I know he’s said it many times before, and I know it’s the kind of thing that people say without blinking these days, and believe me I don’t expect anything better from any of the other leaders, but this is nevertheless an astonishing thing for anyone seeking to lead the country to say:
I know that the great majority of Quebecers consider that Quebec is their nation, and Canada is their country. I was the first to recognize that. I believe that one can be a Quebecer or a Canadian in the order that one desires.
Or at least it should be astonishing. I suppose I’d say I was astonished more people aren’t astonished, but I’m not even astonished by that any more.
The issue here isn’t whether Quebec is a nation: that’s a debate for another time. The issue is whether Canada is. In Ignatieff’s formulation, it’s just a country, at least to the “great majority of Quebecers.” Quebec is a nation, of that he has no doubt: but is Canada? And if so, are Quebecers part of it?
And whatever Canada is, the putative Prime Minister of Canada is quite content that it should take second place: that people’s first loyalty should be, not to the nation — whoops, country — he seeks to lead, but to something else. This at least has the virtue of clarity: another politician might utter the fatuity that you can have equal loyalty to two different things, because after all the two will never conflict.
But if they do? If there’s an issue that, God forbid, should ask people to put Canada’s interests, the interests of the whole nation/country, first? No, a Prime Minister Ignatieff would be content that Canada should, always, finish second. Presumably he is no less complaisant with other parts of the country putting their own selfish, narrow and particular interests ahead of the rest.
A nation — hell, even a country — cannot function that way. The whole point is that we make certain sacrifices for each other: that we compromise, at least some of the time, in the interest of the greater good. The only way people will do that is if they are willing to put Canada, on occasion, first. And the job of a Prime Minister of Canada, you would think, is to ask them — no, not ask: implore, urge, demand — to do that.
“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Can you imagine any Prime Minister of Canada saying that? And is that to our credit? Or does it help to explain why we’ve spent the last 50 years teetering on the edge of destruction, making regular ransom payments to avert it?
So I think it would be appropriate to ask Ignatieff, and all the other leaders: Is Canada a nation? If so, are Quebecers part of it? And is it conceivable that anyone in Canada might ever have to put Canada first?
CODA: Never mind JFK. Try another thought experiment. The House of Commons famously passed a resolution declaring “the Québécois” to be a nation. Can you imagine the same House passing a resolution declaring Canada, or Canadians, to be a nation? Go ahead, try…