Home | The Canadian Government | The Three Sovereigntist Errors
The Three Sovereigntist Errors

by Richard Bastien, historian and Canadian diplomat

The sovereigntist ideology rests on three basic tenets. The first is that the culture of a national community can be reduced to its linguistic dimension. The second is that Canada is made up of two national communities culturally so different as to make it impossible for them to live harmoniously within a federal system. The third is that a national community cannot genuinely fulfill itself without declaring itself a sovereign state.

The whole structure of sovereigntist thinking rests on these three tenets: language as the sole principle of cultural identity, cultural homogeneity as sole principle of human solidarity and the sovereign state as principle of liberty. Should any one of these three be shown to be unsustainable, the whole edifice of sovereigntist thinking would collapse.

I will argue that all three can be shown to be unsustainable.

Language as sole principle of cultural identity

First, sovereigntists assume that culture can be reduced to a matter of language. All public documents published by the Parti Québécois over the years define the identity of the Québécois exclusively in terms of language. In a booklet entitled Quebec in a New World, the PQ states that "the French language constitutes the foundational stone of the Québécois identity."

While it is true that language constitutes an important element in a community's culture, it is simply wrong to assert the result of the interplay of several other important factors such as geographic milieu, philosophy, procedures, religion, sciences, morality, law, etc. Any Québécois who lives in another francophone country feels very clearly that, between himself and the people of that country, profound differences exist. Some Québécois even feel more alien when they are in France or in Belgium than when they are in the United States.

More generally, history shows that people sharing both a common language and political tradition may sometimes experience voluntary political separation. For example, the people of the New England states declared war against England in 1776 in spite of the fact that they continued to speak English. And the Southern states fought a war of secession against the North for cultural reasons that had nothing to do with language. Similarly, all Latin American states except Brazil share common historical roots and a common language and yet are quite different from one another. And what should one make of the Irish people who adopted the language of their former oppressors? Who would dare to pretend that they are culturally assimilated to the British?

Clearly, reality does not conform with sovereigntist logic: language is but one of many factors that shape the culture of a people and it is not always the most important. Thus, the first sovereigntist tenet is flawed.

Cultural homogeneity as principle of human solidarity

The second Sovereigntist tenet asserts that Quebec and the rest of Canada represent two cultural entities so different that they cannot co-exist harmoniously within a federal framework. This assumption derives in part from the first one. Indeed, if language is the sole determinant of culture, then Quebec and the rest of Canada are two cultural entities, each perfectly homogeneous and therefore radically different from one another.

Again this view of the world simply does not conform with reality. While there might have been some semblance of cultural homogeneity in Quebec when that society defined itself in terms of an agricultural and Catholic tradition, that is certainly not the case nowadays. Quebec, like all modern societies, is culturally pluralistic. Often, the aims and aspirations of some of its interest groups are more in line with those of corresponding groups outside Quebec than with those of the majority of Québécois. For example, Quebec socialists and feminists hold views which are shared by certain groups in other provinces or in the U.S., but which are rejected by broad segments of Quebec society. Similarly, a Québécois who takes official Catholic Church teaching seriously might feel closer to a like-minded English-speaking Canadian than to a Québécois agnostic.

Because of the influence of mass media and the increasing role of computers in modern life, nationality is becoming less and less relevant as a principle of identity. Even in old European countries, day-to-day life is based increasingly on a multiplicity of cultural borrowings. Economic integration has opened the way to a certain cultural "mélange" which is inevitable. Virtually all of Europe now relies on German technology, eats American fast food, listens to English popular music, holidays in France and watches Italian movies.

The pluralistic nature of Quebec society not only means that French-speaking Québécois no longer constitute a culturally homogeneous mass - if that were ever the case. It also means that Quebec society is not all that different from other modern societies and particularly from the rest of Canada. No doubt Quebec has particularities of its own, the most important being the French language and its civil law regime. But with respect to family life, means of doing business, leisure activities, urban landscape, eating habits, the role of the media, religious influence, labour relations, advertising, etc., things are not radically different from what can be seen in other parts of North America.

