El Café Para Todos

In multiethnic democracies, subtle majority privileges can be just as corrosive as minority nationalism

Canada’s May 2011 election resulted in the eclipse of the Bloc Québécois as a significant actor on the federal stage, and in the months that have followed the Parti Québécois has experienced severe internecine conflict. It would be tempting to assume, as a number of commentators have been prone to do, that the issue of Quebec sovereignty is a thing of the past and that Canada can now proceed to forge a stronger national unity than before.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In many ways, not least because of the quite diverse voting patterns in Quebec and in English-speaking Canada on May 2, Canada remains a country with multiple national identities. No Quebec government, whatever its stripe, can renege on certain core principles regarding language, provincial autonomy or the search for an evanescent model of Quebec identity. Nor are aboriginal Canadians, despite the archipelago of territories or cities that they inhabit, about to be assimilated into the Canadian mainstream.

For the contributors to Contemporary Majority Nationalism, edited by Alain-G. Gagnon, André Lecours and Geneviève Nootens, none of this would be particularly surprising. As students of nationalism with broad comparative interests and backgrounds, they take the long view, not the short, of national conflicts in countries like Canada. What makes this volume particularly interesting is that it gives a central place to a phenomenon that has received short shrift in recent decades, namely the nationalism of majorities within multinational states.

A key aspect of majority nationalism is that its adherents want to see their interests projected by the central state. As Alain Dieckhoff, a French political scientist, notes: “anglophones embrace with fervor the project of a Canadian identity … because this conception of a blanket nationalism is coherent with their own interests. As long as the political framework of reference is the Canadian state, anglophones, who constitute an absolute majority, are assured of maintaining political power through national institutions (Parliament, the Supreme Court).” The same was true for Czechs within the former Czechoslovak federation. And by extension, one might argue, it would be true for the English within the United Kingdom, non-Basque and non-Catalan Spaniards within Spain, and so on.

One problem, of course, is that majorities have a very different view of their own situation and of the historical factors that underlie it than do minorities. Their memories, to cite a Spanish contributor to the volume, Angel Castiñera, are different. For francophone Québécois, je me souviens refers to the period of New France, to the Conquest and
to the long struggle for survival that was to follow. The historical memories of English Canadians are much more likely to focus on the road to responsible government, Confederation, Canada’s participation in two world wars, international peacekeeping or the coming of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. What minorities highlight, majorities may be eager to forget.

Another aspect of the debate centres on the normative underpinnings of nationalism. Is nationalism a positive force, based on certain shared characteristics common to the citizens of a nation-state, or a negative force, fostering the worst forms of exclusionism, intolerance and repression? Those who see it as a positive force see it as something of a Sleeping Beauty, waking from a long sleep, benign in its disposition. Those who see it as a negative force see it as Frankenstein’s fiendish monster, or Count Dracula awaiting its ration of human blood. John Coakley, an Irish political scientist, does a nice job of mapping the very different course majority nationalisms can take, often entailing the exclusion or ignoring of minorities. This was certainly true of various European countries in recent centuries and of the relationship between settlers and Natives under European colonial regimes in Africa and Asia. (One might add, a fortiori, in the New World.) It is easy for the adherents of a dominant culture to see it as the only fitting one for the state or to defend their position as based on moral principles compatible with historical progress. If this is indeed the case, it may well be majorities, rather than minorities, that are at the root of “the problem” when it comes to our understanding the nature of ethnic conflict.

A further complication arises from the importance of globalization for traditional versions of majority nationalism. Where the zenith of old European nation-states such as Britain and France may have been associated with their overseas empires or with the post–World War Two welfare states, this is less true today. The European Union both overlaps with and undercuts the sovereignty of the traditional state—the stark imperatives facing Greece, Ireland or Portugal in their current financial crises come to mind. Simultaneously, as notes John Loughlin, a British contributor to the volume, “regions and cities are once again prominent political actors on the redefined and widened stage of the new Europe, recalling their position before the arrival of the nation-state.” This has had significant consequences for Britain, with Scottish and Welsh devolution weakening the hold of the central state and with English nationalism as a reaction to both. Regional nationalisms have also posed challenges to Italy with the Lega Nord in the north, and even more so to Belgium, where a succession of nationalist and ultra-nationalist Flemish parties have rendered the constitution of any kind of stable central Belgian government well nigh impossible.

One of the contributors, James Bickerton, focuses specifically on the Canadian case. He provides a good summary of the battles of the 1980s surrounding the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, Meech Lake and Charlottetown. He reminds us of the awkwardness many felt in naming the majority community within the country—was it “English Canada,” “Canada outside Quebec” or that ugly duckling, the “Rest of Canada”? Could English Canada have a national identity of its own or was it irretrievably bound up with the larger Canadian one? In that case, we are better off thinking of “nested” national identities in the Canadian case, with Québécois and aboriginal nationalism coexisting with a larger, inclusive Canadian national identity. Well and good, one is tempted to say, when we think of the House of Commons resolution of 2006 recognizing that the Québécois constitute a nation within a united Canada. But we also know how tricky any attempt to constitutionalize or routinize such a concept can prove.

