MONTREAL -- Here are two issues in this city’s conversation, one reflecting the culture, the other altering the culture:
Allowing bars to remain open until 6 in the morning. Separating Quebec from Canada.
We can linger on the question of a 22-hour drinking period — under this notion the bars would be closed only between 6 and 8 in the morning — another time. The real question of the day is whether, in an era when Crimea and Scotland are holding referenda on nationhood, a ballot to determine whether Quebec secedes from Canada is consistent with the zeitgeist of the times.
Readers on the American side of the 49th parallel may be pardoned if they thought that Quebec separatism — or, put another way, the continued territorial and cultural integrity of Canada — were a settled matter. The question has been voted upon twice in a generation, rejected soundly once (1980) and very narrowly the second time (1995).
It might be appropriate to say that the issue is back like a bad penny, except that Canada began phasing out its penny a year and a half ago. But it is back, and along with the talk about Quebec nationhood is renewed talk about a flood of English-speaking Canadians — “the next glug of the brain drain,” as Montreal Gazette columnist Mireille Silcoff put it the other morning — out of what is arguably the most diverse, most interesting and almost certainly the most gastronomically adventurous city in North America. (Try to find a better baguette anywhere. Or a richer soupe a l’oignon gratinee.)
This province-wide debate is occasioned by April 7 elections to Quebec’s unicameral legislative body, itself a symbol of Francophone aspirations. In a province where language matters so much, it is illuminating that the legislative body here is known as the Quebec National Assembly; similar chambers in Saskatchewan and Manitoba are called, simply, the Legislative Assembly, with no subliminal suggestion that Saskatchewan or Manitoba are nations unto themselves. (Agricultural products labeled in British Columbia and Alberta are usually regarded as having been grown in Canada, but the Empire apples on sale in the Provigo supermarkets scattered about this province carry little black stick-on labels saying pommes qualite Quebec.)
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois isn’t saying that she’ll press for another referendum on Quebec’s status if her separatist Parti Quebecois wins a majority in next month’s voting. But almost everybody thinks she will and, in the course of campaigning this month, she has allowed as to how an independent Quebec might continue to use the Canadian dollar but have its own passport. She’d like a seat on the governing council of the Bank of Canada, too, but that might not be Quebec’s to claim.
Last week the French newspaper Le Devoir published a poll showing that 37 percent of Quebec voters supported the separatist party and 37 percent supported the Liberals, who oppose an independent Quebec.
The political calculus was upended earlier this month when Quebec’s most prominent, and surely its most controversial, business executive, media mogul Pierre Karl Peladeau, proclaimed that he wanted his children to grow up in a separate French country. In a dramatic press conference, he entered the legislative campaign as a Parti Quebecois candidate and — he’s not saying so but almost everyone else is — sought to establish himself as the presumptive first president of a presumptive independent Quebec.
All this raises innumerable questions: Why should Quebec abandon Canada when Canadian taxpayers pour more money into the province than Ottawa extracts from taxes? Would an independent Quebec own the airports, the St. Lawrence Seaway facilities and other federal properties inside its borders? Would an economic settlement be demanded or proffered? Would international treaties ratified by Canada apply to an independent Quebec? Would other nations, especially the United States, recognize an independent Quebec, and would it apply NAFTA privileges to Quebec as it does today to Mexico and the rest of Canada?
That’s only the beginning. Would an independent Quebec win a seat in the United Nations? Where would separatism end? Would Montreal, where separatist sentiment is weak, have the right to separate from independent Quebec? Would the First Nations, as Indians now are known here, want to affiliate with an independent Quebec or with Canada? Or might they conclude that both governments are illegitimate and separate from them both?
Meanwhile, other vital questions go begging. Quebec’s unemployment rate rose to 7.8 percent last month, up from 7.5 percent. A poll commissioned by the Globe and Mail newspaper, rooted in Toronto, found that 85 percent of Quebeckers want to hear more about the economy and job creation, with 69 percent wanting to hear less about Quebec sovereignty.
For Americans, the situation here is baffling. The United States fought a bloody war over the secessionist impulse 150 years ago, though slavery was arguably the pre-eminent issue. Yet Woodrow Wilson, in his World War I-era Fourteen Points and later at the Paris peace talks, stood firmly for self-determination, though the phrase was deftly used by Russian revolutionaries in the hope that the movement, spurred by disillusion with Europe’s dynastic empires, might speed the dissolution of those empires.
The nation-building of an earlier time, particularly during the 19th century in Italy and Germany, was prompted by centripetal forces that brought peoples together. The nation-building of our time, especially in the former Czechoslovakia, Spain, Belgium, Quebec and Crimea, is produced by centrifugal forces that pull people apart.
In “The Long Shadow,” a new book on the legacy of World War I to be published this spring, Cambridge historian David Reynolds explores this phenomenon. “Whereas Italy and Germany had been created through the unification of various local polities with similar language and culture,” he explains, “state building in eastern and southeastern Europe occurred through secession from dynastic empires that had hitherto controlled a volatile mix of ethnic groups in various stages of national self-consciousness and political mobilization.”
Those kinds of terms — “volatile” and “mobilization” — are seldom applied to the peaceable kingdom to the north of the United States. Perhaps their applicability to Quebec explains the ferment here.
But make no mistake. It is not only Quebec that is debating the future of the province in Canada. A great many Canadians elsewhere, weary of this fight, are debating it as well. Throughout this winter, snowy and cold, there has been a lot of heated national self-consciousness going around. It’s enough to make one wish the bars were open till 6 a.m.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).