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How a little bit of ignorance of the Two Solitudes can lead straight to failure (#227)

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Here is a great example, in my view, of how a little bit of “innocent ignorance” of the Two Solitudes can lead straight to failure.   It’s the unfortunate story of an intriguing grass-roots movement which firmly (but unknowingly) locked themselves into one of the two camps of the Two Solutudes.4.flg

An organization called the Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organization is proposing a freedom-of-movement agreement between Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.    If adopted, this means citizens of all four countries could freely move between, reside in, and work in each other’s countries without having to go through immigration formalities (it could mirror many aspects of the EU’s Schengen freedom-of-movement system),

I will say up front that, in principle, I support and endorse this initiative.

Some critics say that it would make more sense for Canada to engage in a free-movement union with the USA considering that Canada and the USA are each other’s two largest trading partners and that our level of interactions and shared “North American” culture are highly integrated.  However, I’m not sure that a USA-Canada freedom-movement agreement would be practical “at this stage”, simply because there remains many border-security issues which are quite important to US politicians (in spite of the Canada-USA “North American Perimeter” initiative).  I get the feeling US politicians wish to maintain “overall” control over their own USA borders (with Canada maintaining control over its own borders) instead of the US & Canada engaging in joint control over each other’s borders.  Therefore it looks like USA-Canada border controls will continue to exist as two separate systems for a very long time.

The other reason a Canada-US agreement would likely not be feasible (for the time being) is simply owing to a question of numbers.  Of Canada’s 35 million people, around 25 million (give-or-take) live in predominantly within the realms of the English-language.  25 million constitutes 7.8% of the USA’s population.   Let’s say that a free-movement agreement results in 5% of Canada’s and the USA’s population making the “move” (either permanently or for an extended period) to the other country.  This would mean 1,250,000 Canadians (presumably mostly Anglophone Canadians) would make the move to the USA, and 16 million Americans would make the move to Canada.   But there are only 25 million Anglophones in Canada.  Big Whoooooaaaa! + Ooops x 10!  Do you see the problem?   Unless these types of issues are worked out in advance (and I’m not sure how, unless someone comes up with some very creative policies), I don’t think such a freedom-of-movement association would make sense in the North American context – at least not for the time being.

But as for a freedom-of-movement agreement with the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand… this certainly is an interesting proposition.   Each country, as a whole, shares very similar

  • systems of government,
  • legislation,
  • standards of living,
  • economies,
  • education systems,
  • immigration systems, and
  • overall public and foreign policies

(The UK’s immigration and education systems, and various public/foreign policy objectives are somewhat more divergent than those shared between Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  But the gulf is not super-huge, no more than what it would be between France and Canada).

The above factors also make it so when people from countries who share many of the same points meet face-to-face (even if they are from different countries), there is an instant “sense” of familiarity (regardless if we are Francophone or Anglophone Canadians).   In the course of past careers, I, and numberous Canadian Francophone colleagues of mine have personally worked quite closely with a number of people from NZ, Australia and the UK … and its undeniable there is a natural comradery and unsaid mutual understanding which stems from common aspects of our society and governance systems (which we don’t necessarily share with the USA).

This is why I am in favour of a freedom-of-movement agreement between Australia, New Zealand and the UK.  Furthermore, our similar immigration/border legislation and legal processes would facilitate the fruition of such an agreement (as opposed to such an agreement with the US which would undoubtedly get caught up in Congressional wrangling – not to mention concerns regarding the “off-balance” population factor which I mentioned earlier).

However, I believe the Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organization is making a fatal error with respect to how it is trying to sell its proposal within Canada itself.

A good chunk of the organization’s sales pitch seems to be based on these four countries sharing the same “Language”, “Culture” and “Head of State”.   The head of the freedom-of-movement in Canada, James Skinner (who grew up in the UK, worked in Australia and who now lives in Vancouver), recently stated on CBC radio that we share the “same native language” and the citizens of all four countries are “virtually all the same people and the only thing that divides us is the cover of our passports, and that’s something (he) truly believes in, and we have to make sure we’re all on the same page with respect to those aspects… We have very close Commonwealth ties which we have shared for generations.”  (In the context of the Two Solitudes, I simply  say Oh Oh! + Yikes x 20!  Can you see where I’m going with this?).

You can catch the radio interview and CBC article by clicking HERE. (CBC’s website).

I believe Skinner’s wording was nothing more than a mere innocent, unintentional misunderstanding of Canada’s nature (the concept of the Two Solitudes usually are based on innocent misunderstandings).  It could even be chalked up to a slip of the tongue.   I can understand such a gaff if he has lived in the UK, Australia, and then made the jump to Vancouver.   Vancouver, and its lifestyle is very much rooted in a “region” of Canada which does share much in common with Australia, NZ and the UK, as do many other “parts” of Canada.

