Progressive politics, ideas & culture


why is the left soft on separatism?

This Magazine Staff

I promised myself I wouldn’t write anything about the election results. To honour the Liberal’s victory, I shall now break that promise.
In discussing the election with my friends in Quebec, one thing that struck me was the number of left-leaning people I know who supported the Bloc Quebecois and who were happy enough at the thought of the BQ holding the balance of power in Parliament. The attitude seemed to be, “sure, they’re separatists, but they’re lefty separatists.”
People, people. Listen. The BQ may be mostly made up of lefties. But they’re separatists. And that should be the end of the discussion. Unfortunately it isn’t, so let’s go through the argument again.

The two big progressive sticks that Paul Martin was able to beat the Conservatives with were i) the woman’s right to control her body and to choose to have an abortion, and ii) the right of homosexuals to marry. Both of these are creatures of the Charter, which is why social conservatives love Parliamentary “free votes”, are wary of the Charter, and despise the judges who read gay rights into its equality section. That is also why many social conservatives are keen to use the Charter’s notwithstanding clause to override fundamental rights they don’t like.
What does this have to do with Quebec separatism?
A constitution does two important things. First, it sets out the basic law of the land, the principles according to which it shall be governed, and spells out the institutions that will enable the rule of law to function. Second, it quite literally “constitutes” the political community to which these laws and institutions apply. Separatism is an assault on both functions of the constitution. It rejects the very basis of the rule of law, and denies the validity of the duly constituted political community.
So, the possibility of Quebec (or Alberta, or BC, or Newfoundland) seceding is not just a question of whether this geographical expression called Canada will retain its political integrity, with everything else remaining the same. The threat of separation throws everything into play, by rejecting the idea of a single political community governed according to basic principles of justice. According to separatist logic, any identifiable group has the right to defect from the social contract if it does not like the terms or circumstances. It may be a question of language or ethnicity, but it might also be a question of religion, or even raw economic self-interest. So if Quebec has a “right” to secede on linguistic grounds, Alberta has a “right” to secede on economic grounds. If the political community is not settled, “they” can legitimately refuse to share “their” money with “us”.
So note carefully that the notwithstanding clause has been used but once by Saskatchewan and Alberta, and fifteen times by Quebec. This does not include the years 1982-1985 when Quebec prefaced every single piece of legislation with the notwithstanding clause, to protest the patriation of the constitution and make clear the Parti Quebecois’ contention that the constitution of Canada was a fraud.
This is where Quebec separatists and social conservatives find common ground. They both believe that the most profound political issues we face should be settled not by the rule of law underscored by basic principles of right, but by appeals to the ethnic or religious values of “the people.” They simply disagree on what the relevant group of “people” ought to be. Crucially, they both accept that it is legitimate to shrink the relevant community until you get the result you want. That is why most Alberta separatists are social conservatives.
Separatism is parochial mob rule of the worst kind. In supporting the Bloc Quebecois, leftists expose themselves as unmatched political cynics, betraying not only their country, but the “progressive” ideals they pretend to support.

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