The Two Solitudes Make a Comeback

Canadian nationhood is an unhappy marriage of two historic solitudes: English and French Canada. In the last federal election, the Conservative government received a majority mandate with 161 seats in English Canada. The NDP were propelled to official opposition on the back of 59 seats from Quebec. The early days of our new parliament have been dominated by issues sharply divided on English-French lines. These issues, pitting Quebec against the rest of Canada, will undoubtedly continue to emerge. Will our unhappy marriage only get worse under the political conditions afforded by the last federal election?”

In 2007, Scott Gardiner published a groundbreaking work of political fiction called King John of Canada. It is easily one of the most thought-provoking novels in Canadian fiction. It reminds readers that Canada is formed from a workable, if unhappy relationship between English and French Canada. It is a relationship that always veers toward conflict and sits on the edge of disaster. If Canada’s new parliament continues on its current course, disaster might not be an unlikely scenario.

The novel supposes that a new referendum on Quebec sovereignty takes place. The country anticipates that Quebec will finally secede. In a moment of clarity, King John offers a revolutionary concept:

On the same day Quebec held its referendum, proposed the King, the Rest of Canada ought to organize a referendum of its own – advancing the self-same question …. [I]t seemed only reasonable that the Rest of Canada should be consulted about its wishes with respect to Quebec.

So they hold a referendum. Both English Canada and Quebec vote to separate, and Canada splits in two. It is a happy divorce.

Gardiner may be cynical about the nature of the two solitudes today, but is his cynicism justified?

Gardiner is right to point out that Canada’s founding peoples are in an unhappy marriage. No one is signing divorce papers but that does not mean the couple is taking long walks on the beach. English and French Canada face a gulf between them that each is willing to let simmer and stew.

No further evidence is needed than to look at the recent results of the federal election. On the backs of 59 parliamentary seats from Quebec, the NDP rocketed into Official Opposition. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are perched in the majority with 145 seats from English Canada. A few Conservative ridings remain in Quebec, and there are NDP parliamentarians who come from English Canada, but each party’s success came from one-half of the two solitudes. English Canada handed Harper his majority, and Quebec handed the NDP their Official Opposition status.

English Canada picked one direction, Quebec another. The sharpness of this divide may be quiet now, but that will not last long.

Many of the major issues that have emerged in this Parliament have divided sharply on English and French lines. The NDP briefly fought to require that Supreme Court justices be bilingual. NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel, in a recent statement criticizing Quebec’s shutout from a multi-billion-dollar shipbuilding contract, slammed the Conservatives for “picking winners and losers.”

NDP leadership candidate Thomas Mulcair lambasted the Harper plan to afford new seats to English provinces as an attack against Quebec. Mulcair also introduced a bill that would subject Quebec businesses under federal jurisdiction to similar language requirements as those enforced under Bill 101.

The NDP offer a different type of Quebec advocacy than that spearheaded by the Bloc Québécois. With only 49 members in the House of Commons, the BQ was on the fringe of Parliament, its issues relegated behind the agenda of the Conservatives and their Liberal opposition.

Now, the role of Quebec advocate has shifted from the Bloc Québécois to the NDP. The difference, of course, is that the Quebec advocate is now the government-in-waiting. The English-French divide is at the forefront of the national dialogue.

History gives us another example of a Parliament divided along English-French lines. Canada’s 35th Parliament featured an English Canadian government and a Quebec advocate as the Official Opposition. Then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Opposition Leader Lucien Bouchard spent an egregious amount of time debating the minutiae of national unity. English-French tensions sprung to the fore, a PQ government was elected in Quebec City and the province plunged into its second referendum.

Now, by no means is it 1993. There is little chance the PQ will retake the National Assembly, and there is even less chance of a new referendum. Canadian unity has never benefited from a Parliament divided, English against Quebecer.

It has only been a few months since the first sitting of Canada’s 41st Parliament. These issues, pitting Quebec against the “Rest of Canada,” will undoubtedly continue to emerge.

Will our unhappy marriage only get worse under the political conditions afforded by the last federal election, with English Canada as government and Quebec as Official Opposition?

Maybe someday we will find a happy middle ground, but until that day comes, I can only anticipate that the situation will get worse. If our national dialogue continues to bring out these old quarrels, then tensions will continue to rise. We have not yet signed the divorce papers, but unless we chart a new course, one day we might.

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