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Splitting Up

The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle Over Sovereignty

by Jane Jacobs
Random House, 134 pp., $8.95

This small book is Jane Jacobs’s first since she became a resident of Canada in the late 1960s. It is a tour de force, the kind of force that expresses itself through restraint and precision, like a laser beam used with such exquisite care as not to insult the distressed body it is intended to relieve. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and her other work, Jacob’s principal virtues as a writer have consistently been lucidity and insight. In her new book, she has chosen to bring these virtues to bear on the most inflamed social question of a very touchy people; her fellow-citizens in her adopted country. She does so with a tact so fine that it’s scary. This detracts nothing from her honesty and skill; and adds an interesting tension to her work.

The obtrusiveness of tact in The Question of Separatism is partly attributable to its having been conceived as and expanded from the 1979 Massey Lectures, a five-part half-hour series which the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation commissions annually. The Massey Lectures are a deservedly respected Canadian institution, although previous distinguished authors, such as Paul Goodman, R.D. Laing, and George Steiner, among others, have rarely addressed themselves to specific political, let alone Canadian, issues. Each series is broadcast nationally on the CBC’s FM network for five consecutive weekdays; and Jacobs’s lectures were much the best I have heard. Yet my impression—admittedly based on the scanty opportunities for observation available in remote Halifax—was that her predecessors got more attention. And, indeed, it is hard to imagine what group in Canada would have welcomed her analysis.

The Question of Separatism is a highly rational and reassuring work. It is not an argument for or against separatism, but an argument against conventional Canadian wisdom which holds that the separation of Quebec must lead to inevitable disaster for both parties. The resulting partition of Canada would certainly divide the four eastern provinces from the five western ones, which would be awkward and costly economically. But the vehemence of federalist arguments makes it difficult to understand how Alaska has managed for so long to stave off the penury and economic stagnation to which its isolation from the rest of the United States ought to have doomed it. Alaskans don’t seem to feel poor and—unlike Canada—they have managed to settle the land claims of their native peoples on terms that were fairly generous financially if disastrous culturally. Nor are they much tempted to seek reunion with their closer and perhaps more powerful neighbor to the west whose territory included them until 1867—the very year Canada became a nation.

Jacobs carefully analyzes the arguments on which these anticipations of catastrophe are based and shows them to be very weak. Quebec is larger and richer than many independent states; while many others with smaller populations and fewer resources are richer still. Canada, including Quebec, is poorer than many smaller nations—largely, Jacobs argues, because of its persistent adherence to the old colonial pattern vis-à-vis many trading partners with which it might be expected to negotiate a more reciprocal and more diversified trade pattern. Canadians, of course, acknowledge this source of poverty, but tend to blame it on the United States for having made an economic colony of Canada. Jacobs demonstrates that the Canadian economy consistently maintains itself by protective tariffs that compel foreign investors who want to do business in Canada to establish branch-plants there, just as American auto manufacturers and their labor unions are now insisting the Japanese should do. This policy ensures that the Canadian economy will become neither autonomous not fully diversified. Jacobs cites as an example a Norwegian ski manufacturer which opened a Canadian plant in response to such tariffs and has since profitably exploited a market that Canadians—not unfamiliar with skis and their uses themselves—either could not develop or would not deign to.

Jacobs’s discussion of the economy, which is much more extended than I recall it having been in her Massey Lectures, is one of the strongest as well as the bluntest parts of her work. She writes like a good psychoanalyst of the old school, clearing away the defenses of a patient whose self-pity and projections of blame on others have stunted his awareness and growth, and drained away the energies of his family. Such defensiveness, whether economic or psychological, seems to sap initiative and to lower the level of Canadian aspiration in a variety of ways, some of them quite odd. This must surely be the only nation in the world whose press and television trumpeted the news of each of the country’s victories in the so-called “Olympics for the Disabled,” held shortly after Canada had withdrawn from the real Olympics following weeks of agonizing—and indecisive—debate about whether it was doing so in response to moral principle or American pressure.

During most of the rest of the book, as in the lectures, Jacobs is less aggressive. She makes effective use of a detailed account of the slowly achieved and ultimately amiable separation of Norway from Sweden after decades of acrimonious though bloodless struggle. That the adversaries were both better off than before establishes a hopeful precedent, though a unique one. Jacobs does, I would infer, favor the separatist cause; partly because it is clear that the issue will not go away, but will continue to strain Canada’s political and cultural resources. Her basic reasons for doing so derive from her deep understanding of urban growth and decay and its social consequences. (This was recognized as central in the original title of the lectures: “Canadian Cities and Sovereignty-Association.”) Addressing herself to the fundamental question why separation became a crucial issue just at this time, she attributes it primarily to demographic change and its social consequences. Both Toronto and Montreal have grown enormously since World War II. The growth of Montreal meant that Quebec culture had come of age, was no longer rural-dominated and priest-ridden, but both cosmopolitan and self-aware as French. Montreal is now culturally a French city where formerly it had been as English as New Delhi used to be, and for much the same reasons.