If we had any doubts about the difficulties in the Canadian case, a brief reference to the Spanish one may help. The final article in the collection, by Enric Fossas, maps the complicated relationship between multinationality and regional autonomy in Spain since the restoration of democracy in the late 1970s. The paradox of the Spanish situation is the following. The Spanish Constitution recognizes the existence of 17 autonomous regions, including a number of nationalities, within Spain. But the Basque Country and Catalonia, despite enjoying the most sustained period of autonomy in centuries, are also the regions least comfortable with the constitutional status quo. They keep pressing for greater powers from Madrid, and the other Spanish regions, to no one’s great surprise, tend to want no less power than their nationalist counterparts. El café para todos, as they say in Spain, coffee for everybody. Shades of the response of a number of Canadian provincial governments to the demands for reinforced powers for Quebec back in the 1980s and ’90s.

Like many volumes made up of collected essays, this one is not without its shortcomings. The article on the American case, by Liah Greenfeld, deals with American multiculturalism. But the author is given to lofty generalizations. Is it only our modern and materialistic age, as she asserts, that has come to think of ethnicity as a culturally significant category? The term ethnos derives from the Greek, and it was Greek authors who distinguished the Hellenic sphere from the non-Greek barbarians of the ancient world. Chinese civilization in pre–modern times had a similar view of the Middle Kingdom versus the barbarians outside. The Hebrew Bible is replete with references to Jews versus Gentiles. So what is so modern about ethnicity? In an unnecessary side reference to Israel, she claims that “the majority of the Israeli population is atheist.” One would want to see hard evidence to back up such an assertion. And what is one to make of her claim that in the American case, “hard as it may be to believe,” ethnic diversity “all boils down to chicken soup, minestrone, and avgolemono”? What then explains the passionate opposition of a Samuel Huntington or of the Arizona Minutemen to the purported “Hispanicization” of the United States?

The collection also suffers from a lack of adequate proofreading and from references that are out of date. For example, one of the biographical entries, by an editor of the collection no less, refers to a forthcoming publication in 2007; surely this should have been revised for a book published in 2011. The head of the Basque government is identified as iehendakari, when the correct title is lehendakari. Reference is made to “fairly recent” declarations in support of multiculturalism by Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder, when both David Cameron and Angela Merkel have expressed precisely the opposite view since. Here lies the danger in publishing conference papers that have not been properly updated.

Nonetheless, I find much of value in this collection. The majority of the articles are of a high quality and they raise pertinent questions about the operation of majority nationalism in a number of different countries. These are some of the key conclusions I would draw for our own purposes.

1) We need to look outside the Canadian box if we are to better understand our own situation. The experience of other countries is not without relevance, and how similar multinational states deal with their internal national questions merits close attention. For Canadians, the Spanish, British and Belgian cases are probably the most relevant, although Switzerland would provide some useful pointers on the successful accommodation of linguistic differences.

2) Majority nationalism merits at least as much attention—probably more—than minority. It may take a more banal, everyday form, but it works powerfully through the central state and the many other governmental institutions—educational, cultural, financial, social—to instil belief in the underlying values of a shared national community. Just how shared that community is remains an open question. This is by no means always evident in the relationship among majority and minority nationalities, such as (English) Canadian, Québécois and aboriginal in the Canadian case. But it is also a significant obstacle where minority ethnic or religious groups are concerned. Benedict Anderson, a leading scholar of modern nationalism, has referred to “long distance nationalism,” that is, that of diasporas far removed from their home countries. It is often the case that the proponents of diasporic nationalism are more radical in their views than those residing in their countries of origin. We have seen examples of this here in Canada, with the supporters of Khalistan in the Sikh community and the Air India bombing of 1985, or with some of the supporters of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. The break-up of Yugoslavia cast its own shadow over Croats, Serbs, Macedonians and Greeks living in Canada, even as the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has inflamed Canadian campus after Canadian campus. And Islamism, as opposed to Islam, casts its own dark shadow throughout the western world. There is reason to doubt that Canadian-style multiculturalism can provide a satisfactory solution to the challenges of diasporic nationalism or fundamentalist religion.

3) We need to be conscious of the different ways in which globalization is playing out and of the consequences for national identities. In many ways, that process has reinforced the search for common roots, based on language, shared citizenship, cultural patterns, history and the like. It may explain the continued strength of right-wing parties harping on the identity theme in countries as divergent as Denmark, Finland, France or Hungary today. It may also explain the anger and underlying racism one finds among supporters of the anti–immigration movement and of the Tea Party insurgency in the United States.

4) One cannot stress enough the ongoing importance of accommodation and “vivre ensemble” as an ideal between majority and minority nationalities if the larger state is to remain intact. The break-ups of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia lie within the historical memories of those of us over 40. The possible break-up of Belgium, a country where the majority Flemish and the minority Walloons and Bruxellois seldom see eye to eye, is another telling reminder of the need for comity across linguistic lines. Canadians should not draw excessive comfort from the present weakening of the sovereigntist current in Quebec. The majority nationalism of the rest of Canada will continue to have to come to terms with Quebec and aboriginal nationalism into the indefinite future.