Thursday, June 13, 2024

Still a fragile country

With the failure of the last referendum on Quebec sovereignty almost 30 years ago, the idea that Canada could realistically break up has been put on the back burner. This stability has seemingly been solidified with the rise of the CAQ and the near fatal weakening of the PQ in recent provincial elections, representing the effective replacement of separatism with nationalism as the leading ideology among anti-federalists in Quebec.
While the prospect of direct separation has been lessened, Quebec nationalism, generally revolving around cultural grievances around language and religious expression, still poses a threat to the current Canadian constitutional order, which is best exemplified by the explicitly unconstitutional legislation Bill 96 and Bill 21. Even the recent law passed making the oath to King Charles optional is another constitutionally dubious law passed on a clear cultural fault line.
However, somewhat unexpectedly, the real threat to the Canadian state now stems from a growing resentment from Alberta and Saskatchewan, shown by the recent passing of the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act. The legislation opens the way for provincial authorities in Alberta to refrain from enforcing federal laws if the Albertan cabinet deems them not within the province’s interest, something that constitutional experts brand as blatantly unconstitutional.
This legislation comes after decades of growing resentment out west. Like Quebec, this separatism does contain a cultural component but, unlike Quebec, is also deeply economic in nature. Opposition to environmental legislation, disputes over transfer payments, and a sentiment that Alberta and Saskatchewan are being held back is all feeding the movement within these provinces for more autonomy, if not outright independence.
With the imperative to reduce greenhouse emissions directly conflicting with the primary industry of Alberta, this conflict isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The federal government, and Canadians in general, have done much over recent decades to embrace the French language and culture within Canada, official bilingualism being a prime example. It’s much harder to see how the different environmental and economic priorities between Alberta and the feds can be reconciled beyond committing to so-far unprecedented green transition investment that would allow the Albertan economy to survive without fossil fuel exports.
With Alberta and Saskatchewan forming up for greater conflict, a Quebec government already primed to pick fights over things like immigration and the ongoing back and forth between the premiers and the prime minister over healthcare funding, Canada as a state isn’t in the strongest position.
Canada is a relatively young country, and the fact that it is spread over a massive and geographically diverse area makes it an open question whether or not its national identity - the ideological glue states count on to stay viable- can weather the storm of different economic and cultural pressures.
It seems the breakdown of constitutional norms, a democratic deficit, worsening partisanship and open contempt for institutions, as represented by last year’s convoy occupations, are all pushing the Canadian state towards crisis. Worsening socio-economic conditions will only add fuel to fire.
It remains to be seen whether Canadian institutions can adapt or evolve to meet the growing number of challenges they face.
It’s not impossible that we see a day where Canada is no longer a name on the world map, and if we want to avoid that we need to seriously start reforming our political and economic system. Leaders need to provide positive answers about why Canada as a national project is still worthwhile. People in Quebec, Alberta and beyond need reasons why membership in Canada is a value add in their lives, and that goes beyond better PR. Materially delivering for people through fixing our broken healthcare system, making our country more democratic and providing some sense of economic stability for working people would be a start. Otherwise, one day we may wake up in a different country. It may sound dramatic, but crazier things have happened.

Brett Thoms


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