Parliamentary International Forum
National Unity and Canadian Foreign Policy
25 March 1996

Catherine Cano

Mrs. Cano offered an insightful journalistic account of the Canadian foreign policy scene in the post-referendum period. Surveying how the international community reacted to our internal dilemma, she noted the feedback offered by many foreign governments. For example, President Clinton of the United States displayed satisfaction with the referendum outcome. Also suffering from intestinal crisis to its legitimacy, Russia shared American concerns. In fact, Both Moscow and Washington underlined the need for a strong, stable and united Canada. At the Commonwealth, the membership had validated the popular claim that a united Canada plays an important role in the organization and that any change in its situation would be a matter of great regret.

The only discordant note to be heard came from France. Essentially, French political leaders called upon the international community to respect the right for a collective to chart its own destiny, and consequently a Yes vote for political independence. As such, debate and attention focused on the short term consequences of the referendum and not on the potential long term repercussion.

As Catherine Cano demonstrated in two separate examples, the constitutional debate definitely effect Canada s international relations. The first example offered was that of the Commonwealth Summit recently held in New Zealand, and helped illustrate a possible erosion of Canada s international role. In an unprecedented move to expel Nigeria from the organization, Canada was the only state to strongly condemn the African regime for its Human Rights abuses. The Malaysian government subsequently reproved the Canadian delegation. Simply, Malaysia stated that the Commonwealth organization could not impose a single conception of democracy on it members and held that no country, not even Canada, had a clean slate with regard to the treatment of its minorities. Indeed, Prime Minister Chretien was able to argue the contrary, affirming that it is impossible to find a state where a referendum on the breakup of the country was permitted. Notwithstanding, Canada s capacity to play an important role traditionally conferred on middle powers was arguably tarnished.

Mrs. Cano also explored the federal-provincial dynamic at work within the case of the Francophonie. With the first ever Parti québecois government participation, Ottawa and Quebec found themselves jockeying for position and the favors of other delegations. For example, the traditional gift bearing ceremonies saw the Canadian and Quebec governments competing over whose gift was superior. The Federal Government had given a 5km stretch of road whilst Quebec had presented the host country a sum of $400 000 for the construction of a monument. Mr. Landry, Vice-Premier of Quebec, would ultimately see his presence as a success, stating that Quebeckers had been recognized internationaly even if his party had lost the referendum.

In retrospect, international headlines reflected events in Bosnia, Russia, human rights in Africa, and not in Canada. Although foreign interest over Canada s fate had indeed risen when Quebec secessionists seemed poised to win the referendum, it did not change the way others perceived our country. The federal government was swift to transmit a message of stability through our Peacekeeping engagements and in the Throne Speech. According to Catherine Cano, this situation is worrisome. Canada s breakup would change its role and membership in forums such as the G-7 and consequently the international landscape. In light of the way the constitutional debate unfolded, government s at home and abroad should be better prepared in the event Quebec became independent.

M. John Cruickshank


On the real big issues... there is a high level of unity [in Canada].

Mr. Cruickshank is particularly sanguine about the possibility of cooperation with an independent Quebec, and this, because of our shared interest and activism for international peace, justice and development. Yet this, according to Mr. Cruickshank, is not central to the unity debate per say. As a struggle about race, language and power, the Constitutional debate is essentially a negative influence to what constitutes a more authentic basis of Canadian unity. Contrary to the ethnic components which have been used to gradually dissolve this country, focus on national unity understands and represents a complex marriage of civic rights and values which are upheld by federalist and separatists alike. Respect for law, generosity for new comers and concern for environment --among other values-- are what have won respect from the international community.

As such, Cruickshank believes that accommodating exclusionary ideologies such as Nationalism erodes Canadian civic identity and empties it of all meaning. In this light, the endless constitutional debate can only hurt our country in that it gradually means less for Canada, less for our identity and less for the citizen to espouse. Unity, affirms Mr. Cruickshank, must therefore be about refusing the conditions that remain fixed in the current constitutional, ethno-centric debate. Civic life, peace, order and good governance is what Canada is about. Even with separation, there is no reason for changing this reality.

Richard Gwyn:

Richard Gwyn offered a more traditional perspective of the Canadian polity, arguing that past linkages which existed between Canada s foreign policy and the unity debate --such as the Conscription Crisis-- no longer persist. Rightfully, Mr. Gwyn did nonetheless assert that such events still offer insightful lessons about the social cleavages which can still be observed today. Essentially, divergent perceptions about the nature of our country continue to fashion the debate surrounding unity. In the past, francophone Quebeckers identified themselves as Canadiens, where as anglophone Canadians saw themselves as British North Americans. The conflict which existed more than half a century ago, affirmed the guest speaker, therefore remains practically unchanged. A new Qu‚b‚cois-Canadian dichotomy has essentially come to substitute and maintain the old identity cleavage and struggle which has characterized Canada s history. Effectively, it was argued that accommodating such differences in mechanisms such as a distinct society clause could only fail in meeting the needs of both Canada and Quebec. On one hand, massive decentralization would only counter the aspirations of English Canada. On the other, recognition of Quebec's distinct status as the cradle of French-Canadian culture could not be accepted without the accompanying security that only a legal and constitutional respect could confer. The preferred alternative, noted Mr. Gwyn, is Sovereignty-Association. Drawing on many bi-cultural parallels with Belgium, Robert Gwyn highlighted the positive results such an architecture could confer. First among these was the understanding which results from peace and accommodation. As such, sovereignty-association would permit Quebeckers a sort of soft independence and autonomy. For Canada, the benefit of ending such a long and divisive debate would be that of finally doing what it has internationally suggested to others, namely to accommodate a pluralistic society.