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An American de Tocqueville in Canada

Why Quebec separation would really, really matter

Stephen Clarkson

Why Canadian Unity Matters and Why Americans Care: Democratic Pluralism at Risk

Charles Doran

University of Toronto Press

256 pages, paperback

The wide-ranging arguments about Canadian unity, or rather the prospect of its disunity, in Why Canadian Unity Matters and Why Americans Care: Democratic Pluralism at Risk deserve the closest attention in the one place where they are least likely to be given credence—Quebec. Charles Doran’s concern is the implications of secession, which he maintains would be not just disastrous for Canada, but also damaging to the United States and even serious for the rest of the world.

No Canadian could get away with making such a claim, which would immediately be denounced as absurdly extravagant. But Doran is an American. And not just any American at that. A senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, he brings substantial attributes to his new work on Canada. He has long been the dean of that handful of policy wonks in Washington who actually know that Canada exists and how it functions. He is well enough connected in Washington to comment regularly for the Canadian media on the U.S. position on bilateral issues. He has interviewed virtually everyone who is anyone in the Canadian elite; his knowledge of the country is extensive. His grasp of its complexities is comprehensive, so while what he has to say is not always pleasing to particular Canadian sensibilities, it is always worth heeding.

Doran’s is a view from the outside in the grand tradition of those acute observers who journeyed abroad, taking their culturally determined perspectives to the analysis of foreign societies. The French observer Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States of America in the 1830s and produced an appraisal of the emerging political system’s virtues and vices, which became a classic text for understanding American society. Sixty years later, the Russian aristocrat V.V. Ostrogorsky, curious to observe at first hand the reputed marvels of the British and American inventions in democratic governance, meticulously documented the perverse contradictions of their new political parties that had produced in both countries a class of backroom operators who manipulated the mechanisms of the electoral process in the name of popular sovereignty but to the greater glory of their own need for power and patronage. In this tradition, Doran has brought his interests in political theory, international relations, economics, federalism and North American politics to an extended reflection on the uncertain prospects of Canada’s experiment in bi-national, multicultural coexistence.

The prime message of Democratic Pluralism at Risk is that Quebec’s secession would explode Canada’s greatest achievement—its “rare degree” of cultural pluralism and social diversity that it has built on the foundation of the liberal political tradition.

For Doran, “divisive nationalism” requires a political system to correspond territorially to the confines of a single nation and forces its citizens to assimilate by speaking a single language and conforming to the dominant culture. He dismisses as bogus the constructed content of Quebec nationalism, whether the collective humiliation of the Conquest or the individual humiliations of personal discrimination suffered at the hands of their Anglo occupiers.

With its reconstructed memory of defeat and other carefully nurtured grievances, divisive nationalism typically attempts to build states by breaking them up and “elevating one culture above others.” By breaking away from a larger, heterogeneous society, the seceding communal group signals its refusal to communicate or cooperate politically. This is tantamount to rejecting the principles of liberal democracy, because it thwarts efforts to promote greater openness, toleration and diversity.

In a chapter that takes a global-historical approach to the evolving phenomenon known as the nation-state, Doran starts by looking at the various ways that states are created, in order to tease out the potential for their dissolution. His key question is whether the international system’s epochal structural change following the Cold War can shed light on Quebec’s case. Is the spate of fragmentations, notably in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, he asks, creating a “contagion effect”? Not necessarily, he answers. Much depends on where a state is in its “power cycle,” since a multi-ethnic state in rapid decline will be more vulnerable to secessionist pressures and easier for communal groups to exit than one in good health.

As for the new global and continental governance regimes, they are remaking the nation-state, not destroying it. Just because they may appropriate some rule-making and regulatory functions does not mean that the nation-state’s subcentral components necessarily gain a new autonomy. Doran acknowledges that Europe’s would-be autonomous states such as Catalonia or Scotland count on their new ties with Brussels to save them from the hardship they might otherwise experience after secession. But he underlines the paradox that membership in the European Union would require giving up much of the sovereignty that the new entity had won by splitting from its former state.

Turning to economic considerations, Doran engages with the debate about whether size matters for a secessionist substate. Neoclassical economists, who have a bias toward bigness, believe that the larger the scale of production, the greater the efficiency gains. But Doran points out that the benefits of specialization are exaggerated because growth rates, which accelerate initially as an economy grows, decelerate as it becomes very large.

Revisionists argue that there are efficiencies to be found in small entities such as Singapore, which prospered on the basis of entrepreneurial imitation rather than technological innovation. Doran criticizes this view also for ignoring the disadvantages of smallness. Following an empirical analysis of the relation between size and per capita income growth rates in 18 advanced industrial nations, he shows that growth is slowest at both ends of the size spectrum: below a threshold of some 20 million inhabitants, growth rates in small economies are consistently below theaverage.