But in practical terms, lobbying the Canadian government (and trying to win the hearts and minds of the overall Canadian public) using the context cited in his radio interview is like someone trying to persuade the UK to sign international agreements based on cultural references which only apply to people in England, but to the exclusion of Scotland and Northern Ireland (and chunks of Wales).   That would be “an agreement killer”, to say the least.

The difference is that the sensitivities are likely even greater in Canada than the Scottish context in the UK.

Regardless if you agree or not with preserving the monarchy (and I personally have never had an issue with the monarchy as a Canadian institution), invoking it as a reason unto itself to engage Canada in a high-impact international agreement (vs. a low-impact agreement) simply is a non-starter — especially if you want to persuade a majority of Canadian politicians (The first to get their backs up with will be our Francophone public and politicians – who generally do have issues with Canada’s monarchy… and there will be sufficient sectors of Anglophone Canada who will stand in solidarity with Francophone Canada and who will also balk).

The Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organization should concentrate more on the nature of the democratic institutions which we share – and how they are commonly ingrained into the collective psyche of all citizens Francophone and Anglophones), and in all of these countries.  One can talk about laws and policies too, but the monarchy should not be used as a coat hook in any of the arguments (at least not in Canada).  Even the points abou “language” need to be toned down, or at a minimum, greatly refined.

Canada’s Francophone nature, for a huge part of Canada’s population, makes it so that our Canadian (Anglo-Franco) blended culture is not the same as NZ, Australia, and the UK.  Yes, take the Franco aspect out of the equation, and more commonalities are found.   But when one speaks of anything on a national scale, it has to be treated from the perspective of a blended Anglo-Franco context (you can’t split them).

For Francophones in Canada, when they think of their country, it’s a French country (just as for Anglophones, it’s an English country in their minds).  Then there are the cultural differences.  For Francophones, Canada’s culture is different than what Anglophones may consider it to be — foods, dress, habits, humour, the style of civic duties and responsibilities, music, television, literature, historical perspectives, etc, etc.

(I don’t think I ever mentioned this story in any of my past posts:   but I was in the country of Togo a number of years ago, travelling with a couple of other Canadians, one Francophone, one Anglophone.  Someone from Togo asked us what we speak in Canada… the Francophone said “We speak French in Canada”… and the Anglophone just scratched his head – he couldn’t understand that there’s a different perspective… ie: the Two Solitudes).

And as you saw from the last 5 or 6 posts (among many others in this blog), these differences and divergent perspectives are NOT just restricted to Québec, but also to many other people and large percentages of other provinces.

For these Canadians who live in Canada’s French-language sphere (be it people born in Canada or those who have immigrated to Canada and who have adopted French as their first Canadian language), their Canada has a good number of fundamental cultural differences when compared to those of New Zealand, Australia and the UK.

For many in French Canada, on the surface, it would not make any more sense to join a freedom-of-movement agreement with NZ, the UK and Australia, any more than what it would for citizens of New Zealand to join such an agreement with Belgium, France and Switzerland.  (I’m actually not exaggerating when I say this).

That is not to say that the whole of Canada (including Francophone Canada) could not be won over.  But how the argument is presented, right from the beginning, is vital to the success of the messaging.

(A) Monarchy:   Never mention it.  Just don’t.

(B) Culture:  Steer clear, or at the very minimum, tread very carefully.  There are ways to work this one… and yes, there is a definite shared culture between French and English Canada.  But be careful when trying to relate that shared Canadian Anglo-Franco culture to the cultures of NZ, Australia and the UK.  To those spearheading the freedom-of-movement organization, I would highly recommend that they seek expert advice before treading down this path.

(C) The radio quote “We’re virtually all the same people… just our passports are different”Oh boy! = This will kill the proposal dead in its tracks.

(D) Shared language: Legitimate “in context”… but it needs refining… it will all come down to whether or not you can survive the media’s sound bites (and our Francophone media will take what it said, dissect it into sensationalized soundbites, and then translated those sensationalized (less-than-appealing) soundbites into French for millions of Francophone Canadians to listen to – without this freedom-of-movement organization even realizing what happened).

Even if this initiative does make it to certain levels in our government process (which I do hope it does), there are many areas where it will fall flat on its face if the nature of the advocacy does not change.

