Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Just how far would the Liberals have gone to 'save' Canada?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The whole sponsorship scandal, as we know, revolved around defeating Quebec separatism and, if possible, buying off people in the province.

This was first and foremost in the mind of francophones such as Jean Chretien, who would have been left high and dry without a country to call their own, had the secessionists won the day in 1995.

After all, Chuck Guite, the retired civil servant who was in charge of the sponsorship program, himself contended in closed-door testimony to the public accounts committee of the House of Commons in July 2002, now released, that "we were basically at war trying to save the country."

Given the 'war room' mentality of 'victory at all costs' that this engendered, corruption was inevitable under such circumstances. We've all at some point read Samuel Johnson's remark that often "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

At the end of March, we suddenly found out about a secret National Unity Reserve Fund that the federal Liberals had been running, located, apparently, in the Prime Minister's Office itself. Even Auditor General Sheila Fraser said she knew nothing about it.

It seems to have operated almost like a Canadian version of a 'Comintern', funding ideological 'anti-separatism' at home and abroad the way the Soviets pushed Communism in their heyday. The reserve fund may have paid out as much as $550 million over the years, and the sponsorship program itself, now mired in scandal, may have been hatched here.

The Forum of Federations, an organization that was formed to propagate support for federalism all over the world, was apparently one beneficiary -- and many of us have been getting their (quite excellent) literature for years (See

As well, this fund, according to some reports, financed the big 'pro-federalism' conference in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, in October 1999, at which U.S. President Bill Clinton came out in opposition to the idea of a sovereign Quebec.

Check out the website, which states, in a story entitled 'Federalism Conference 2002 a Huge Success,' that "Many Canadians feel a special relationship with federalism, as if it was a Made in Canada concept."

Canada has made a fetish of federalism because it suffers from the problem of 'stateness'. A word coined by political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan in their 1996 book, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation, this refers to the potential destabilizing situations that may arise when there is no congruence between the identity of the nation and the borders of the state -- in other words, when there is uncertainty over who and what actually constitutes the country.

"If a significant group of people does not accept claims on its obedience as legitimate," maintain Linz and Stepan, then this presents a serious problem for a democracy.

As we know, for many decades now, a very significant percentage of francophone Quebecers have not considered themselves Canadians. For them, Canada is simply not 'legitimate', regardless of its social, political or economic virtues. They want 'self- determination' for what they consider to be the nation of Quebec, and that's that.

Even among the majority who do not wish to leave Canada, their Canadian identity is for many not a matter of deep emotion, but contingent upon "what's best for Quebec." Their feelings for Canada are trumped by their primary identity as Quebecois. This always makes for a fragile polity. To keep people in line who are uncertain about their national identity, something which, after all, should be the very bedrock of a country, there have been only two courses of action to take by those who wish to keep a state united: 'carrots' or 'sticks'.

The sponsorship deals, and the many other goodies and so-called 'favours' that Quebec has received from the rest of the country since the 1960s, have been carrots. But in the background there is always the possibility, should things get out of hand, of the stick.

Even in democracies such as today's Spain or the pre-1922 United Kingdom, which included all of Ireland, violence has often been the norm, usually launched by those who want their own country, but also sometimes by their opponents.

Would the feds have gone so far as to use force had the referendum gone the other way in 1995? We'll never know.

But rarely has there ever been a partition of a country without armed struggle -- because not only was Canada in danger of being divided, so was Quebec itself. This is what many nervous non- francophones in Montreal and in the Ottawa Valley were already demanding in the days preceding the referendum, were Quebec to secede. Would the Canadian military have stood idly by had the streets of Montreal begun to resemble those of Belfast or Sarajevo? No people, not even Canadians, is immune to violence when push comes to shove.

The hard-core nationalists in Quebec will now feel vindicated: they have always claimed that their federalist Liberal enemies have treated the province like an unruly colony and its people with contempt.

The disclosures of the past two months, and other revelations which no doubt will emerge in the days to come, will provide a shot in the arm for the separatists. The Bloc Quebecois has always demanded information on funding for the massive pre-referendum rally in Montreal that helped the federalists win.

They will declare themselves to have been on the receiving end of a 'dirty tricks' campaign that would have done Richard Nixon proud. In such a manner do carrots sometimes turn into boomerangs.