this idea has more often than not been the very mainspring of violence and war. In days gone by, religion had to be displaced as the basis of the state before frightful religious wars came to an end. And there will be little hope of putting an end to wars between nations until, in some similar fashion, the "nation" in ethnic terms ceases to be the basis of a state.

Whether we look at Nazi Germany, Fascist Japan or Islamic Iran, a state that defines its function essentially in terms of ethnic or religious attributes inevitably becomes chauvinistic and intolerant. Nationalists, whether of the left or right, are politically reactionary because they are led to define the common good as a function of an ethnic group or religious ideal rather than in terms of "all the people" regardless of individual characteristics. This is why a nationalistic government is by nature intolerant, discriminatory and, when all is said and done, totalitarian.

As Lord Acton wrote in 1862, the nation as an ideal unit founded on race "overrules the rights and wishes of its inhabitants, absorbing their divergent interests in a fictitious unity; sacrifices their inclinations and duties to the higher claim of nationality, and crushes all natural rights and all established liberties for the purpose of vindicating itself."

Thus, a truly democratic government - whether provincial or federal - cannot be "nationalist" because it must pursue the good of all its citizens regardless of sex, color, race, religious belief or ethnic origin. Democratic government stands for good citizenship, never nationalism.

This is not to say that the state must disregard cultural or linguistic values. Among the many values that a political society must protect and develop, these have high priority.

Moreover, it is inevitable that its policies will serve the interests of ethnic groups, and especially of the majority group in proportion to its numbers. But this will happen as a natural consequence of the equality of all its citizens, not as a special privilege of the largest group in a given territory.

I entered politics in Canada precisely for the purpose of putting these principles into practice. I believed strongly then, as I do now, that federalism by definition is a superior form of government, because it is more pluralist than monolithic and therefore respects diversity among people and groups.

This is especially true in Canada, where the die is firmly cast. There are two main ethnic and linguistic groups. Each is too strong and too deeply rooted in the past, too firmly bound to a mother-culture, to be able to engulf the other.

I have always believed that if these two groups could collaborate at the hub of a truly pluralistic state, Canada could become the envied seat of a form of federalism that could become a brilliant prototype for the molding of tomorrow's polyethnic civilization, a better model even than the American melting pot.

Rather than forging a new alloy, the Canadian model would preserve the characteristics of each group in a mosaic of cultural coexistence.

The Constitution Act of 1982 declared equal economic opportunity under which "the government of Canada and the provincial governments undertake to promote equal opportunities for the well-being of all Canadians." Furthermore, the act embraced the principle of equality of French and English in all domains of federal jurisdiction and guaranteed both francophones and anglophones the right to education in their own language anywhere in Canada.

But the essential principles so relevant to the upheaval of the 1990s were embraced in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms under the act. In the grand tradition of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the U.S. Bill of Rights, the Canadian Charter implicitly established the primacy of the individual over the state and all government institutions, and in so doing, recognized that all sovereignty resides in the people.

In this respect, the Canadian Charter was a new beginning for the nation. It sought to strengthen the country's unity by basing the sovereignty of Canadians on a set of values common to all.

It follows that only the individual, not the ethnic group, is the possessor of rights. A political collectivity can exercise only those rights it has received by delegation from its members. The spirit and substance of the Canadian Charter is thus clear: To protect the individual against not only the tyranny of the state, but also any other tyranny to which the individual may be subjected by virtue of his belonging to a minority group.

Having reviewed these principles, it should be manifestly clear how the notion of Quebec as a "distinct society" (wherein individual rights are subordinated to collective rights) opens up again the dangerous doors of Canadian Balkanization and threatens to undermine the very foundation of a liberal state.

Canada's model federalist solution to Quebec nationalism once heralded a hope for mankind facing the rapid integration of a polyethnic and interdependent world. Now I fear the balkanization of Canada may presage a return to pre-modern conflicts once thought to have passed into history.