Not long ago, “national unity” was the trendiest slogan in Canadian politics. Keeping the people of Canada united, regardless of race, culture, language or geography was every politician’s purported dream; “hurting national unity,” the darkest insult.
The prospects of integrating indigenous Canadians into a broader Canadian identity certainly looks increasingly remote. Two deeply significant events on this front occurred in the past few weeks — the passage of a bill to “take all measures necessary to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with” the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and an announcement from the Kamloops Indian Band (also known by their name in the Secwepemctsin language, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc) that ground-penetrating radar had obtained “confirmation of the remains of 215 children” on the grounds of the community’s defunct Indian residential school.
The UNDRIP explicitly codifies the idea of aboriginal Canadians as a people possessing powerful political authority separate from that of Canada, most famously enshrining the idea that governments must obtain the “free and informed consent” of indigenous nations before doing anything that affects their asserted “lands or territories” or “implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.” Such ambiguous, sweeping language will require much litigation to clarify, further entrenching Indigenous-Canadian relations as something unavoidably adversarial.
The announcement about the findings at the former residential school, meanwhile, was greeted with an immediate outpouring of shame and sorrow — flags at half-mast, mournful speeches in an emergency session of Parliament, orders to rename buildings and roads and remove statues. The swift reactions came despite the fact that the band’s findings were considerably vaguer than some headlines suggested (no bodies were dug up, it was “not a ‘mass grave,’ ” and the claim that children “as young as three” had been definitively found was just a belief of the community). Yet Ottawa’s instinct is to err on the side of empathy, to demonstrate it understands unjustified Indigenous death as one of the central themes of Canadian history.
Together, the two stories — one legal, one moral — combine to illustrate the growing political capital of Native Canadians as a people apart — a nationalist movement empowered by Parliament, egged on by a growing cultural consensus that Canada’s genocidal past (or is that present?) provides ample moral justification for seeking sovereignty. Canada’s indigenous population is not large — just 6 percent self-identified as such in a 2018 poll — but their standing as the original claimants of North America meant Ottawa traditionally had an obvious interest in undermining their desires to revisit the founding premises of the Canadian colonial state. No more.
With the French Canadians, it is a similar story. A new, and surprisingly uncontroversial (within Ottawa, at least) proposal to amend the constitution to declare Quebec the French-speaking nation of the Quebecois people represents an equally significant resignation that a certain “bicultural” dream of Canadian unity is no longer plausible. Five decades of state-mandated bilingualism, in which Canada’s English-speaking majority was encouraged to learn French and thereby minimize the differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada, has yielded less than 10 percent of native English speakers fluent in French. Polls suggest the province remains broadly unpopular with much of the country.
A succession of chauvinist Quebec administrations during this era found it politically advantageous to encourage their voters to eschew English and think of themselves as French-speaking Quebecers before Canadians — a 2019 poll found 62 percent of Quebecers consider themselves Quebecers “first” or “only” — and to conceptualize their relationship with Canada in highly conditional, transactional terms. Premier François Legault, the architect of the nationhood amendment, represents the culmination of this, a man who has risen to power exploiting both French Canadian nationalism and transactional federalism to the maximum extent. In allowing Quebec a constitutional status — and with it, powers — distinct from every other province, Ottawa will take an important step away from the old romantic ideal of a fusionist country forged by “two founding nations” and toward the once-scorned notion of a “sovereignty-association” between two distinct societies.
The challenges of rising and evermore legally-entrenched Quebec and Indigenous nationalism makes Canada’s other unity challenges seem quite mild in comparison. The Alberta separatist “movement” is too embryonic to deserve the title. Canadians may claim opposition to the country’s high rate of immigration and want immigrants to assimilate more, but that file is still firmly under Ottawa’s control.
It says something about the failure of Canadian statesmanship that as we approach the country’s 154th birthday, Canada’s deepest, most intractable divisions are the same ones it started with.
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