Is Canada divisible? © David Watts 15 July 2000
This question was raised in the debate over the possibility of a province’s seceding from the federation.
It is not the first time a province—in this case Quebec—has talked about leaving the Canadian community.
Shortly after Confederation, Nova Scotia took a vote to leave.
In the 1880’s, with progress lagging on the transcontinental railway, British Columbia debated leaving the Dominion it had joined only a decade earlier.
Until the last quarter of the 20th century the question lay dormant, as no one had asked it seriously in eighty years.
Other countries decided the issue much earlier:
The American Civil War was fought officially not on the grounds of slavery as is generally believed, but over the issue of states’ rights to secede from the Union.
Since the victory of the forces of the North over the South, no American state has raised the issue again.
The former Soviet Union, too, used military force to keep its members in the USSR. It did not allow breakaway states until the Union itself broke up in the 1990’s.
Britain, one of Canada’s two parent states, followed a somewhat different route. Although Ireland was forcibly brought into the United Kingdom, its southern part was allowed to leave in 1920.
Today Northern Ireland is considering its future in the United Kingdom.
Canada’s other parent, France, also allowed a part of its territory to leave, though not without some bloodshed. President Charles de Gaulle came to power in the Fifth Republic by promising to end the civil war and let Algeria go its own way.
It seems almost certain that Canada would follow the “negotiated settlement” route.
The more pressing question for many Canadians is, therefore, not whether a part of Canada can choose to leave or not, but whether Canada would still exist after one of its parts did leave.
In other words, would whatever is left still be “Canada”? Or is our federation, by its very nature, something that would cease to be upon a members’ leaving it?
Canada is already perhaps the most loosely structured federal state in the world. Since its major reason for staying together so far has been the free choice of its members, we can fairly ask whether loss of this consensus would be the loss of Canada itself.
In our history before Confederation, we faced major division of our territory two times. The first was when Canada fell to Britain and was cut off from much of the rest of what had also been New France, including the length of the Mississippi Valley.
The second was when Canada, now British, lost more of its territory—south of the Great Lakes—after the American Revolution.
These losses came as a shock to the traders and voyageurs who traveled through those territories, but their impact was less than would be the case with an equivalent amount of land today..
The major impact was upon the first nations, determining whether they would evolve under British or American administration.
Since the divisions were being made by governments half a world away, they did not have the effect that would arrise if the people of one territory chose to dissociate from their neighbours.
Is Canada divisible today?
Canada’s temporal boundaries may be altered as Canadians so agree. This has happened before, with both gain and loss of territory. There is no overwhelming reason why it could not happen again.
Spiritually, as a meeting place for citizens of Planet Earth, Canada is as indivisible as Earth herself. If the day comes when all Earth’s peoples participate in a single planetary federation, it is unthinkable that a member could choose to “leave Earth”.
It might say “count me out” at an official level, but this would be going in the face of the underlying oneness of all Earthlings.
Likewise for Canada, it’s hard for many to believe a part could put itself outside a state whose very being is based on inclusiveness.
In this belief, we can quote the words of a former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, another spiritually inclusive body:
We can only hope that you in Canada will find a way to transcend whatever differences you may have.
Much of the world is watching you. You are a sign of hope to other countries that they can resolve their own regional and linguistic and economic challenges. As long as you stay together, you are a beacon for them. If you fail, their future looks bleak. “If Canada can’t make it,” they ask, “what hope is there for us?’”
For CANADIAN CONNECTIONS, I’m David Watts.