This article is part of MJPS’ February Feature: the Rise of Nationalism. The rest of the articles in the series can be found here.

Nationalism is defined by the Canadian encyclopedia as “the doctrine or practice of promoting the collective interests of a national community or state above those of individuals, regions, or other nations.” In the Canadian context, this has most notably manifested in attempts to gain stronger recognition, or even independence, of Quebec. Other groups within Canada have also pursued similar objectives, albeit with a weaker force.

The Politics of Recognition, by Catharina O’Donnell

Famed Canadian philosopher (and McGill professor) Charles Taylor argues that a driving force behind nationalist movements is “the need, sometimes the demand, for recognition.”[1] According to Taylor, individuals wish both to be equal to one another, and recognized as unique. The dialectical nature of the politics of dignity and the politics of difference thus create situations where these desires come into conflict with one another.

This dilemma manifested in 1982, with debates over the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights. The Charter aimed to establish a clear set of rights which would apply to all Canadians and could be used as a basis for judicial review. The document, which put all Canadians on equal footing, fulfilled the fundamental desire to be equal to one another, as described by Taylor. What it did not satisfy, however, is the need to be recognized as unique. Taylor argues, “the question had to arise how to relate this schedule [of rights] to the claims for distinctness put forward by French Canadians, particularly Quebeckers, on the one hand, and aboriginal (sic) peoples on the other.”[2]

The desire for recognition has always existed, according to Taylor. This desire has only intensified  in recent decades due to increasing equality between groups. Increasing institutional equality has led some groups to fear losing their distinct identity, resulting in a heightened desire for recognition. This phenomenon has manifested in a wide variety of ways in contemporary Canada. Canada has experienced a broad spectrum of nationalist sentiments, from pushes for Quebec sovereignty, to reactionary white nationalist movements. Nations within Canada have generally not been able to find recognition in the political sphere, and have thus turned to social movements in order to fulfill their desire for recognition.

The Canadian flag. Photo by Alirod Ameri, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Political Barriers to Representation, by Olivier Bergeron-Boutin

Though failure to be properly recognized is not unusual for nations subsumed in a larger polity, Canadian political institutions exacerbate this problem by incentivizing the formation of “big tent” parties. The single-member plurality system of voting, commonly called first-past-the-post, all but forces major parties to appeal to a broad electoral coalition in order to compete for power. Competition for votes pushes parties towards the median voter so as to attract wide support, which marginalizes the voices of minority groups and radicals.

In and of itself, this is not so problematic: minor parties that do not seek majority support can, and frequently do, fill the gap left by the “Big Three.” The most prominent example of this phenomenon is the Bloc Québécois, which has exclusively represented the province of Québec in Parliament for nearly 30 years. However, first-past-the-post more often than not renders minor parties politically irrelevant by producing strong, stable majorities in the legislature. In most cases, the ruling party can afford to ignore the policy preferences  of other formations in Parliament, and govern on the basis of its numerical superiority. The longstanding tradition of party discipline in Canada reinforces this phenomenon: legislative defections are rare, which solidifies the confidence with which leaders shun members of the opposition groups.

Voting behavior is also altered by the institutional structure: voters are likely to cast their ballots strategically by supporting the least bad of the major options. For many, a vote for a defeated candidate is a “wasted” vote. This logic applies even to candidates who are successful, but who belong to a party that is sure to be outnumbered, and thus hapless, in Parliament.

The result is that even if the interests of a specific minority are represented in Ottawa, its effectiveness at pursuing its goals  is most likely severely limited. The various forms of proportional representation systems could alleviate this problem and allow different nations within the same political entity to feel recognized as distinct. The example of Israel is in this respect informative: the formidable ethnic and religious diversity of the country is represented in the proportionally-elected Knesset, the national legislature in which no party holds more than a quarter of the seats. Such an institutional structure often gives minority groups an outsize influence on the direction of public policy, which is both compatible with the principles of Canadian federalism and conducive to improved integration of these groups.

The Chamber in the House of Commons. Photo by Renato Lorini, via Flickr Creative Commons.

The Manifestation of Nationalism as Social Movement, by Jean-Philippe Roch

The current electoral system in Canada allows regional political parties, such as the Bloc Quebecois, to receive a wider share of seats than their popular vote. Despite this, they remain a minority because they represent fringe views which are generally considered too radical by the larger parties. Since these groups cannot represent their views as to make them progress, they will often develop into social movements. The Quebec-based group La Meute is an example .

