Why have nation-states?
Colonies and Nations
Two things happening in Canada now must move one to ask why Canada is. Immigration of alien cultures here is one, and Quebec sovereignty is the other, reason to ask: Why is there a jurisdiction, this political entity, called “Canada”? The historical answer comes most readily to me, with my background as an historian.
Canada is a colony of Europe. All or parts of its territory have been variously claimed by Spain, France, Russia, Britain, and the United States of America. Britain made its claim good by military and naval power. By the year 1840 no one in the Western world doubted that the colonies of Canada (Upper and Lower), Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Vancouver’s Island, New Caledonia (mainland BC) and Prince Rupert’s Land (Hudson’s Bay Co. territory), all “belonged” to the British Crown and Empire.
What the Native peoples thought about whose land it was, was not part of the discourse of the times. Irish rebels asserted their independence, and peoples of India too, but the Empire listened to them no more than they heard the Native of Canada who did not accept the right of Britain to rule them.
Europe had been under construction, building its political practices and laws toward “nation-states” ever since the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the rise of kingdoms in Christendom. Under monarchies originating in the political order of Germanic folk who had invaded and inherited Rome’s rule in the West, Christianity was the ideological cement holding all the successor realms of Europe in one civilization.
Far back in the deeps of time, Greeks had sent out settlements called colonies to Italy and points east and south as well. The Romans took up the practice. After Rome fell, there were more people on the move. In medieval times, there was colonization of lands by the political powers of Germany, France, England, Italy and Spain. Britannia was a land where Germanic invaders colonized formerly Celtic lands and kept on pushing against them in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Germans, particularly Saxons, pushed eastward against pagan Slavs and Asiatic folk like the Avars, Magyars and Turkic peoples. Italians sent their naval power into the Mediterranean against the Arabic peoples of Islam, and Spanish Christians fought to take back their land from Islamic invaders from Africa. In other words, colonization was a European norm from a very early time. The Franks were very expansive; the Crusades and the states they created in the Near East were largely a success story of the Franks, or French. Canada is a success-story of modern British colonialism and global power-politics.
New Colonizations by non-European immigrants alter the face of Canada
It could hardly be more clear that Canada has become a land of immigrants from many place other than Europe. Asians are so evident in the Lower Mainland of BC that cities like Richmond have bilingual signage in Chinese; Vancouver, according to just-released statistics, has 43% of its population naming their ancestry as Asian. In Toronto, it has long been true that the majority of its population is from lands other than Europe, although there the places of origin are not mostly Asian but include Africa and the Caribbean and Latin America. India and Pakistan have long supplied us with new Canadians due to our common inclusion in the British Commonwealth. And many immigrants have first tried to live in America before coming here, while their homelands are not originally in the USA but somewhere else. Illegals are less a headline item here than in the USA, but no one is unaware of some notable cases of unlucky people smuggled here illegally by human traffickers.
What other evidence do you need to prove Canada is a place millions of people would love to live in.
The only thing stopping a lot more people arriving here is our government’s policies and laws. And, as this country is a democracy and we choose the party which rules us and make the rules for immigration, the barriers against immigration that we put up, are barriers we have agreed to. There is a broad consensus that we do not want to “open the gates to a flood of immgrants.”
Quebec: an exemplary nation-state in the old fashioned sense
In the 1800’s the politically-conscious classes of the Western world agreed, each nation must have a State in which its “national genius” would flourish. Nationalism and Imperialism was rampant among the English, French, Germans, Italians, Americans, Irish, Russians, and so on and on. Civilization was understood to be a Western, Christian quasi-monopoly. If your nation did not have its own state, and its state lacked an empire to rule over, you and your people were, ipso facto, not part of the charmed circle of advanced peoples on the high road of Progress.
This left a lot of people outside. They were understandably angry. I have mentioned the Irish and the Indians who did not accept English superiority. Many Slav nations resented German egoism, and many Asians resented Russian chauvinism, and Africans rebelled against the white men who thought themselves superior to all.
In Canada, racism against the Natives was intellectually and morally acceptable. But in Quebec, the francophone, largely Catholic population, laboured under an assumption of superiority by the anglophone, Protestest minority, and Quebecois nationalism was the result. From the time of Britain’s Conquest of New France until this day, Quebec has not lacked those who reject Anglo-chauvinist attitudes. For some, the natural solution to their national aspirations is a nation-state in which sovereignty belongs to the francophone majority.
Twice, in 1980 and in 1995, the Quebecois Nation have been polled on independence. Last time, they very nearly said Yes. But that was a long time ago in politics. Much has changed. Most of those changes mitigate against a new state for the nation that lives in one province.
By the time this column is published, we will know that the party of Quebec sovereignty has not convinced a new generation to support the cause of separating their nation from the rest of Canada. (That is my prediction.)
What is the life we want from the state we live within?
Here at the end of History, where we know the past but not the future, there is a distinct feeling in the air of crisis for the whole planet.
