01 November 2005

Nothing can justify secession in Canada

At the risk of making yet another lengthy post, I thought I'd post this recent column by Stephane Dion that appeared in the Toronto Star.

There's always a chance it will get lost in cyberspace.


Nothing can justify secession in Canada
Stephane Dion says it is time to stop treating all problems as unity issues


Ten years after the 1995 referendum, 25 years after the 1980 referendum, I know that the resurgence of the secessionist debate in Quebec continues to create its fair share of exasperation across the country.

How is it that this old threat to our unity is back again? Many ask themselves what they can do to help in these circumstances. If I had only one suggestion to offer, it would be the following: We need to be fairer to our country.

I have in mind a particular bad habit that is far too entrenched in Canadian political culture. Too often we over-dramatize the normal disagreements that we have in our democracy, while at the same time trivializing the use of arguments for separatism in the course of these otherwise normal debates.

This is certainly the case in Quebec where the separatist leaders never miss an opportunity to turn any intergovernmental disagreement into an argument for Quebec separation. Those tensions inherent in any federal system are always portrayed as proof that Canada is dysfunctional, unfair and insensitive to Quebec.

But now, how many times have we heard pro-Canada politicians - and not only from Quebec - using the same argument? Oh, they will not say: "I will become a separatist if things do not go my way." But they will be quick to say that separatism will have a stronger case if they don't get their way. The last example that comes to mind is Conservative leader Stephen Harper's recent intervention in the House of Commons when he described the federal initiative to help provincial day-care systems as a potential threat to Canadian unity.

In 10 years in politics - eight as unity minister - I have heard this argument in the strangest situations: from the Pacific salmon to the Atlantic cod. Is there any other country where the ratification of an environmental protocol (Kyoto) has been described as a unity issue?

Recently, we have seen adults claiming the unity of the country is threatened because one of our provinces is becoming too rich! Or because the federal surpluses are too big! Only in Canada, I tell you.

And you have the opposite argument: those politicians who cannot refrain from celebrating a political result that went their way as the proof that "Canada works." Because a different outcome, obviously, would have been the proof that Canada does not work.

And if you show that you do not take these separatist musings seriously, you may be accused of insensitivity. I remember once in Alberta, a journalist asked me if I thought that Albertan separatism was a serious threat. I answered that I had no doubts about the iron-clad commitment of Albertans to their country. The headline the next day was: "Our unity minister doesn't care about Western alienation." I suppose that I should have expressed doubt about Albertans' loyalty to Canada in order to show that I care about this part of my country.

Ah, the Canadian media and their frenzy for anything that can be twisted into a unity problem. Okay, I won't go there this time.

If the Canadian political class continues to portray Canada as a fragile country, a loose union, always close to disintegration at the first difficulty, how can we hope that the separatist debate will end in Quebec?

There will always be some disagreement down the road, some source of frustration that the separatist movement will describe as the "new" proof that Canada does not work. And what will be the counterargument? To find an agreement that proves Canada works - at least until the next disagreement? That is a never-ending cycle.

One of the worst examples that I have seen about how separatism is trivialized occurred during the last federal election when I discovered that some NDP candidates in Quebec were acknowledged separatists. Today, I ask NDP leader Jack Layton to declare that from now on a commitment to Canadian unity is a sine qua non condition to be an NDP candidate. This is the minimal respect a national leader owes to Canada.

In fact, it would be so simple to stop showing such disrespect to Canada. We just have to say that nothing justifies secession in Canada. Nothing in Quebec. Nothing in any other province. And to hold to that, despite the inevitable disagreements that will arise in our lively democracy.

And then, yes, we will show respect for Canada. Believe me, this respect will be contagious.

Stephane Dion is the federal Minister of the Environment.