Jane Jacobs

The Question of Separatism




This is Chapter One of The Question of Separatism. The Chapter is appropriately titled Emotion, because the entire question of separatism is tinged with strong emotions that very often refrain people from articulating rational statements concerning the matter. Jane Jacobs exposes some of these irrational feelings and positions in a calm and precise way.



Chapter One


It's hard even to think about separatist movements or secessions because the idea is so charged with emotion. Sometimes people literally acknowledge this when they say "It's unthinkable." Nationalist emotions are dangerous, of course. They've helped fuel many a war, many an act of terrorism, many a tyranny. But they are valuable emotions, too. One thing they mean is that we are profoundly attached to the community of which we are part, and this attachment includes for most of us our nation. We care that we have a community. We care how our nation fares, care on a level deeper by far than concern with what is happening to the gross national product. Our feelings of who we are twine with feelings about our nation, so that when we feel proud of our nation we somehow feel personally proud. When we feel ashamed of our nation, or sorrow for it, the shame or the sorrow hits home.

These emotions are felt deeply by separatists, and they are felt equally deeply by those who ardently oppose separatists. The conflicts are not between different kinds of emotions. Rather, they are conflicts between different ways of identifying the nation, different choices as to what the nation is. 

For separatists in the Canadian province of Quebec, the nation is Quebec. For their opponents, either inside the province or outside it, the nation is Canada-including-Quebec. Canadians who are indifferent to the question of Quebec separatism are likely either to identify primarily with their own province, such as Newfoundland or British Columbia, or else to identify with a Canada which - for all they care emotionally - may or may not include Quebec. That is how I feel about the question. I will not try to justify it as rational, because the fact is that on some level of sheer feeling, not of reason, Quebec seems to me to be already separate and different from what I understand as my own national community. Not that Quebec seems to me inferior, or threateningly strange, or the wrong way for a place to be, or anything of that sort. It's just not my community.

Trying to argue about these feelings is as fruitless as trying to argue that people in love ought not to be in love, or that if they must be, then they should be cold and hard-headed about choosing their attachment. It doesn't work that way. We feel; our feelings are their own argument.

The irrationality of all this shows up in universal patterns of inconsistency. De Gaulle, who said "Vive le Québec Libre!," never said "Vive la Provence Libre!," nor "Long live a free Brittany!" He could feel for separatists abroad but not for separatists at home.

That pattern is usual and ordinary, perhaps always has been. The same Englishmen who ardently favored Greek independence from Turkish rule in the nineteenth century did not therefore also campaign for Irish independence from English rule. Rationally, the one would certainly follow from the other; emotionally, no. British support of Pakistani separatists at the time when India became independent did not imply any comfort or support for Scottish nationalists. Just so, many a Canadian who opposes Quebec separatism was sympathetic to the unsuccessful Biafran secessionist movement in Nigeria. I know some of those people. The same Canadians who can argue eloquently that justice and good sense, both, are on the side of Esthonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Basque, Croatian, Walloon, Kurdish or Palestinian separatists can maintain that Quebec separatists must be out of their minds to want something unnecessary and impractical.

 Separatists are quite as rationally inconsistent themselves. If and when they win their way, they always promptly forget their championship of self-determination and oppose any further separation at home. The colonies that became the United States declared their independence on the grounds that their grievances made it "necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them." It has often been remarked how inconsistent that ringing declaration is with the war waged by the Union against the secessionist Confederate States some four score and seven years later.

Today's newly independent nations are one and all against their own separatists or potential separatists, As one student of government has put it, "Leaders of these new regimes are desperately concerned to argue that self-determination can be employed once in the process of securing independence . . . but that it cannot be resorted to subsequently." (David Cameron, Nationalism, Self-Determination, and the Quebec Questuin, 1974) Finland, after having achieved independence from Russia in 1918, promptly refused the right of self-determination to Aland, a cluster of islands between Sweden and Finland populated by ethnic Swedes who sought to join their homeland. Pakistan, having won its own separation, went on to fight the separation of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. And so on. We may be sure that if Quebec eventually does negotiate a separation, it will oppose adamantly, whether then or thereafter, any separations from Quebec. That is the way all nations behave, no matter how old or young, how powerful or weak, how developed or undeveloped, or how they themselves came into being. But this behavior appears inconsistent only in the light of reason. The consistency is emotional and unreasonable.