Nothing is so obvious as the fact that Quebec does represent a distinct people with its own particular cultural features. Yet, cultural particularisms are to be found almost everywhere in North America: whether in Saskatchewan with its rural tradition based on extensive grain growing and co-operative action; or in Newfoundland with its predominance of small fishing villages; or in Alberta with its conservative political tradition aimed at limiting the role of the state.

To argue that the French character of Quebec does not justify its accession to sovereignty does not devalue in any way its French character. In order to dispel any doubts in this respect, one can compare the cultural gap between, on the one hand, a Montreal francophone businessman and his Toronto counterpart, and, on the other, the former and a fisherman from the Gaspé peninsula. The first gap is significantly smaller than the second.

In order to grasp Quebec's cultural identity while doing justice to its pluralistic and modern nature, one must recognize that the Québécois, like all people living in modern societies, belong simultaneously to many cultural communities. All Québécois value their French heritage and want French to remain the first language of Quebec. But in many other areas, they stand divided. Some Québécois are attached to religious values, others are not. Some seek a major role for the state in the economy while others seek to minimize it. Some are radical feminists while others oppose radical feminism. Some want to maintain a close link with Canada while others want to sever the Canadian connection. Thus, there is no aspect of cultural life that explains the totality of the Québécois identity.

The sovereign state as principle of liberty

The third sovereigntist tenet is that any distinct cultural community must become an independent (i.e. sovereign) state in order to fulfill itself. In other words, the national community must become a nation-state if it is to develop in a "normal" way. This calls for three comments.

First, the development and evolution of Quebec society over the past 150 years stands as a perfect denial of this assumption. The Quebec people have over these years enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world, wielded demographic weight and radiated a cultural presence that makes many other groups envious. All of that without any political independence or sovereignty.

Second, if each cultural community is to become a nation-state in order to "fulfill itself" (whatever that means...), then there is no escape from the notion that the world we live in is profoundly unjust. Indeed, given that there are some three to four thousand different cultural and ethnic communities and no more than 180 or so recognized sovereign states in the world, then we must conclude that the world will not achieve true justice until it is divided up into several thousand independent countries. The idea is simply preposterous and that it is so requires no demonstration.

Third, the concept of sovereignty promoted by the PQ implies that the sovereign state is subordinated to no higher authority and thus enjoys a legal supremacy of sorts within its own boundaries. However, the supremacy of the state has been repeatedly encroached upon over the past half century through the development of international law and institutions. This has led to a downgrading of the sovereign state which is illustrated by the multiple transfers of powers to higher authorities. Sovereign states are generally too small to manage modernity and must therefore create supranational bodies to handle issues which, in the past, were the responsibility of national governments. While the competence of these supranational bodies is limited, they have an existence of their own, i.e. they no longer depend on the good will of national governments for their survival.

The best example in this respect is the European Union (EU) whose powers have constantly been enhanced over the past 40 years. Relations between EU authorities and member-states are increasingly perceived as being of the same nature as those that exist between the government of Canada and that of the provinces. The EU is gradually moving towards some kind of federal structure. Indeed, on January 1, 1999, the most important national currencies - the French franc, the Deutsch Mark, the Italian lira, etc. - disappeared to make way for a single European currency - the EURO.

What all of this points to is the obsoleteness of the concept of sovereignty. It also shows the reactionary nature of the sovereigntist option: Quebec sovereigntists are not only advocating a political model which most developed countries are abandoning, they are also denigrating the federal model to which these countries are aspiring. Sovereigntists are fighting the times and swimming against the current.

The divorce between modern political trends and sovereigntist thinking is such that sovereignty can only be understood as an ideological system, i.e. a rigid intellectual construct which, although internally coherent, is completely cut off from the real world. Sovereignty is a dream world.

Further Reference