Gregory Baum on nationalism

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Gregory Baum on nationalism
in La Presse, Saturday, February 16, 2002

Unofficial translation of Gregory Baum sur le nationalisme by Gérald LeBlanc in La Presse, Saturday, February 16, 2002

Professor Gregory Baum, 78 years old, is one of the rare intellectuals of Quebec who circulates on the two sides of the linguistic border. On the occasion of the publication of his last book, Le Nationalisme: perspectives éthiques et religieuses, our journalist met with him.

Born in Berlin in 1923 of a Protestant father and a Jewish mother, Gregory Baum converted to Catholicism, gave up promising studies in mathematics to become a theologist, took refuge in Canada, where he was initially interned during the war, was a professor for 28 years at the University of Toronto and teaches in Montreal since 1986.

It is almost unjust to state his age, since this man carries who's always smiling carries his 78 years very well and do not at all prevent him from giving his courses at McGill University, conferences throughout the world - in German, English and French -, and counselling the bishops as well as writing books.

His 21st book, Nationalism, Religion and Ethics, is on sale since recently. It is an essay on the conditions required for nationalism to be acceptable, nationalism being this multiform reality, sometimes imperialist, sometimes anticolonialist, sometimes liberating and sometimes destructive.

Before examining this important work, translated into French as Le Nationalisme: perspectives éthiques et religieuses, it is necessary to return to its author, a man who never ceased throwing bridges between religions and men, particularly between Canadians and Quebecers.

"Everyone likes me, it is my neurosis", says he, with his eternal good child smile, when one asks him how he manages to unceasingly adapt to new ideas and new individuals.

For 16 years in Montreal, he has been one of the rare intellectuals to circulate regularly across the two sides of the linguistic border, teaching at McGill but collaborating closely with the teams of the Relations journal and the Justice et Foi group. "To my friends at the Centre justice et foi", did he dedicate his last work.

Montréal or Toronto?

It is not necessary to ask to the bridge thrower to choose between Montreal and Toronto, the metropolises of Quebec and Canada.

"When I am in Toronto, I am well. It is the same thing in Montréal, because I discover a city through the friends that I make there. In Toronto, I militated in the left-wing groups, the Canadian Civil Liberty Association and the New Democratic Party.

"In Montreal, where the French-speaking people welcomed me with opened arms, I also found myself in the Christian circles of the left, in particular with the Ligue des droits de la personne and among the Jesuits of Relations."

Nationalist in Toronto, Gregory Baum was also nationalist in Montreal, but discovered here an enormous difference between the two forms of attachment to the nation.

"My Quebec friends, whether liberal or pequist - he does not see a fundamental difference between Sovereignty-Association and the renewed federalism of those who recognize Quebec as a nation - were all nationalists. I thus looked closer into this current, which did so much damage in my country of origin. It is then that I studied four important religious thinkers to highlight the ethical standards allowing one to find himself in this complex and polymorphic current."

In Toronto, nationalism was, according to professor Baum, the business of the intellectuals and a few politicians who wanted to prevent American invasion, while in Quebec it is a popular movement.

"Quebec nationalism is deeply rooted in the experience of a people, conscious that the identity shared by the majority of its members does not find its rightful place in the space which it is being assigned inside the Canadian federation", he writes in the epilogue of his last book.

This last chapter was added at the request of the editor to force the author to position himself personally and to give his opinion on the nationalist struggle shaking Quebec.

He takes the occasion of this chapter to write about a people rooted in 300 years of history and eager to welcome others as full citizens. A movement complying, according to him, to the norms enacted by the bishops in 1979 and which we reproduce in the encadré.

Gregory Baum would rather that Quebec remains inside Canada, but for as a long as Canada will not be able to recognize the nation of Quebec - also those of the aboriginals -, he will vote YES in the referendums on the sovereignty of Quebec.

The English do not understand

If things seem so clear and so easy to understand for a citizen of German extraction having lived 28 years in Toronto, how is it then that the majority of the English Canadians, and even of Anglo-Quebecers, do not recognize the legitimacy of the linguistic and national claims of Quebec?

"Immigrants, writes he, know how fragile their language is, but I discovered that the English speakers, whose language makes it possible to come into contact with the rest of the world, seize only with great difficulty the brittleness of the other languages." One should not, according to him, see mischievousness there, but an incapacity arising from the status of the English language in the contemporary world, for the first time a universal tool of communication.

"It is possible, he adds, to move to Montreal, to teach there for 25 years in an English-speaking university without learning how to speak French. Not knowing the language, not living closely with French-speaking Quebecers and not getting their information from their media, the English cannot understand the importance of the status of nation for Quebecers.

"I believe, he says, that the majority of the English Canadians do not realize that by defining Canada as a country made out of 10 equal provinces, the Constitution of 1982 violated the conscience that Quebec has of forming a distinct nation.

"Unless one has had a personal experience of this distinct nature and has been a witness to the spontaneous conscience that Quebecers have of it, it is impossible for the remainder of the country to understand what the status of nation for Quebec represents here.

"It is ironic and even dramatic, he adds during the interview, that it is French-speaking people from Québec, initially Pierre Trudeau then Jean Chrétien and Stéphane Dion, who convinced English speakers of the accuracy of their vision of Canada as only one nation."

This incapacity of Canadians to put themselves in the skin of Quebecers became so obvious to Gregory Baum and his wife, originating from Ontario, that they avoid talking about Quebec when they visit his step-family.

  • Le nationalisme: perspectives éthiques et religieuses, Gregory Baum, translated from English by Albert Beaudry, Éditions Bellarmin, 1998, 196 pages.
  • "Nationalism, Religion and Ethics", Gregory Baum, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001, 165 pages.

See also

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