These emotions are of course always being presented as reasoned and reasonable, but that does not always stand up to inspection. Take, for instance, the word "Balkanization." Spoken with the ring of authority, “Balkanization” can be made to sound like a compressed history lesson proving the folly of small sovereignties. But what about the Balkans, really?

Before they became small and separate sovereignties, the Balkans had been portions of very large sovereignties indeed, the Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires. As portions of great sovereignties they had lain poor, backward and stagnant for centuries, so that was their condition when at last they became independent. If a fate called Balkanization has any meaning at all, it must mean that the Balkans were somehow made to be poor, backward and generally unfortunate by having been cut up small, but this is simply untrue. Or else it has to mean that if Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania had been joined together in one sovereignty after World War I, or perhaps had been united with Greece to form a still larger sovereignty, they would be better off now. Who knows? In the nature of the thing there is no shred of evidence either to support such a conclusion or to contradict it.

Consider a scholarly-sounding prediction like this one for Canada if Quebec should separate. "Deprived of real authority or purpose, the federal state would simply disintegrate, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918." This statement appears in a new work by a professor of political science at the University of Alberta. The trouble with his analogy is that the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not disintegrate as a result of a successful secession. The empire had its separatists, especially in the Balkans, some of whom were violent, but the central authority managed to keep the movements in check. The empire was defeated in a great war, and as it lay prostrate it was deliberately dismembered by the conquerors. The analogy to Canada is so far-fetched historically and so specious factually that we can only understand it rationally as a cry of anguish - not a true account of how things are in Canada, but probably a true account of the depth and desperation of the professor's emotions.

Similar, or even identical, as their underlying themes may be, all separatist movements have their own stories and their own circumstances. In Quebec, separatist sentiment has its old and its new story. The old story began in 1759 when imperial Britain defeated imperial France on the heights above Quebec City during the Seven Years' War, and by right of conquest, ratified by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, took over some 65,000 French colonists who came with the territory.

The conquered Quebecois were not mistreated or notably oppressed in comparison with what has happened to many of history's losers. For instance, unlike the Acadians (French colonists in what has become New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) they were not booted off their lands and driven away. Compared with what happened in Ireland or Scotland, the history of Quebec is a gentle story indeed. Only once, in 1837, did Quebec rebellion or British repression flare into the open. By and large, each partner yielded to the other, even though grudgingly, when it felt compelled to. The English repeatedly made accommodations to French demands for local and provincial self-government, while at the same time hedging against French political power, as it grew provincially, by tying Quebec into a larger government - first into a joint government over Quebec and Ontario, then into the wider Confederation extending finally from sea to sea. For their part, the French repeatedly made their accommodations to English economic schemes, to the use of the English language in industry, commerce and secular higher education, and to the gradually eroding Quebec influence within the national government as English-speaking Canada outstripped Quebec in population and territory.

But even though it was hardly the stuff of high tragedy, the shotgun union of the two Canadas, French and English, proved neither happy nor fruitful. Each partner kept hoping, in vain, to reform the other into something closer to its heart's desire. The English were disappointed by the obstinate refusal of the French to give up their language and customs and assimilate into the society of their conquerors, then became exasperated with the French as priest-ridden, tradition-bound, backward, clannish and occasionally sullen or riotous. The French resented English assumptions of superiority and English mastery over commerce and industry; they felt they were dominated, kept dependent, cheated of equality, threatened with loss of identity. While the mutual accommodations put a reasonably good face on the pain and unhappiness, the accommodations themselves, forced on each partner and begrudged by each partner, tended to become sources of new grievances and to feed resentments.

That was the old story. The new story began about 1960 with what is called the "quiet revolution." One of the partners actually did make itself over. After all those years of sulking and muttering, French Quebec suddenly became outgoing, educated, liberated, and went in for consciousness-raising. Dazzled and alarmed, the other partner tried to make itself over too - took some French lessons, paid compliments and vowed to remove any remaining impediments to harmony. But curiously enough, in view of so much change for the better, the thought of a separation was not laid to rest. Quebec took to discussing the possibility loudly and openly, right in public. The rest of Canada, by turns irritated and frightened, tried to remember most of the time that least said is soonest mended and told itself that with a little firm treatment, the passage of time, and some no-nonsense talk about economic realities, Quebec would get over its emotional jag or neurosis or instability or whatever this folly was, and surely come to its senses. With so much feeling in the air, nobody was doing much thinking or wondering about whether a logic of events might possibly underlie the new story and might tell more about the new separatism than recitals of the old grievances, the old disdains, the old prides.


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