Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Blame Canada (or maybe just its press)

with one comment

By Julian 

If you came across a newspaper headline that reported, “remark reveals underlying narcissism, analysts say” who do you think the story would be about? You could be forgiven for assuming the article might profile, Newt Gingrich, the self-proclaimed world-class historian, moon bases advocate, and “teacher of the rules of civilization.” On the other hand, maybe you’re thinking that the story profiled the recent college graduate who applied for a finance job at J.P. Morgan by bragging about his ability to bench press double his body weight and do 35 chin-ups? Obviously, the headline could describe any number of things uttered by Donald Trump.

If you’re familiar with Canadian politics, however, there’s probably a good chance you correctly guessed that the headline described the psychological condition supposedly afflicting federal Member of Parliament, Justin Trudeau. The son of a famed Canadian Prime Minister, Trudeau received a virtual tarring and feathering in the Canadian press this past week because of some comments he made about Quebec separatism. In the offending remarks, he explained that as,  “I always say, if at a certain point, I believe that Canada was really the Canada of Stephen Harper — that we were going against abortion, and we were going against gay marriage, and we were going backwards in 10,000 different ways — maybe I would think about making Quebec a country.” In short, if Canada ever moved so far to the right that it became unrecognizable, a wintery East Texas on the 49th parallel—well, if that day ever came, Trudeau might be open to the possibility of Quebec forming its own country.  Still, in no uncertain terms, Trudeau rejected separatism. Instead, he argued that Quebecers (who tend to be more socially progressive than the rest of the country) had an important role to play spreading their values across Canada.

Were Trudeau's remarks on Quebec separatism simply a beard for his beard?

The responses to this story in Quebec and in the rest of Canada are instructive. In Quebec, views like Trudeau’s are utterly uncontroversial. In the 1995 referendum on sovereignty, 49% of Quebecers voted for independence. While support for separatism has declined somewhat since then, 60% of Quebecers still identify primarily or exclusively with Quebec.  And these numbers are significantly higher when you poll only Quebec’s French-speaking majority. Even the current Prime Minister, Steven Harper, has officially recognized that the Quebecois form a unique “nation”—with their own language, culture, and history—within Canada.  The only reason Trudeau’s remarks initially received any attention in Quebec was because they avoided the polemical flourishes against separatists, which helped make his father, Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, so famous.

If you read the press outside of Quebec, however, you might have thought that had Trudeau called for armed insurrection. In Parliament, Conservative MPs attacked his loyalty. Pundits lashed out at Trudeau’s supposed ignorance, immaturity, and vanity. So did several political scientists: one even went so far as to label his remarks “treasonous.” In Quebec, what looks like a nuanced position in favor of national unity, seems closer to separatist posturing in much of the rest of the country.

Estimated cost to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee 7.5 million. The Queen's picture on a bilingual stamp, priceless.

The context for the “Trudeau Affair” is the fact that Canadians have recently elected their first majority Conservative government in almost two decades. After only a few months in office, the Conservatives have moved the country sharply to the right. The government  has reduced restrictions on gun control, passed a crime bill that relies almost exclusively on harsher sentencing, and have strongly hinted at reducing pensions for the elderly. To defend deeply controversial environmental and Internet surveillance policies, conservative ministers have lashed out at their opponents as agents of liberal billionaire George Soros and child pornographers (I’m not kidding). In terms of Canadian identity, the government has made major efforts to strengthen the country’s ties to the British monarchy (which will probably never be something very popular in Quebec).

Fortunately, many Canadians—not just Quebecers—reject the atavistic impulse to return their country to the halcyon days of the British Empire. While the Conservative Party formed a majority government in the last election, it received less than 40% of the votes cast. It also turns out that numerous law-abiding Canucks don’t like having their ministers accuse them of supporting “the pedophiles” when they  oppose unlimited government surveillance.  In fact, the comment sections on the many articles denouncing Trudeau were filled with citizens from across the country sympathetic to his views. These readers empathized with Trudeau’s frustration at divisive right-wing politics and realized that he was in no way endorsing separatism.

While Quebec might be a distinct society, nation-wide dissatisfaction with the Conservative government may yet provide some hope for national unity.

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Written by Julian Nemeth

February 19, 2012 at 22:22

One Response

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  1. You Canadians and your culture wars!

    Andrew Hartman

    February 23, 2012 at 21:37


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