From the archives: "Nation? You can have it."

I read my colleague Andrew Coyne’s impassioned, insightful “Is Canada a nation?” item, and remembered posting on closely related questions back in November 2006, just after Prime Minister Stephen Harper passed his motion on the nationhood of the Québécois. For what it’s worth, here it is:

The word nation does not have a very secure place in the rhetoric of Canadian patriotism, at least not as a label to be applied to the whole country. Arguably the most important early use of the word in Canadian political discourse came in Sir John A. Macdonald’s sage 1856 letter to William Chamberlin, an English Montréaler, on the need to respect the “nationality” of the French Canadians. “Treat them as a nation and they will act as a free people generally do—generously,” Macdonald famously wrote.

There can be no more favourable light than the warm glow of that quote in which to consider Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s motion in the House of Commons, easily passed on Monday, recognizing the Québécois as a nation within a united Canada.

To my ear, the application of this N word to the people of Quebec doesn’t grate. But maybe that’s because I don’t much covet it for Canada. Plain “country” suits better. “Dominion” has a burnished ring to it. The best that can be said for “nation”—particularly when applied to a group of people, as opposed to a geographic and political entity—is that it at least marks an improvement over “race,” which was often the preferred term in past eras. “The day a race ceases to express its thought and its sentiments in its language,” wrote Henri Bourassa, the founder of Le Devoir, “it is lost as a race.”

Today we wouldn’t put it that way, of course. But to be fair to Bourassa, let’s remember he was writing early in the last century, before the corrosive ideologies behind its wars and genocides made talking about race in that blithe way impossible.

Come to think of it, perhaps we should have cultivated a distaste for “nation” for the same reason. But we didn’t. We still toss it around even though, as the argument over whether to affix the word to Quebec proves, we don’t quite know what it means. Just about everybody agrees that it can’t be allowed to carry its old discredited connotation of ethnic solidarity—of blood. Or perhaps we just agree that it shouldn’t. Not in polite company, anyway. Yet the Prime Minister’s decision to use the word “Québécois”—rather than the translation “Quebecer”—in the English version of his motion strongly suggests at least a residue of that problematic sense of the word. Let’s hope that a more enveloping interpretation of what was intended by the motion takes hold.

But then, “nation” will always mean different things to different people in different contexts. Maybe it’s one of those words whose impenetrability we must accept. (“Impenetrability,” by the way, is the term Humpty Dumpty, in Through the Looking Glass, advises should be used when “we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next.”)

If it’s certain that we’ll never agree on nation’s connotations, it’s equally clear we’ll continue giving in to the compulsion to try to say something definitive about our identity—no matter how unsatisfactory that exercise always turned out to be.

Take comfort from the knowledge that this is a slippery subject everywhere it gets raised. What is the French nation, especially after all those nights of flames in the Paris suburbs? Or American nationality, in this era of Latino demographic ascendency?

Consider the British, or if you prefer, the English, Welsh and Scots. Do they still share a national identity? And if they do, is it elastic enough to wrap around new immigrants to the island? Not the old Britishness, surely, at least not if historian Linda Colley was right in her landmark study Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1937, where she emphasized the glue of Protestant ideology and myth, and the bonding experience of fighting Catholic France.

Evidence that nations define themselves largely in contrast to disdained neighbouring nations is dispiriting, but can’t be dismissed. Don’t Quebecers derive their national sensibility largely from dwelling on how they differ from other Canadians, or perhaps other North Americans? For that matter, is it possible to speak about what it means to be a Canadian without accentuating how that’s different from being American?

That’s nationalism for you. No point denying its potency, but no need to let our sense of ourselves be confined to a negatively nationalistic way of thinking.

And we don’t. We’re less likely, in my experience, to talk of our Canadian nationality than to boast of our Canadian citizenship—a word more resonant of civic duty and political awareness. When we throw a party to mark our country’s founding, we talk, not of some overblown blood-and-belonging myth, but of Confederation—that peaceful old word that reminds us of how we talked our way together.

With luck, when “nation” stops dominating our conversation, we’ll go back to using words that serve us better.


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