There's a horrible, terrible joke that made the rounds of schoolyards and high school halls in Ontario, or at least my miniscule patch of it, in the years shortly after 1995. That was a strange time for my generation, when for the first time a lot of us really became aware of this this thing called "Canada," and that for whatever reason Quebec didn't want to be a part of it anymore. Here's how it goes, more or less:
A Newfoundlander, a Quebecker, and an Ontarian are walking along the beach. They find a lamp sticking out of the sand, and when they polish it a genie emerges in a puff of smoke.
"Thank you for freeing me!" says the genie. "In return, I will give each of you one wish." First he points to the Newfoundlander. "You, what is your wish?"
The Newfoundlander's clearly been waiting for this moment for a long time. "I wish," he says, "that the Grand Banks would be full of cod again like they were in my grandfather's day, and that no matter how many fish we catch they'll never go empty again."
"It is done." The genie snaps his fingers and the Newfoundlander is teleported to St. John's, where he immediately puts a down payment on a new trawler.
Next up is the Quebecker. "What wish shall I grant for you?" asks the genie.
"I wish," the Quebecker says, "for Quebec to be surrounded by a great wall, one mile tall and a thousand feet thick, so that nothing can get in or out and we can finally defend our great language and culture from the Anglo menace."
"It is done," the genie says, and the Quebecker disappears in a flash. He turns to the Ontarian. "Now, what do you wish for?"
"So let me get this straight," the Ontarian says. "There's a giant wall around Quebec, one mile tall and a thousand feet thick?"
"And nothing can get in or out?"
"Fill it with water."
Tasteless genocide-by-drowning aside, I think it taps into an important part of the discussion of independence vs. unity. In particular, it's a manifestation of the angry shock and bewilderment that some group might actually want to leave This Great Nation, and the belief that anyone who does want to leave deserves solely punishment and scorn. Nor is this unique to Canada. I suppose it's a result of political evolution, inasmuch as the successful states were those that did not permit secession.
Secession - now there's a word that, with its close cousin separatism, is halfway dirty, somewhere between "frig" and "fuck." To secede is to peek behind the curtain of the state, to reveal to the world that beneath all the bluster and platitudes and ceremonies of government it is, at its core, an artificial expression. Nations are real things, but states are fundamentally artifice. They're aware enough of it, too, to lash out without prejudice at any group that wants to go its own way.
"Fuck it. Let's be vindictive," writes Will Ferguson in Why I Hate Canadians, on the subject of a successful play for independence by Quebec. "...I say, scorch the earth! Salt the fields! Unleash the hounds! If we have to negotiate the breakup of our nation, let's go kicking and screaming all the way. Let's make the separatist bastards pay. Let's go out with a bang, not a whimper."
I'm well aware that Ferguson is exaggerating the situation for comic effect, but that sort of attitude is not an exaggeration for some people. There's always a patriotic corps that will not hear a word spoken against their country, that will fight tooth and nail to prevent it from being torn apart.
It all begs a question, though, one that's rarely asked louder than a whisper -- why would that necessarily be a bad thing?
Civil wars are one thing, and if they solve any question it's always with the same sort of answer the Romans gave Carthage. This was until recently the twentieth century, the age of democracy, and if a group democratically decides to separate itself from the greater state, who are we to say they can't? Confederation in Canada began as an amicable assembly of four provinces united for the common good, but where in the British North America Act or the Constitution does it say that Canada is a straitjacket? If Quebec wants to separate, if the people of Quebec decide that they'd rather take their chances on their own and under their own flag, let them go and good luck to them.
Personally, I'm satisfied that separatist sentiment in Quebec seems to be, for now, on the ebb. I have no doubt that tide will rise again soon, particularly if the economy keeps taking its lumps like a punch-drunk boxer. Though we're thankfully far from having soldiers in the streets of Montreal a second time, not all countries are as blessed with stability as Canada is. Last summer in South Ossetia, we saw the problems that come with clamping down on dreams of going one's own way. The Tamil Tigers have been trying to carve out a slice of Sri Lanka for themselves for years, and earlier this week tens of thousands of Tamil demonstrators clogged the streets of downtown Toronto in support of them.
In my opinion, we have to draw the line somewhere. There's no such thing as a sacred country. The sooner we realize that, the better, because from where I stand it looks like the twenty-first century is going to be the time when a lot of nations decide they want to have their own nation-states after all.