Quebec: a modern, pluralist, distinct society

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Quebec: a modern, pluralist, distinct society
Will Kymlicka

Will Kymlicka's comments on the American debate about Multiculturalism.

In an article published in the American review Dissent, Will Kymlicka explains how the American debate about multiculturalism is having a pernicious influence in other countries, like Canada or Belgium. By defending a purely fluid, voluntary and cosmopolitan conception of multiculturalism, which reflects in a way the American society, many American authors tend to contrast it to a closed, static and involuntary conception. As Kymlicka points it out, these authors usually associate this closed conception of multiculturalism with minority nationalism, whether in Quebec or Flanders, Yugoslavia or Sri Lanka, without any further distinction. Kymlicka contends that this pernicious influence inhibits efforts to understand and accommodate minority nationalism. Furthermore, the multiculturalism Quebec society is trying to promote, far from being closed and static, contradicts the contention that minority nationalism is not compatible with a liberal conception of nationhood.

The followings are excerpts from Kymlicka's article. The author comments a book written by David Hollinger, Postehnic America. Beyond Multiculturalism (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

Will Kymlicka teaches political philosophy at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

Postethnic America


Consider the recent work of David Hollinger, whose Postethnic America is the most sophisticated defense of the consensus view. Hollinger distinguishes two kinds of multiculturalism: a "pluralist" model, which treats groups as permanent and enduring, and as the subject of group rights; and a "cosmopolitan" model, which accepts shifting group boundaries, multiple affiliations, and hybrid identities, and which is based on individual rights. As he puts it: "Pluralism respects inherited boundaries and locates individuals within one or another of a series of ethno-racial groups to be protected or preserved. Cosmopolitanism is more wary of traditional enclosures and favors voluntary affiliations. Cosmopolitanism is more wary of traditional enclosures and favors voluntary affiliations. Cosmopolitanism promotes multiple identities, emphasizes the dynamic and changing character of many groups, and is responsive to the potential for creating new cultural combinations."

Hollinger strongly defends the latter cosmopolitan form - "according to which individuals decide how tightly or loosely they wish to affiliate with one or more communities of descent" - while criticizing the former. He argues that this cosmopolitan model has worked well for white European immigrants to America in the past, and that it continues to work well for more recent immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. [...]

I am sympathetic to Holliger's view about the appropriate form of multiculturalism in America. And I think it can work for immigrant groups in many other countries as well. Indeed, the official "multiculturalism policy" adopted by the federal government in Canada in 1971 is largely inspired by this conception of how immigrant ethnicity should be handled. Some critics of this policy have argued that it falls into Hollinger's "pluralist" category; treating immigrant groups as fixed and self-contained entities. However, on inspection, it is clear that the multiculturalism policy in Canada, both in its intentions and consequences, is much closer to Hollinger's "cosmopolitan" version. It explicitly treats immigrant ethnocultural affiliation as voluntary and encourages the members of different immigrant groups to interact, to share their cultural heritage, and to participate in common educational, economic, political, and legal institutions. [...]

My worry, however, is about the applicability of this model to non immigrant groups, and in particular to groups that have been conquered or colonized, like the Québécois or indigenous peoples in Canada. These "nations within" were originally self-governing, and like other conquered or colonized peoples around the world, have consistently fought to gain (or rather regain) their autonomy, so as to maintain themselves as separate and self-governing societies. They call themselves "nations" and assert their national rights. And indeed both the indigenous peoples and the Québécois do have substantial autonomy within Canada: the former through the system of self-governing Indian bands: the latter through the system of federalism.

Hollinger never explicitly addresses the question of the rights of colonized or conquered peoples within liberal democracies or the legitimacy of the forms of minority nationalism adopted by such groups. But it is clear that he does not support minority nationalism, which he equates with the "pluralist" conception of multiculturalism. [...]

After all, the Québécois and indigenous peoples in Canada claim legally recognized rights of self-government over their traditional territories, and the justification for these claims is precisely that these societies were "well-established" prior to British dominion. Hollinger's theory seems to rule such nationalist claims out of court.

Hollinger's critique is explicit as well: he describes Québécois nationalism as the extreme form of "pluralist" multiculturalism, since it treats the Québécois as a permanent and enduring group and as the bearer of group rights. Indeed, he says it is a form of "ethnic nationalism" whose claims to self-determination are logically equivalent to racial segregation in the United States.

I think this argument reflects a common misunderstanding of the nature of minority nationalism. To see this, it is helpful to examine how minority nationalisms have been dealt with historically in Western democracies, including the United States.

Accommodating Minority Nationalism

Many Western democracies contain national minorities: Belgium (the Flemish), Britain (the Scots and Welsh), Switzerland (the French and Italians), Spain (the Catalans and Basques), and the Scandinavian countries (the indigenous Sami people). In most cases, these minorities were involuntarily incorporated into a larger stage, as a result of colonization, conquest, or the ceding of territory from one imperial power to another.

However they were incorporated, these national minorities have typically sought to gain or regain their self-governing powers so as to maintain themselves as separate and distinct societies alongside the majority. They seek control over the language and curriculum of schooling in their region of the country; the language of government employment, and the drawing of internal boundaries. They typically mobilize along nationalist lines, using the ideology of "nationhood" to describe and justify these demands for self-government. At the extreme, they may seek secession, but most of these national minorities have aimed instead for some form of regional autonomy.

