Canada's Democratic Example from Quebec
Many geopolitical disputes and conflicts start as disputes over territory, either because one country wants to take land from another, or because a region within a country wants to separate or have more autonomy. Although these situations are often violent and frequently produce atrocities as with the current situation in Ukraine, at times it’s limited to the jailing of those seen as taking part in sedition for organizing political movements or referendums, as in Catalonia in Spain a few years ago.
Yet modern Canada has been one of the few countries to use truly democratic means to resolve disputes over land and politics. Organizing not one but two referendums on the independence of a region within our borders is something unheard of in the rest of the world. We have even been open to holding a third referendum if there were enough support within Quebec.
Canada’s response was of course not perfect, and there have been many articles and books written by both sides of the Quebec independence movement about the shortcomings of our approach. Still, the fact remains that we avoided major bloodshed and violations of civil rights, with the worst period in the Quebec independence saga being the October Crisis of 1970. Although something that everyone would have preferred to avoid, it certainly pales in comparison to what we’ve seen in other democratic countries like Spain in 2017-2018 and Ukraine since 2014.
The reasons for Canada’s success in this area are not easy to pin down, and there are certainly different opinions on the subject. A few of the more common explanations are strong democratic roots in Canada as well as respect for the ideals of self determination over nationalistic identities; an almost entirely pacifist sovereignty movement within Quebec; the existence of political parties that allowed those seeking independence to be represented within the system; and a general lack of outside interference from other countries.
This is certainly not to say that Canada’s experiences were painless. Many within Quebec suffered financially and emotionally from the political instability created by decades of constitutional wrangling and debate. Doubts about what an independent Quebec would look like are thought to have significantly held back economic development in the province from the early 1970s until the sovereignty movement began to lose support in the mid 2000s. As well, many people felt the need to relocate from Quebec to neighbouring regions like Ontario, especially in the 1970s.
Still, the fact remains that after many years of debate and soul searching, Canada is still a unified country, and has avoided the simmering resentment that results from military conquest or systemic infringements of rights and freedom. Although our country has always been a looser confederation than many others, we continue to have shared national values and at least a general sense of common identity.
As we have witnessed the global reemergence of nationalism over the past number of years, and in many cases armed conflict and bloody atrocities to enforce geopolitical goals, the world could benefit from looking to Canada’s democratic example with Quebec.