The Maple Leaf Rag: how Canadian federalism provides a sense of belonging

Canadian flag

By Wendy Kyrle-Pope

The idea of a federal Europe is not a vote winner. Even the Federal Union organisation describes a federal Europe as “a direction, not a destination”, implying that in reality, it will be a long time coming. At the moment the argument for a federal Europe is on the back burner as far as the vast majority of people in the UK are concerned, but all political parties will have to address the issue, sooner or later. Pro- Europeans will be faced with the monumental task of drawing a picture of how a federal Europe might work in the imagination of the voters¹ hearts. What is in it for the UK, which is only beginning coming to terms with the decentralisation of power through the process of devolution in Wales and Scotland, and rejected any such devolvement of power outright in Northern England? While closer economic ties are accepted, albeit with reluctance, by most as the inevitable result of the nature of the global economy, and even (one day) the need for more unified foreign and defence policies, people fear that a federal Union would rob them of sovereignty and control over their own affairs, and power would be centralised in some nebulous place in Europe. But what they fear most is loss of a national identity, of who they are. How could a federal union made up of so many countries, cultures, histories, empires and peoples (both the indigenous and the recently arrived) establish an identity for itself, one to which all the citizens of Europe will be able to establish some kind of connection? Could we learn from the Canadian model, which is discovering that only by federalism can Canada establish a Canadian identity for itself out of its multicultural, multiracial and multinational population, and ensures the inclusion and participation of those who, for historical and cultural reasons, cling to their sovereignty and separateness, the Quebecois and the Native Peoples?

Canada is not Europe. It is still building itself as a nation, and, to do this, it relies on the participation of its diverse peoples in the democratic process to create an identity which all can share. Its political system developed as its population grew, from a few thousand to the 33 million today. But it did start off with the problem of having two separate cultures, both of which had to be accommodated to make the country work. Canada has been a federal democracy since it become self-governing in 1867. A country of such vastness (the distance between Vancouver and Prince Edward Island is the same as between London and Outer Mongolia), with a harsh climate, and a sparse population had little choice, but the principal reason was this biculturalism. Wolfe may have won Quebec (and thus control of Canada) from the French in only 20 minutes in 1759, but that victory had no impact on Quebec’s frenchness and it remains totally French to this day.

Fear of invasion was also a driving force towards a speedier adoption of a federal system In 1867, the world¹s largest army of the time stood just south of the border, rattling its sabres, The presence of this powerful and populous neighbour has always overshadowed and informed everything the Canadians do, culturally, economically and politically. Trudeau’s remark in 1969 that “Living next to the US is like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt”, still rings true today. All Canadians dread being taken for Americans, and this factor is a major unifying force, and one which drives the nation in its search for a distinct identity. And not only do Canadians have to contend with the shadow of the elephant; its 10% (300,000) per annum growth in population is made up almost exclusively of immigrants from around the globe.

Unique to any other country in the OEDC, Canada has three forms of ethnic groups. The first are the aboriginal people, who make up about 4% of the population. 350,000 are Native Indians (People of the First Nation), 30,000 Inuit and some 400,000 Metis, of mixed Indian and European decent. The second is European; about a quarter of the population are descended from the original French settlers, one-third are of British descent, and Germans, Ukrainians, Dutch. Italians, Greeks and Scandinavians have been settling since the 19th century. In recent decades, a third group, comprised of immigrants from Asia, especially China, with smaller numbers from the Caribbean, Africa, Eastern Europe and South East Asia, have helped double the 1951 population.

In the 1960s, the Government began to move away from the symbols and trappings of the prevailing, predominantly British cultural dominance. The Maple Leaf flag was adopted. The “Royal” in certain services and agencies was dropped (the Royal Canadian Air Force became the Canadian Air Force). British Canadians at the time were horrified, but it was a prescient preparatory step to the new Canada which would emerge.

The federal system ideally provides a welfare state and a federation based on the ideals of diversity and shared citizenship. It is designed to provide multilevel governance, supranational economic institutions, provide pressure to ensure responsiveness (at all levels) to local cultures and cope with the growing ethnic diversity and multiple identities of its peoples. The federal Parliament operates on the Westminster system, with a cabinet, as do the Provincial Governments. All provinces have substantial independent power to raise taxes, make their own laws in certain areas and, since 1970, own their mineral rights. The latter makes some provinces substantially better of than other on a per capita basis (Alberta and its oil, for example), so equalisation grants have to be made to those less naturally endowed with riches. There is a Governor General for all Canada, but also governors general for each province. Each province has its own flag. Provincial courts with provincial judges deal with most criminal and civil matters, with more serious cases being dealt with by federally appointed judges. A separate system of federal courts operates alongside the provincial courts to try cases arising under the Constitution or any federal law or treaty, including cases against the Government.