How have Western democracies responded to such minority nationalism? Historically, the have tried to suppress them, often ruthlessly. [...] Canada stripped the Québécois of their French-language rights and institutions and redrew political boundaries so that the Québécois did not form a majority in any province; Canada also made it illegal for Aboriginals to forms political associations to promote their national claims.

These measures were intended to disempower national minorities and to eliminate any sense of a distinct national identity. Minorities that view themselves as distinct nations, it was said, would be disloyal and potentially secessionist. [...]

When a state attacks a minority's sense of nationhood, the result is often to promote rather than reduce the threat of disloyalty and secession. Recent surveys of ethnonationalist conflict around the world show that self-government diminishes the likelihood of violent conflict, while refusing or rescinding political rights is likely to escalate the level of conflict. In the experience of Western democracies, the best way to ensure the loyalty of national minorities has been to move from attack to accommodation. [...]

In short, an increasing number of Western democracies are multination-states, rather than nation-states. They accept that they contain two or more nations within their borders, and recognize that each constituent nation has a valid claim to the language rights and self-government powers necessary to maintain itself as a distinct culture. And this multinational character is often explicitly affirmed in the country's constitution. [...]

Minority Nationalism in the United States

Hollinger's critique of minority nationalism is out of step with the practice of other democracies. Nor does it reflect the American experience with minority nationalism. The U.S. includes several colonized groups that think of themselves as "nations within": for example, Puerto Ricans, the Chamoros of Guam, and the American Indians. These are the paradigm cases of minority nationalism within the United States. [...]

Postethnic Multiculturalism and Minority Nationalism

This raises a puzzle. If Hollinger is right that minority nationalisms are "ethnic nationalisms" based on the primacy of blood and descent, why have liberal democracies accommodated them? The short answer is that Hollinger has misinterpreted the nature of these nationalist movements.

Consider Quebec. Quebec accepts immigrants from all over the world: it has roughly the same per capita rate of immigration as the United States. Control over immigration is one of the powers Quebec nationalist have sought and gained, and the province administers its own immigration program, actively recruiting immigrants, most of whom are nonwhite. These immigrants are not only granted citizenship under relatively easy terms, but are encouraged by Quebec's own "interculturalism" policy to interact with the members of other ethnic groups, to share their cultural heritage, and to participate in common public institutions.

The result is just the sort of fluid hybridic multiculturalism within Quebec that Hollinger endorses. (Indeed, the level of acceptance of interracial marriage is considerably higher in Quebec than in the United States.) Far from trying to preserve some sort of racial purity, Quebec nationalists are actively seeking people of other races, cultures, and faiths to join them, integrate with them, intermarry with them, and jointly help build a modern, pluralist, distinct (French-speaking) society in Quebec.

Quebec is not unique in this. Catalan and Scottish nationalisms are also postethnic in Hollinger's sense. [...]

And the clear trend throughout most Western democracies is toward a more open and non racial definition of minority nationalism. In the case of Quebec, for example, the overwhelming majority of Quebecers forty years ago believed that to be a true Québécois one had to be descended from the original French settlers; today, fewer than 20 percent accept this view. [...]

Hollinger's argument reflects a common misconception about minority nationalism. There is a tendency to assume that it is the extreme form of "pluralist" multiculturalism, and hence diametrically opposed to any form of cosmopolitanism or postethnic multiculturalism. [...]

Insofar as it is guided by a liberal conception of nationhood, minority nationalism does not reject cosmopolitan multiculturalism: rather, it is a doctrine about the unit within which cosmopolitan multiculturalism should operate. Should this unit be Canada as a whole or Quebec? Spain as a whole or Catalonia? The United States as a whole of Puerto Rico? In none of these cases is the debate about the merits of postethnic multiculturalism: nor is it a debate between civic and ethnic nationalism. All these nations, majority and minority, share a civic, postethnic model in Hollinger's sense. The debate is whether there is just one civic nation within the state, or more. [...]

I agree that "the cosmopolitan element in multiculturalism is compatible with a strong affirmation of American nationality". But it is also compatible with the strong affirmation of Puerto Rican or Québécois nationality. If Québécois nationalism is "pluralist" because it implies that multiculturalism should operate within the stable and enduring boundaries of a Quebec nation, then so too is the American nationalism that Hollinger defends. Both involve the same combination of fluid multiculturalism within stable boundaries. And I can see no possible liberal justification for saying that Americans have a right to national existence but not Puerto Ricans of Québécois. [...] Does it Matter?

[...] Let me give two examples: Canada and Eastern Europe. English-speaking Canadians have been heavily influenced by American debates, and one consequence of this has been a reluctance to accord the Québécois the sort of public recognition of their national identity that they seek. The American influence has made it more difficult to come to an acceptable settlement with Quebec, even though, as I noted earlier, the United States itself is quite willing to extend this sort of national recognition to Puerto Rico. If American writers had emphasized that it was a part of the American practice to accommodate minority nationalisms, then I believe that Quebecers today would not be so close to seceding from Canada.

The situation is Eastern Europe is even more serious. If Quebec were to secede, the result would probably be two relatively stable liberal democracies in the northern half of the continent, instead of one. [...]