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Impossible Nation: The Longing for Homeland in Canada and Quebec. – book reviews (Mark Weigierski)

Impossible Nation: The Longing for Homeland in Canada and Quebec. – book reviews

Mark Weigierski


Ray Conlogue, long-time theater critic and now the Montreal arts correspondent for The Globe and Mail (the Toronto-based newspaper of Canadian establishment liberalism), has written a very unexpected book. Indeed, this work may come to be seen as a classic on the Canadian situation. In the dreary social and political climate of English Canada, where many thinkers have gone straight from joyless puritanism to lockstep political correctness, Conlogue’s book is the first in a long time to look afresh at big national issues.

Conlogue’s first and central point is that the Canadian state does indeed consist of two nations: French Canada (Quebec) and English Canada. As early as in Lord Durham’s Report of 1840 there were warnings that Canada might well become “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” Conlogue says that has happened.

The French Quebec nation is characterized by a sense of kindredness, of being and belonging, going back to its origins in a pre-Revolutionary, Roman Catholic French peasantry. Although Catholicism is fading fast in Quebec today, it provides the cultural-psychological matrix for the future. Conlogue observes the earthiness, warmth, and imaginativeness of Quebecois life across the centuries and concludes that the Quebecois are a people.

English Canada, on the other hand, has many of the most negative characteristics of Calvinist, Lockean individualism. English Canadians possess little sense of nationhood or collective imagination. With the fading of the British Empire after World War II, a sense of Britishness can no longer unite English Canada. At the same time, English Canada has fallen under the sway of what George Parkin Grant called the American technological empire.

Conlogue paints the establishment liberal vision of Canada as a coast-to-coast “bilingual” country (most energetically promoted by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau from 1968 to 1984) as a chimera. English and French Canadians are bound to mostly separate spheres by their histories, and no amount of government social engineering will ever change that.

English Canadians have failed especially in the artistic, creative, and cultural dimensions of nationhood. Canada today is only a state – a soulless apparatus without a shared identity – whereas Quebec is a real nation, but not a state. Conlogue boldly criticizes Canada’s current multiculturalist policies as an obstacle to nation-building. Although he does not say this explicitly, perhaps the reason that English Canada today is so accepting of mass immigration (at a level about five times greater per capita than in the U.S.) is simply because it has no sense of any self to preserve. Conlogue points out that although America’s central tradition was individualist, the U.S. was able to establish certain compensatory commonalities (such as the English language and a patriotic enthusiasm for its political founders and original documents) that have allowed it to function with a far greater sense of national identity.

While seeing outright Quebec separation as a possibility, the vision Conlogue prefers is a very loose association of Quebec and Canada, combined finally with an attempt to build a real English-Canadian nation among the rest of the nine provinces and the northern territories. Conlogue would certainly support the constitutional recognition of Quebec as “a distinct society.” The Meech Lake Accord, cobbled together by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the provincial premiers, failed in 1990 largely because of opposition in English Canada to just such a recognition. Yet in its October 1995 provincial referendum, Quebec came within half a percentage point of endorsing a process leading to separation. A second attempt is widely expected by the end of the millennium.

Perhaps a more likely scenario, if Quebec does ever begin to negotiate separation, is the “provincialization” of Canada, creating a weak federal government and virtual independence for all of the provinces. It may be too late to culturally renew English Canada as a whole. The province or region might therefore be the best place to build some sense of meaningful identity distinct from the American.

Toronto-based Mark Wegierski has written for Telos, This World, and Alberta Report, among others.

[American Enterprise,  July-August, 1997]


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