Climate change and extreme weathers are the most visible face for the vague malaise that infect publics in most countries. Some of us are sure that capitalism must be transformed if we are to salvage humanity from its path toward war, economic collapse, social failure and environmental disasters. Others think science and democracy can still pull our fates out of the fire with no loss of the fantastic affluence of Western, middle-class people. India and China have just created such middle classes; they are not ready to jettison capitalist progress just yet.
The reason we have built nation-states, historically, is that they seemed to deliver on the promise of the American Declaration of Independence: Government — by the people, and for the people, and of the people — has given us better “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” Add to those three ideas, the words of the French Revolution concerning The Rights of Man, including the right of owning property, and freedom of religious community and belief, and one has the basic sketch of reasons why the West thinks the State is a Good Thing. Capitalism arose with modern government and nation-states, so why would we want to give up that economy? Material affluence goes with our democratic state institutions, and that is why India and China think they have finally mastered the game the West began around the time of Columbus.
Conclusion: Canada is a Hotel
I am quite taken by the wisdom in someone’s (wish I could remember who)diagnosis of Canada: “Canada is a hotel.” The observer makes a point I find profound, persuasive, and sad. This country is for individuals who want to make a fortune and not feel beholden to any old idea of a national community. A person from any country, who can bring some family members, a good starting sum of capital, and a great work ethic. A person who will rise in the social pyramid. Such people will use Canada as their hotel. They will live here and thrive. Life will be for making personal progress and amassing material and whatever else the individual desires. It will not be for any collective purpose. The occupant of a hotel is not hoping to improve the lot of other hotel residents, and Canadians are – as more than one observer has said – quite deficient in collective feelings. Canadianism is not about loyalty to an ideal of Canada and its values. We are wonderfully globalist and post-modern, say some. I do not think us wonderful. I think we do not have much idea of what is worth preserving or fighting for.
Some in Quebec, who use the word “values” rather loosely, are trying to keep an ideal of what their community is about and ought to preserve. They uphold a document called The Charter of Values. I do not like its contents. But I absolutely have sympathy with its underlying and passionate motivation: to keep some idea of a people and a culture that is collective, worth using politics for in order to maintain it, regardless of market forces.*
I am not going to rehearse the facts that uphold the argument for the decline of our standard of living and the relative deterioration of our lives in terms of ease of earning money, a high standard of socialized medicine, the subjective sense of happiness/ freedom from anxiety, and measures of opportunity for younger generations. For me, the argument has been proven. Canada is not as good a place to live as it was in the 1970’s.
Do I blame immigration for the decline? No. Our immigration policy is the symptom, not the disease. The disease is materialism, with its economic face of exploitive capitalism and its physical effects in ecological ruination. The Human Condition does not improve by the pretense that we control Matter with our sciences, and that matter is what makes us happiest. We have pursued that path, and it has led us here. Here is not so good as I thought it would be, when I looked ahead from 1970. I was 19, in my first year of university. I was a socialist.
A State like Canada cannot deliver the good life under capitalist conditions. But immigrants from much poorer lands where there is no political freedom or legal order or peace will still strive mightily to get here, and I do not blame them.
I do not blame a Quebec sovereignist for wanting to break their province out of Canada and build a new state on the blueprint of a dream for a better country. This country, Canada, could have been better too, under different ideas of the good life. Ideas much less materialist and less capitalist, less blinded by worship of science and the obsession with controlling nature.
Personally, if I lived in Quebec, I would have been a sovereignist. In BC, there is no movement for an independent state. If there were, I would support it. I would give my passion and energy to a dream of a better state. I would dream we could stop capitalist strivers from Alberta or China or anywhere else from coming here and forcing the agenda of Development upon us. But I am not going to start that movement or party.
I will, however, again run for Nelson city council in the Fall, and I will speak against development, growth, and any idea tending to make this city bigger and encourage ancient ideas of happiness through material ownership. I will call myself the candidate of the PONG party. Party of No Growth.
And in the year 2114, when Nelson is a city-state with its borders no wider than Balfour, Playmor and Apex, I hope I will be remembered as a progenitor of the happy condition of Nelsonia.
Gaetan Charlebois, a Quebec artist, loved the ideal of a nation-state for Quebec when he thought it meant the state that would protect the culture of his people; he praises Rene Levesque’s vision. He argues politics now are not keeping his national community culture alive since the 1990’s, due to economic changes. I quote him here:
“With the rise of the language and culture came the rise of local entrepreneurs and huge corporations owned locally. Slowly — through a wide array of premiers who were more businessmen and lawyers than culture warriors — the consciousness changed here. And now? Quebec culture is in decline. Despite us trying Parti Québécois governments several times, provincial budgets have never included the always promised 1% to art. Our schools are a mess; many will argue you can’t get a decent education anymore outside of a private school.Don’t get me wrong! The flagship companies — like Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM) — are still heavily subsidized by three levels of government, but Quebec doesn’t support La Relève (new generation of artists). I have written before — and to a hue and cry — that mainstream culture as represented by our big companies is old school, bourgeois, and its dominant esthetic (shared by a cadre of establishment directors and designers) is nothing more than an irritating theatrical cliché — like the once-omnipresent kitchen sink. (In passing, the artistic director of TNM is running as a Parti Québécois candidate.)”
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of the Arc of the Cognizant can be found here.