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…

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