A recipe for separatism

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The last point that Michael Ignatieff made before resigning as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada — that French and English Canada don’t have much in common anymore — is a piece of insight for the next leader of the Liberal party. The fact that Ignatieff, a politician who worked for 30 years in the United States, was the man to make this statement is a piece of insight for Canadians in general.

There is no question: French-English relations in Canada are poor. Last December, Montreal Canadiens fans were more distraught about interim head coach Randy Cunneyworth’s inability to speak French than they were about sitting last in their division with a sub .500 record. Canadiens owner George Molson promptly fired Cunneyworth when Quebec nationalist groups threatened to boycott Molson products. As a result, Montreal remains an intimidating and inaccessible market for anglophones, and the Canadiens are expected to continue struggling as an NHL franchise. Perhaps this reflects the bigger picture of French-English relations in Canada: a picture painted with the sloppy strokes of appeasement.

Canada was prepared to make concessions to French Canadians when Quebec agreed to Confederation in 1867, yet incidents like the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords suggest Prime Ministers have adopted a policy of outright appeasement towards French Canada. For instance, Canada could not amend its Constitution without the approval of Quebec. Quebec demanded cultural distinction and increased provincial powers within the parliamentary system. Submitting to Quebec’s demands might have been the federal government’s sign of weakness, one that continues to obstruct peaceful coexistence between French and English Canadians today.

It seems like Quebec appeasement has built itself into the culture of Canadian politics. While having two distinct cultures is unique, the cost of sustaining this Canadian feature of old is becoming more of a burden. In the 1960s, the federal government promised Quebec low-cost tuition. Now, Quebecers are directly addressing the federal government, while Canadian students across the country struggle with even higher tuition. The popular response to Ignatieff’s comments about the inevitability of Quebec sovereignty was comical — it was as if the separatists gained momentum in a soccer match after the team captain on the federalists’ team kicked the ball into his own net. But Ignatieff was simply stating the obvious.

Say what you will about Ignatieff, I think his blurt about French-English relations was prophetic. The fact that Ignatieff has had less exposure to the trend of French Canadian appeasement suggests he might be viewing the issue through a cleaner lens than the current regime. While the federal government seems to want to improve French-Canadian relations, its actions suggest appeasing the French is more important. History suggests that appeasement is a slow, grinding path to national sovereignty.Winston Churchill once said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile — hoping it will eat him last.”

Following his resignation, Ignatieff said he wanted to teach young Canadians; perhaps French-Canadian relations will be his area of expertise.

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