Published in the Martlet (Victoria), 18 January 2001
Many have celebrated the resignation of Quebec premier and Parti Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard as a victory for Canadian unity and a defeat for the cause of sovereignty.
I see it as an opportunity to engage in serious questioning rather than blind flag-waving.
One can feel affinity with the many diverse peoples of Canada while objecting to the rule and authority of the central government in Ottawa. One can argue that sovereignty should be removed from the Queen in England and vested in local communities without being branded a “traitor.”
There are many weaknesses in the Bloq Quebecois and Parti Quebecois, but a commitment to the sovereignty of the Quebec people is not one of them. The favouring of neo-liberal policies at the expense of the PQ’s traditional pro-labour, social-democratic base of support has hurt the movement. So too have elements within the sovereigntist camp that are hostile to immigrant and Anglophone communities. True sovereignty demands the acceptance and participation of all members of a region.
In 1919, a person walking through Victoria’s quaint downtown would have noticed a banner strung across Fisgard Street at Government – the present-day site of Chinatown’s Gates of Harmonious Interest. “Armistice terms or Separation,” the banner-proclaimed. The first part was a demand that the Canadian government enact provisions of the Paris Peace Agreement guaranteeing the rights of workers to organize into unions and strike for better conditions. The second part suggested allegiance to Canada would be severed if this demand were not met.
The idea that Canadians would want to wrest control from Ottawa and empower their own communities is not isolated to Quebec. This sentiment has existed in Victoria throughout the past century, and it speaks to the support western Canadians give to parties such as the Canadian Alliance and its predecessor, the Reform Party.
“The West wants In” was a demand of the Left long before Preston Manning popularized the slogan in the 1988 and 1993 federal elections. The greatest tragedy of the Reform-Alliance movement is the largely successful effort to redirect genuine feelings of western alienation and aspirations for self-government into what I consider to be a backward, intolerant, xenophobic incarnation of the neo-liberal agenda.
In 1988 the NDP won 18 of BC’s 25 seats in the House of Commons. It was seen by many as the protest party of disenchanted and disenfranchised Westerners. But a decade of provincial NDP rule – coupled with a hostile media intent on exposing (and even creating) an incessant barrage of scandals to discredit social democracy – has eroded support for the NDP and redirected legitimate anger into the Reform-Alliance camp.
Hence we see the anomaly where a province governed by a pro-labour party votes 50 per cent in favour of the anti-labour Canadian Alliance. A province that has granted the most extensive rights to gays and lesbians in North America, and that has at least voiced support for the settlement of aboriginal land claims, votes for a federal party that is obsessed with heterosexual marriage, opposed to reproductive choice, committed to the death penalty, and hostile to immigration.
Demands for self-government for the people of the West need to be provided with a new outlet. No longer can this movement remain the personal domain of far-right, Holocaust-denying lawyer Doug Christie, head of the Western Canada Concept party.
The ultimate goal, I believe, is the attainment of regional sovereignty within the framework of federal and international co-operation. The Queen of England does not deserve to be the highest power on southern Vancouver Island. Nor does the centralized quasi-dictatorship we send to Ottawa every four years.
Should the Royal Jubilee Hospital be held in perpetual financial crisis because of Ottawa’s unreliability in providing the provinces with transfer payments? Should the airwaves in our community be governed by a central body appointed by Jean Chretien? Should the decision to invest Victorians’ hard-earned tax-dollars in bombing Yugoslavia and occupying East Timor be left to a government 8,000 kilometres to our east?
I don’t think so. True democracy can only occur on a scale where people can interact face-to-face with one another. Regional governments need to be empowered so that the citizenry can fully participate in the formulation of economic, political, and social policy. Communities need to be granted the tax-raising and regulatory powers necessary to ensure economic development and environmental sustainability. These participatory regional governments must be sovereign political entities.
In announcing Lucien Bouchard’s resignation, the Times Colonist wrote the following: “Some day, historians may view his departure as the death knell for the sovereignty movement.” The vested corporate interests that own our newspapers would love that.
But I’m a history student and I beg to differ. I see in the resignation of Bouchard the potential for a truly progressive sovereigntist movement to emerge. From the cities and countryside of Quebec, to long-disempowered aboriginal communities across North America, to Prairie farmers battling agricultural giant Monsanto, to people everywhere who are struggling for democratic control of government and industry in the face of globalized corporate rule, I believe the struggle for popular sovereignty has just begun.