, Salem, MA


March 22, 2014

Shribman: Et tu, Quebec?


Meanwhile, other vital questions go begging. Quebec’s unemployment rate rose to 7.8 percent last month, up from 7.5 percent. A poll commissioned by the Globe and Mail newspaper, rooted in Toronto, found that 85 percent of Quebecers want to hear more about the economy and job creation, with 69 percent wanting to hear less about Quebec sovereignty.

For Americans, the situation here is baffling. The United States fought a bloody war over the secessionist impulse 150 years ago, though slavery was arguably the pre-eminent issue. Yet Woodrow Wilson, in his World War I-era Fourteen Points and later at the Paris Peace Conference, stood firmly for self-determination, though the phrase was deftly used by Russian revolutionaries in the hope that the movement, spurred by disillusion with Europe’s dynastic empires, might speed the dissolution of those empires.

The nation-building of an earlier time, particularly during the 19th century in Italy and Germany, was prompted by centripetal forces that brought peoples together. The nation-building of our time, especially in the former Czechoslovakia, Spain, Belgium, Quebec and Crimea, is produced by centrifugal forces that pull people apart.

In “The Long Shadow,” a new book on the legacy of World War I to be published this spring, Cambridge historian David Reynolds explores this phenomenon. “Whereas Italy and Germany had been created through the unification of various local polities with similar language and culture,” he explains, “state building in eastern and southeastern Europe occurred through secession from dynastic empires that had hitherto controlled a volatile mix of ethnic groups in various stages of national self-consciousness and political mobilization.”

Those kinds of terms — “volatile” and “mobilization” — are seldom applied to the peaceable kingdom to the north of the United States. Perhaps their applicability to Quebec explains the ferment here.

But make no mistake. It is not only Quebec that is debating the future of the province in Canada. A great many Canadians elsewhere, weary of this fight, are debating it as well. Throughout this winter, snowy and cold, there has been a lot of heated national self-consciousness going around. It’s enough to make one wish the bars were open till 6 a.m.

North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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