But just as this was happening, Toronto was outstripping Montreal in its economic and political activity, leaving Montreal without the resources to continue to support its burgeoning culture. As this process continues, and it will if Quebec stays in Canada, the culture of Quebec is likely to become as detached as Ukrainian culture, and Montreal as vital a cultural force in the world as Kiev—or Winnipeg. That’s no joke about Winnipeg, where one of the best symphony orchestras in the country has just gone into provincial receivership, and a ballet company of international distinction depends for survival, like most other major Canadian cultural institutions, on government support increasingly difficult to obtain. A culture needs a national capital even if it serves as an anti-capital, like Dublin, from which Ireland’s greatest authors have had to flee in order to do good Irish work.

Jacobs’s arguments about cultural diversity are the most fascinating parts of her book, yet they are, in some ways, among her weakest. On the one hand, in her efforts to be even-handed—neither English nor French culture is best, they each have so much to contribute—she understates, I think, the degree to which French culture in Canada really is superior artistically: it is livelier, less sentimental, far more daring and original. The decline of rural and priestly hegemony over Quebec has made Samuel Butler’s ringing lament against censorship, “O God, O Montreal,” thoroughly obsolete. It is in Protestant Ontario that films like The Tin Drum and even Pretty Baby, freely exhibited in Quebec, may not be shown.

On the other hand, Jacobs also, I fear, underestimates the loss to English Canadian culture that would result from the withdrawal of Quebec. The very threat of separation has compelled English Canada to be a little bit more receptive to the more outspoken and at times outrageous style and substance of the arts in Quebec. Consider what the state of Canadian letters would be without Michel Tremblay—or Mordecai Richler, who, though anglophone, is not a cultural descendant of the Family Compact. It isn’t that English Canada lacks equally competent writers—though it certainly and, I think, significantly, lacks male novelists of the stature of Margaret Atwood or Margaret Laurence; a stiff upper lip tends to keep the page in shadow. But even the best English Canadian writers tend to write as if defeat at the hands of a hostile destiny were both inevitable and terminal, though they may make such defeat the occasion for ironic courage and jest. Quebecois, by contrast, who have had more experience of defeat, tend to regard it as one of life’s commonplace though serious events. It is painful and incapacitating, and there’s nothing funny about it; but you usually keep going, you usually get over it, and it often happens all over again. So do referendums.

From self-interest, therefore, I’d hate to see Quebec go. And I suspect that Jacobs’s painstaking rationality and refusal to panic, her insistence that Canada and Quebec are both viable entities if they behave sensibly, whether united or apart, is just what most Canadians, anglophone or francophone, are least willing to hear. Those fantasies of catastrophe are politically as well as emotionally useful; to relinquish them, as Jacobs makes clear, would require radical and perhaps unconscionable changes in Canadian attitudes and Canadian institutions. And it is here that I think Jacobs’s tact limits the usefulness of her analysis. There is nothing to be said for being rude and nasty as such. But one of the most important—and least acceptable—lessons the insurgents of the Sixties tried unsuccessfully to teach university faculties is that polite usage and tact can be themselves political weapons: ways of defining the status quo your way.

Analysis, psychological or political, cannot be effectively conducted that way; there must come a time when hostility and self-delusion are called by their proper names and the secondary gains derived from them recognized and admitted. As Jacobs makes very clear, English Canada has treated Quebec relatively well as such relationships within nations go; and Quebec is far from being the poorest and most dependent part of Canada—if it were it couldn’t even consider separation. But English hegemony nevertheless has cost and is costing Quebec dear. In this matter the federal government cannot be regarded as wholly benign and well-intentioned: it was unusually cold for October in Quebec in 1970, and a great many people remember it still. Several hundred people were then arrested at four in the morning and detained for a fortnight or longer under the War Measures Act. Only two were charged with an offense. Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent and belated, though commendable, efforts to entrench a Bill of Rights in the Canadian Constitution are now being met with a bitter resistance from seven out of ten of the provincial premiers. Canada’s self-image sometimes appears to be that of a respectable and well-bred though doughty little old lady to whom trust and courtesy are due as a matter of basic right, and Canada is indeed a more patient and decent country than most. But history does not show it to be quite as innocent as Jane Jacobs suggests. One can never be quite sure that civil dowager won’t turn out to be an RCMP sergeant in drag.

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