Two paths to in­de­pen­dence: The coun­try of Que­bec vs. the prov­ince of Cape Bre­ton

The Victoria Standard - - Commentary - MOR­GAN DUCH­ES­NEY

I wel­come the pos­si­bil­ity that Justin Trudeau may have men­tioned past sep­a­ratist vi­o­lence in Que­bec while dis­cussing Sikh in­de­pen­dence with In­dia’s lead­ers. Hope­fully, Trudeau’s al­leged re­marks will in­spire pub­lic dis­course on the darker as­pects of Que­bec’s per­sis­tent sep­a­ratist move­ment. Since Canada’s po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship seem­ingly ig­nores the con­se­quences of end­less pan­der­ing to Que­bec’s dis­con­tents, I’ll take any ex­cuse to ex­am­ine these mat­ters.

Suc­ces­sive Cana­dian gov­ern­ments have ex­hib­ited an un­healthy tol­er­ance for Que­bec’s ag­i­ta­tions for spe­cial sta­tus within con­fed­er­a­tion. This has led to a se­ries of fed­eral con­ces­sions that se­ri­ously un­der­mine Canada’s na­tional in­tegrity. From Mul­roney to Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Min­is­ters have sub­mit­ted to the ex­tor­tions of Que­bec sep­a­ratism for the sake of their own power while claim­ing to de­fend na­tional unity.

Que­bec’s lan­guage-based na­tion­al­ism, im­mi­gra­tion con­trol and French-only unilin­gual­ism have de­vel­oped un­der the veiled threat of sep­a­ratism and have en­abled the prov­ince to por­tray it­self as a unique and dis­tinct en­tity within Con­fed­er­a­tion. Since such words have been em­ployed through­out his­tory to jus­tify ev­ery sort of ex­cess and abuse of power, Canada may yet pay a higher price for its of­fi­cial in­dul­gence.

The FLQ (Front de libéra­tion du Québec) phase of Que­bec’s strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence pro­vides a clear ex­am­ple of what may oc­cur when sep­a­ratist move­ments em­brace ter­ror­ist vi­o­lence. The FLQ op­er­ated in that prov­ince from 1963 to 1970, det­o­nat­ing 95 bombs and killing seven peo­ple be­fore the ter­ror­ists were ar­rested. The vi­o­lence in­spired Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to in­voke mar­tial law, but ul­ti­mately, it was dogged po­lice work that brought the cri­sis to a con­clu­sion in Oc­to­ber 1970. Though it may be hard to imag­ine, armed sol­diers pa­trolled fed­eral fa­cil­i­ties in Cape Bre­ton at that time. My fa­ther re­calls be­ing or­dered off the wharf at the Canso Cause­way by stern troops in bat­tle dress car­ry­ing as­sault ri­fles and sub-ma­chine guns.

Most Cana­di­ans of my gen­er­a­tion seem to have for­got­ten the FLQ pe­riod and dis­miss it as an un­for­tu­nate, but mi­nor in­ci­dent in our na­tional story - not un­like the so-called Oka Cri­sis which also hap­pened in Que­bec. Con­tem­po­rary com­men­ta­tors have crit­i­cized the mil­i­tary’s role in these cases given the lo­cal­ized na­ture of the vi­o­lence. How­ever, Cana­dian law en­force­ment agen­cies in 1970, and even 1990, were ill-equipped to counter ter­ror­ism. It was a pre-911 world.

The phe­nom­e­non of Que­bec grad­u­ally ac­quir­ing semi-na­tional sta­tus has cre­ated re­sent­ment among Cana­di­ans who ob­ject to one prov­ince be­ing ac­corded a unique sta­tus that could be claimed by ev­ery indige­nous and set­tler/im­mi­grant group in the coun­try. Que­bec is merely the heir of one of Canada’s two con­quer­ing na­tions. The Bri­tish vic­tory was also a Scot­tish tri­umph though High­land sol­diers’ deaths in New France were “no great mis­chief” to war­lords like Wolfe and Corn­wal­lis.

Al­though no Prime Minister has dared men­tion it, a na­tion­al­ist mili­tia has ex­isted in Que­bec since at least 2009. The Mil­ice Pa­tri­o­tique Que­be­coise (MPQ) seeks to de­fend Que­bec from “for­eign­ers” and “…are will­ing to vol­un­tar­ily sac­ri­fice their lives for their coun­try of Que­bec…”, ac­cord­ing to their man­i­festo. While the MPQ claim to op­pose vi­o­lence while con­duct­ing pri­vate mil­i­tary drills, the FLQ also be­gan in a sim­i­lar way. It is un­likely that the fed­eral govern­ment would ig­nore or tol­er­ate such be­hav­iour in Al­berta or Cape Bre­ton. Worse still is the MPQ’S com­mon cause with white su­prem­a­cist groups like Que­bec City’s Sol­diers of Odin chap­ter.

Un­like Que­bec’s sep­a­ratists, Cape Bre­ton’s pro­vin­cial sta­tus ad­vo­cates have never re­sorted to vi­o­lence or other tac­tics de­signed to gain con­ces­sions by in­cit­ing po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic in­sta­bil­ity.

The comedic act of Gen­eral John Cabot Trail (played by the late Dave Har­ley) and his Cape Bre­ton Lib­er­a­tion Army (res­ur­rected last year in a mu­si­cal at High­land Arts The­atre) re­flected the Is­land’s long his­tory of peace­ful ag­i­ta­tion for pro­vin­cial sta­tus dat­ing back to the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury.

Like their an­ces­tors, Cape Bre­ton­ers ex­pect the same level of pro­vin­cial ser­vice en­joyed by other Nova Sco­tians and rightly op­pose per­ceived im­bal­ances in ser­vices like road main­te­nance and health care.

The con­cept of pro­vin­cial sta­tus for Cape Bre­ton was re­cently res­ur­rected by Sen­a­tor Dan Christ­mas as a means to greater eco­nomic pros­per­ity. While this idea will en­counter po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion from the main­land, the Is­land’s en­dur­ing char­ac­ter will al­ways dis­tin­guish it as surely as the sea sur­rounds it.

Im­age cour­tesy of artist Paul Mackinnon and CBU.

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