Harper Follows Treudeau as A Villain in French Canada

The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper has just caught the bull by the horns by declaring Quebec as a nation within Canada. The masterly stroke erased any scope by the Bloc Quebecois to form an independent nation which the Prime Minister categorically rejected. It sets the ball rolling for another mammoth round of negotiations between the Quebecois and the federalists within Canada, embers of which were being stoked for the past few years. But at least Harper has been bold enough to address the issue in no uncertain terms. This only brings back memories of those memorable days wherein the charismatic Pierre Trudeau rapidly acted to what then appeared to be a permanent closure of the issue of Quebec’s independence from Canada.

Pierre Trudeau an eternal Canadian nationalist is generally ascribed for building strong foundations of federalism in Canada in the turbulent period of the 1970’s and the 1980’s. He represented the quintessential Canadian liberal politician of his times, hobnobbing with the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono while imposing what some say the draconian War Measures Act in 1980 to quell the wave of terrorism unleashed by the separatists in Quebec. Unafraid to speak and act as per his personal proclivities in a World which was adjusting to the rise of Communism, Trudeau prevented its backlash into Conservatism and ultra nationalism as seen in Quebec; affect the country as a whole. His vision of nationalism included acceptance of plurality in a multi cultural state, represented by introduction of bilingualism in Canada at his behest. Pierre Trudeau came to be seen as a villain in French Canada due to his vitriolic contrarian personality, his espousal of the liberal ideology representing the virtual counter culture of the 1970’s and his strong espousal of federalism which came in direct confrontation with Quebec nationalism.

The contrarian liberal in Trudeau did an about turn, when confronted with the problem of separatist terrorism in October 1980. The firm action to quell terrorism through invocation of the War Measures Act was anathema to liberals, who never seem to have forgiven him. The creation of a multicultural society has been frequently construed as the creation of a British society with a Canadian identity. The other cultures in Canada including the French were deemed to be assimilated within this primarily anglophile culture of the country. This facet has rankled many French liberals, who deem that such a society has not emerged naturally but some how created by the likes of Trudeau. Some liberals even accuse him of creating stereo types with a view to construct an over arching structure of a nationalist government in the garb of liberalism.

While it was Trudeau who introduced official bilingualism in Canada, giving equality to French and English in all official services of the Federal government, the Francophiles saw it to be a measure towards a multi cultural society which was seemingly anathema to them. The liberals continued to ignore the fact that Trudeau ensured through his personal charisma and espousal of free ideals that the social transformation in Canada was brought about without causing revolutionary change. It is this social dynamism represented by Trudeau that could alter the polity in the country without any civil war.

The final issue which created antagonism against Trudeau amongst the French is the immensely emotive issue of Quebec’s sovereignty. As a champion of federalism and being in the office of the Prime Minister, Trudeau was able to influence the course by championing the cause of federalism against the call for Quebec nationalism given by Parti Quebecois led by Rene Levesque. While it goes to his credit that he ensured that the issue of sovereignty was resolved through the democratic process, it was his call for a new constitution in case Quebecois stayed with Canada that is said to have gone in favor of a majority vote for sovereignty.

This antipathy of the French in Canada towards Pierre was to remain and has somehow emerged as his lasting legacy in Quebec, obfuscating his major achievement in creating a federal structure which prevented fracturing of the nation, which would have proved disastrous for Quebec reducing it to a minority state. The French Canadians ascribe his strong measures by invoking the War Measures Act as central to break up of FLQ. However they frequently ignore, that the other options were hardly viable, return of chaos and mayhem of terrorism in the country which would have been detrimental for Canada’s political and economic growth. The route of democratization provided by him to the French Canadians and a peaceful path to their aspirations is frequently forgotten. Thus these detractors of Trudeau ascribe their defeat by democratic forces to the force of his personality, which may to an extent be partially true, but the birth of great nations has seldom taken place without the efforts of leaders of his caliber.

Stephen Harper will do well to study this period in Canadian history and see how one of his most charismatic and vitriolic predecessor handled the highly sensitive issue of Quebec’s separation activism. Only this time we hope he is able to permanently settle the issue.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.