  • I’m just picturing the members of this organization being interviewed at a parliamentary committee in Ottawa regarding their proposal. They likely would be convoked to committee to answer MP’s questions as part of the process of drafting legislation.  I’m picturing them wearing the translation earphone while an MP from Laurier-Sainte-Marie (Le Plateau in Montréal), or Northern Ontario, or Moncton, New Brunswick grills them in French, demanding they explain past comments regarding A, B, C and D above (don’t think they won’t pull out old recordings of the CBC interview).  Based on this alone, a number of MPs (particularly the B.Q. party) will do anything they can to block this initiative unless there is an apology for having ever mentioned certain points raised on the CBC radio interview.
  • I’m also picturing what would happen if the leaders of this organization were to be invited to appear on the talk show Tout le monde en parle to make their case to the public (2.5 million Canadians watch Tout le monde en parle every Sunday evening for two hours – and it is one of the most socially and politically influential programs/enigmas in all of Canada… many of Canada’s politicians follow it just as ardently as 2.5 million other Canadians).  If this freedom-of-movement initiative does go further, it is a no-brainer that its leaders will receive an invitation to appear on Tout le monde on parle (and as we have seen time and time again, it is political suicide in Canada to decline an interview request to appear on Tout le monde en parle – which is why so many Anglophones DO chose to appear on the program, even if they need the on-air help of a French interpreter).

Again, I’m just picturing the organization’s advocates sitting on stage on Tout le monde en parle, wearing a translation earphone while Guy A. Lepage grills them on historic and emotional British-French battles and past events in the name of the “crown” (even events linked to the “crown” in the 1900s, such as conscription, the War Measures Act invoked in the late 1960s, the 1982 repatriation of the constitution controversy, etc.) which Québec and Francophones in general continue to feel as slights — even into modern times (I’m the type of person who believes people should just move on and pick up from where we are now, instead of resurrecting the deeds of dead people and of century’s past… but reality keeps telling me that unfortunately, many others do not think that way).

I’m picturing Guy A., his sidekick Danny Turcot, and the other invited “opposing guests” bringing up the old CBC radio interview and asking how on earth A, B, C and D was not yet one more example of an ignorant “Two Solitudes” slight against a huge swath of Canadians.  It would be a given that they would ask why French Canada should sign on to such an agreement instead of pushing for an alternative agreement freedom-of-movement with France, Belgium, Monaco, Luxembourg and Switzerland (after all, how many flights per “day” are there to Paris from Montréal?  I think it’s quite a few more than what Vancouver has to London or Sydney.  There are people out there who make the long-weekend Montréal-Paris trip as nonchalantly as others make the long-weekend Toronto-Montréal, or Edmonton-Calgary trip.  This in itself serves as a hard reality check).

A small, individual slight of the tongue based on a lack of exposure (ie: innocent ignorance) doesn’t make a big difference in the overall scheme of things (some Canadians might feel a bit slighted and hurt by one-off verbal gaffs – and it generally doesn’t go beyond that).  But add a multitude of these signals of ignorance, one after another, year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation — and they become a problem.  It’s an issue.  People then begin to actually “look for misunderstandings” rather than waiting for the misunderstandings to be solved as they come to light (welcome to the dark side of the Two Solitudes).

Francophone Canadians will feel like Anglophones are making decisions on behalf of Francophones, derived from an Anglophone point-of-view or interests which do not necessarily apply to Francophones.   This is how problems become larger… and how frustration becomes pent-up… to extent that our country has had vibrant sovereignty movements at various points in its history.

At the end of the day, Anglophone Canada does not want such problems to reach this level either.   Fortunately, there has been a great deal of progress the past 20 years (even the past 40 years) with respect to smoothing things out — and conversely, the sovereignty movement has gone into a lull.

But it is because of these dynamics that I am no longer optimistic that the Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organization will succeed – unless they drastically come to grips with the nuances (sometimes very subtle but extremely powerful nuances, might I add) of the Canadian reality.  In the future, they will probably also have to atone for past comments.

Hopefully things can change.   I think it would be unfortunate for such a freedom-of-movement proposal to die simply because of poor public relation tactics (the mix of public relations + the Two Solitudes can sometimes be a tricky one to navigate if you’re not used to navigating such nuances).

——————————————–

P.S…. As a bit of friendly upfront preventative advice to anyone in a leadership position in this movement… if the leaders of this freedom-of-movement initiative (which I publicly support) care to see what they might be up against, or the type of scrutiny they can expect to endure should things begin to progress further, I would highly recommend they take in the next episode of Canada’s most watched and most influential societal talk show “Tout le monde en parle”.

In Vancouver, you can watch it on the French-language TV station of “Radio-Canada” on Sunday evening from 8pm until 10pm.

Anywhere between 2 and 3 million Canadians will be rushing home next Sunday night to catch the show.   If this initiative gains steam, I am more than certain that the organizers of this movement can expect a phone-call to appear on the show so as to explain their thoughts to the 2.5+ million people who tune in to watch it every Sunday (to decline interview request has meant political suicide numerous times in the past).  In Canada, it so often is all about the nuances.   Here’s the link to the show:  http://ici.radio-canada.ca/tele/tout-le-monde-en-parle/2014-2015/

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