Language has always been a key issue. Canada is officially bilingual (French and English), in all its 10 provinces and 3 territories, except Quebec which is only French speaking. One in six people speak a language other then English or French, and the pressure of recent immigration in Ontario has seen the introduction of Mandarin in many schools as Toronto will become 50% Chinese speaking by the next decade.

But how do the various peoples feel about Canada and being Canadian? This is where the federal system comes into its own, to accommodate those who do not feel Canadian first, and have distinct cultural allegiances. Quebec is the reason Canada decentralised from the very beginning, so that its province could have equal power with the others. A high level of self-government and a legal system based on the Napoleonic Code Civil helped contain nationalist aspirations, and in 1995, the Ottawa Parliament took the largely symbolic but conciliatory step of recognising the Quebecois as a nation. Federalism enables Quebec to exist as a parallel society, a sovereign society, a part of and apart from the rest of Canada.

And this works the other way round, too, with the people of the First Nations, the indigenous peoples. They frequently mistrust their Provincial Governments, and look to the federal Government to be their protector and the guarantor of their rights. The Indian peoples live in areas (not exactly reservations) all over the country and enjoy certain tax breaks (duty free cigarettes and the right to grow their own tobacco to make “smokes”), but poverty, alcoholism and mutual suspicion between them and their “second” nation neighbours still exist, but relations and conditions, especially in education and cultural support, are generally better in Canada than south of the border. The creation in 1999 of the Nunavut, a massive territory in the far north, which was carved out for an 85% indigenous, mostly Inuit population was a method of nation building within a nation, only possible in a federal system (Were Nunavut a country, it would be the 13th largest in the world, again demonstrating the vastness of Canada).

Quebec is suspicious of immigration, as it is perceived as a threat to their cultural heritage which must not be diluted, but federally, in the rest of Canada, immigration is welcomed. Like its native reptiles and birds, the majority live along its southern border, going further north a little way on each coast. Toronto is the largest city (with 4.7 million), followed by Montreal (3.6 million), Vancouver (2.1 million), Ottawa and Calgary (about 1 million each) and Quebec (725.000). There is so much uninhabited terrain, (albeit a high proportion of which is uninhabitable) that there is room for all.

Canada depends on continuing immigration to ensure it survives economically and as a nation, and to do that it must embrace and manage its multiculturalism and multiple identities, and somehow forge an identity for Canada from it. The Government regularly measures “national pride” (i.e. pride in Being a Canadian), and finds that the longer an immigrant lives in the country, the more he participates in elections, and the more proud he feels to be Canadian. The Quebecois vote more than any other province, and members of the First Nations the least.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (which became part of the constitution in 1982) states that these rights and freedoms apply to everyone in Canada, irrespective of citizenship or legal status, and even illegal immigrants have the same rights as Canadian citizens. Federalism is the mechanism which allows nations to exist within a nation; and the sense of belonging and of identity to come from participation in the democratic process and mutual defence of those civil rights enshrined in the constitution. Those two factors provide the glue of nationhood, and not the variable geometry of ethnic attachments and allegiances. This may seem a little “thin” as a classification of identity, but in such a huge and diverse country, it is a start. Canada’s democracy is not perfect – many criticise the Westminster/Cabinet system for its lack of transparency – but federalism does at least provide the checks and balances which prevent power being centralised.

A successful federation depends on many factors, but a democratic system which is transparent, efficient and, above all, trusted, provide its bedrock. Europe¹s institutions are none of the above yet, and if we are to move towards federalism, and a version of the Canadian model, these must be reformed. The Canadian experiment is a nation building one, and is far less shackled by history than Europe. Hopefully, this experiment will succeed, and strengthen and expand, and not fragment as all the European empires of the past have done. Canada’s Brave New World might show the more craven older one a way forward.

Wendy Kyrle-Pope would like to thank Professor Keith Banting and the Canadian High Commission in London. This article first appeared in and is reproduced by permission of Liberator magazine The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. March 2008.

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