La Meute promotes itself as a social movement in favor of the religious neutrality of the state and in favor of free speech. It also explicitly claims that it is “not racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynist nor Islamophobic,” but also calls for people to “wake up and face those who are threatening the West” by putting in place “koranic tribunals.” At the very least, this spreads fear that the West is being invaded and blames “radical Islam.” However, how does this group define “radical Islam?”

Like the Arts Undergraduate Society, La Meute condemned Quebec’s Bill 62. However, the groups did not have the same reason; La Meute claims that the Bill does not go far enough because it still allows the tchador, the niqab and the hijab.  It seems that their definition of the “invasion of the West” and “radical Islam” is embodied in people who wear these pieces of clothing. La Meute implies that moderate Muslims are invading the West. How does this connect to recognition within parties and in society in general? The current head of La Meute is the former NDP and Bloc Québécois MP Claude Patry, who had left the NDP because he thought that “it privileged the interests of Canada against those of the nation of Quebec.” This suggests that nationalist sentiment does not have its place in the major federal political parties. Consequently, Patry abandoned the political party to join a fringe group in order to accurately represent his own views. Patry’s experience exemplifies the nationalist trend in Canada. Rather than relying on political parties, nations turn instead on social movements to campaign for their causes.

The Quebec flag. Photo by Michael Swan, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Civil Society: A Space for Social Movement, by Patricia Sibal 

La Meute is just one of many social movements in Canada that take to civil society to advance their agendas. Most significantly, Indigenous peoples have used social movements to advocate for greater recognition after many failed attempts to bring an indigenous party into Parliament. The most prolific of these parties was the First Peoples National Party of Canada, which was founded in 2004 and voluntarily deregistered in 2013, never electing a member to the House. In contrast, indigenous grassroots movements have seen widespread success in civil society. The Idle No More movement in 2012 drew national support and resulted in a 1000-person protest on Parliament Hill, a CN rail spur blockade, and numerous demonstrations across Canada and in the US. Idle No More, along with the work of other indigenous activists, have brought indigenous issues to the national sphere of attention. In this case, social mobilization has resulted in political response, as all the major political parties have started to promise greater commitment to addressing indigenous concerns in their party platforms.

Civil society has also been the realm in which far-right nationalist movements mobilize. First Past The Post all but ensures these movements will never sit in Parliament, which has resulted in assembly into social movements, instead. A study by Barbara Perry, a leading scholar of hate crimes, concluded that there are about 100 active white nationalist groups in Canada. Last Canada Day, a group called the Proud Boys of Canada disrupted an indigenous event in Halifax; the group’s slogans include “West is Best,” and “I won’t apologize for creating the modern world.” Last August, an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rally took place at Vancouver City Hall, led by the Canadian chapter of the World Coalition Against Islam (WCAI) and the Cultural Action Party (CAP).

“Idle No More” rail blockade. Photo by “the Indignants,” via Flickr Creative Commons.

While fringe groups face significant structural obstacles to attaining political representation, they have not surrendered the battle for power. The most prominent example of this is the white nationalist  Canadian Nationalist Party. The party’s main goal is to “maintain the demographic status of the current European-descended majority,” through policies such as reduced immigration and withdrawal from transnational agreements. Although the government structure has kept CNP out of political office, the party’s existence and activity indicates that nationalist political movements are alive and well, and will continue to push for representation.

Conclusion: A Place for Nationalism in Canadian Politics

Canada’s political structure has successfully pulled parties to the centre, and this moderating force is in many ways a positive feature of the Canadian political system. However, these political barriers have not eliminated the desire for recognition amongst Canada’s many diverse nations, and likely never will. The desire for recognition has instead pushed nations to form social movements to pursue their goals. In Canada, nationalism may be seemingly absent from the top levels, and the structural constraints of the political system will likely maintain this status quo. But make no mistake – nationalism survives, and thrives, in the form of social movement.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Feature Image by Alirod Ameri, via Flickr Creative Commons.

[1] Taylor, Charles. The politics of recognition. 1995. Page 25.

[2] Taylor, Charles. The politics of recognition. 1995. Page 52.