To those Quebeckers who maintain that they would make up for the loss of scale within Canada by the greater opportunities they would exploit in the continental economy, Doran insists it is wrong-headed to imagine that NAFTA can substitute for Canada as an integrated market. Because the degree of integration at the continental level is less than that which exists within the existing Canadian state, Quebec’s opportunities would decline. His verdict: Quebec as an independent entity, inside or outside NAFTA, will always pay a growth premium compared to a Quebec that remains inside Canadian Confederation. To be precise, “if Quebec were to separate, its generation of per capita wealth would be one-half of what it would generate within Confederation.” This is a very high economic price, he feels, for it to pay for slightly more political sovereignty.

Doran believes that it would not be a major issue for Quebec to gain formal international recognition. Eventual admission into NAFTA would proceed, although he expects that the concessions Quebec would have to make as the price of admission would negate whatever autonomy gains it had made in declaring its independence from Canada. A far greater danger, Doran believes, is the difficulty the rest of Canada would have in trying to reconstitute itself politically. Post-secession shock would be severe. The geographic, social and psychological isolation of the Atlantic provinces separated by a foreign country from the rest of Canada would be hard to alleviate even if the wealthier provinces agreed to richer transfer payments. But it is unlikely that Ontario and Alberta, which were already complaining in the 1990s about paying for equalization programs to support the have-not provinces, would suddenly become more generous toward their poor cousins in order to hold together a fledgling ROC from which they would not likely derive much material benefit. The western provinces would certainly balk at belonging to a country in which Ontario constituted half the population and economy. For their part, Ontarians would not be keen to settle for less power in the new institutions than their demographic and financial muscle warranted. In short, the ROC could unravel as fast as did Czechoslovakia following the fall of the Iron Curtain.

If the ROC did fail, it would threaten North American stability, forcing the United States to deal with this balkanization on its northern border. Statehood would not be an option, because admitting Canadian provinces would disturb the delicate political balance between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress. To resolve the situation, Washington might offer the individual provinces some new form of regional affiliation in which they paid for military security with money and military service. Former Canadians in the affiliated entities would assume the obligations of U.S. citizens, but would not enjoy all their rights.

Doran wrote and published his book before the recent slide in sovereignty’s popularity and before terrorism trumped all other issues in global politics. The prospects for independence are increasingly dim. Even if Quebeckers’ current infatuation with Mario Dumont split the anti-government vote and let the Parti Québécois return to power, it would not have a mandate to push separation. This does not, however, mean that Doran’s arguments can be ignored. At the next upswing of the nationalist cycle in Quebec, all the same ideas will have to be addressed again.

The problem with all this is that Quebec’s sovereigntist intellectuals are unlikely to give much weight either to Doran’s evidence or to his logic, to which they would offer a number of counter-arguments. First, modern Quebec nationalism is less ethnic and more postmodern and inclusive than he allows. Take the PQ’s recent agreement with the Cree, which recognizes their autonomy more unambiguously than any deal signed by Ottawa with a Native nation. Next, they could argue that the difficulties of small entities in large continental unions may be less severe than in the past, now that nation-states matter less and global markets matter more. As well, autonomy for smaller political units may be more functionally necessary than ever under the homogenizing pressures of globalization.

As for the proverbial issue of the economic costs of separation, sovereigntists would have two main points to make. There would no longer be an uncertainty factor to scare away capital: investors would know they were dealing with a political issue that had been resolved. The real uncertainty would be the rest of Canada’s relations with Quebec. If these retained their previous openness, then the disadvantages of smallness that Doran emphasizes would be minimized.

It is here that the sovereigntist case is weakest, and Doran’s analysis most convincing. Along with other analysts, such as Dalhousie University’s pessimistic Denis Stairs, Doran points out that the atmosphere is less likely to improve than to deteriorate after secession. There is a strong possibility of internal disruption within the new Quebec’s Anglo and allophone communities, some of which could demand partition and reunion with the remaining Canadian rump, which could itself prove politically unviable. If North America’s attic becomes destabilized, even newly sovereign Quebec could be in as much trouble as its former provincial partners.

For Doran, secession would be a tragedy not only for Canada because the failure of its experiment in multicultural cohabitation would represent a loss for those liberal democracies around the world trying to establish political harmony among diverse communities by building bridges across their cultural-linguistic divides. Much closer to home, Doran believes Canada’s failure would also deal a blow to the United States, which is grappling with threats to its own democratic pluralism. This is why his title asserts that “Americans care,” a claim that he unfortunately does not substantiate. Even if they do not in fact care—and time after time polling data confirm Americans’ indifference to their northern neighbour—Doran certainly believes they should. At the least, he feels that the U.S. government should make clear its strong preference for Quebec maintaining its current status within Confederation, even though in the final analysis it is Quebeckers who will determine whether they will remain the original Canadians or become a separate 7.5 million in a continent of 380 million.

Stephen Clarkson co-authored the two-volume Trudeau and Our Times in the 1990s (McClelland and Stewart, 1992, 1997) and wrote The Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics (University of British Columbia Press, 2005). The third volume of his trilogy on North America since 9/11—Dependent America? How Canada and Mexico Construct U.S. Power—was published in 2011 by the University of Toronto Press.