A NATION OF MINORITIES © David Watts 24/05/2010
To call Canadians A Nation of Minorities is only to state the obvious.
Look out on a street corner of any of our major cities or towns or the shop floor of a new industry. Go to a university campus, primary school or day care centre. We are a mini United Nations.
This may seem like a recent state of affairs. Some of us are unsure, others self-congratulatory about our multiculturalism. We don’t realize that Canada has always been A Nation of Minorities.
From Micmac to Monashee, Haida to Huron, Algonquian to Inuit, our First Nations represent a cultural spread that is enormous. Some of these became dominant in a particular region.
They did this by forming coalitions—the Six Nations of the Iroquois, the Blackfoot Confederacy. No band or nation had the numbers to dominate single-handedly: a reality that continues today.
The question of “Who’s in charge?” arose when Europeans came. Champlain’s choice to ally with the Huron against the Iroquois cost his colony dearly.
Some of his successors proved wiser. Spreading westward, they often intermarried with First Nations. This and the fact that their interest was in furs, not land, helped minimize conflict
French, British and Spanish established colonies in a region already peopled, based on their military or economic strength. None claimed to be a majority, which would have been ridiculous.
The dominant colonial power could change overnight with events in Europe. French and English exchanged colonies on our east coast a few times before the Plains of Abraham. Even after that victory, the British expected to be leaving Québec until a surprise outcome at the conference table.
On the Pacific coast the Spanish, in decline worldwide, finally withdrew in favour of the British.
Percentages became important when colonies of mixed origins began to demand self- government.
When Quebec passed to British control, English speaking developers came searching new markets and resources, and demanding institutions of the kind they were used to in the Thirteen Colonies.
British governors, realizing the newcomers’ interest was not in democracy but economic takeover, delayed the grant of representative institutions and strengthened French culture in the Québec Act.
But when English speaking settlers in greater numbers showed up and demanded democratic rights after American Independence, Britain realized the issue could be deferred no longer.
Granting levers of democracy to a group that knew how to use them to dominate the French speaking population was no more satisfactory than subjecting Englishman to French rule.
So Quebec, that had stretched along the Great Lakes, was divided in two: Lower Canada, where French society was largely undisturbed, and Upper Canada, where the newcomers could expand.
This side-by-side arrangement lasted 40 years. But when rebellions broke out in both Canadas in 1837, the issue became unavoidable: how to reconcile different societies with democratic rule?
Lord Durham, the short term governor and troubleshooter sent out from Britain, proposed a simple solution: grant home rule or responsible government and assimilate French Canadians so their special needs would no longer bar progress of a growing English speaking culture.
The main obstacle to his proposal was that French speaking Canadians were still in the majority. To grant representation by population would place them in control of the new united assembly.
English speaking Canadians would not concede this until their numbers gave them a majority. So the two were given equality in the Legislative until populations shifted and the demands reversed.
Now it was English speakers who claimed rep by pop and French Canadians who claimed equality.
In the 20 years before Confederation, double majorities of both groups became a working principle.
Federalism was a way out of this double bind. Québec’s price for participation in an enlarged Canada was its own government in a province where French speakers would be in a majority.
Matters of health, education and culture—the social network of the day—would be home grown and not superimposed by an English speaking majority in Canada as a whole.
What the 20 years before Confederation and our history since has proved, is that majority rule is not enough. It’s not enough because there is no such thing as an enduring Canadian majority.
What we call majorities are short-term groupings that come together for a shared interest. Attempts to artificially impose a majority at the expense of one region or interest have been disastrous.
It was a so-called English majority that tried to impose conscription on Quebec in two world wars.
It was a so-called Central Canadian majority that imposed the National Energy Policy on the West.
Both majorities are illusions, with as much dividing them as they had in common. English Canada does not exist, for the economies of Ontario, the Maritimes and the west are often in opposition; Central Canada likewise with the linguistic and cultural divide across the Ottawa River.
These policies were divisive and dangerous. Such attempts to invoke slogans of “majority” or “national unity” are not about principle but power, not consensus but control.
We’ve come to accept this about our society. It takes three fourths of our provinces representing 50% of the population, to change the constitution. On some issues it takes unanimity.
The Charter protects minorities and multiculturalism, safeguarding our pluralistic society in law.
It’s time to translate this into our parliamentary system. If there is nothing sacred about 50% + 1, then parliamentary majorities based on 37% of the popular vote are even more suspect. And our first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all system gives even minority prime ministers excessive power.
Electoral reform, a renewed upper house, checks on executive prerogative are suggestions to this end. We need to look at them. In the meantime, minority governments reflect the nation we are.
In a country as diverse and dispersed as Canada, we must go on discussing and exploring until there emerges an approach we can all live with, if not actively support.
This takes time and space. It’s not amenable to quick fixes like the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. It cannot be done with a ticking clock or imagined threat to our security in the background
It’s not compatible with attempts to polarize us politically, with regional or culture wars, to impose a pledge of allegiance or single concept of what it means to be Canadian, like a religious creed.
It comes from our wholeness in recognizing ourselves as A Nation of Minorities and microcosm of Planet Earth. Let us make this legacy our crown and hope.