Notes on 18th Text for Reading Field: McRoberts

Canadian History, Week Three

Kenneth McRoberts. Misconceiving Canada: The Struggle for National Unity. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kenneth McRoberts seeks to address the question of Quebec’s political position with respect to Canada. His analysis is predicated on appreciating “unity” within a country as important and he writes from a “crisis” perspective. He outlines his purpose as one of explaining how a mistaken conception of Canada arose, was subsequently institutionalized, and what is to be done to correct this “wrong.”[1] To my way of thinking, a more critical question is left unaddressed: how tenable are the conceptions upon which McRoberts relies in making his determination of what is correct and what incorrect with respect to envisioning Canada? His argument rests on a number of underlying assumptions that he has apparently derived from concepts developed in fields ranging from psychology, sociology, and linguistics to political science and political-economics. However, these working assumptions are not interrogated (for example, what, to his way of thinking, does ‘unity’ within a country’s borders mean: how is it recognized or measured; how proclaimed? Is diversity necessarily the signal of a crisis?). Aside from such reservations, McRoberts supplies a well ordered description of the political history of the Quebec/Canada debate – principally as enunciated by intellectual and political elites — from the early 1960s to about 1995.

McRoberts begins his argument by pointing to the discrepancy between conceptions of Canada inside and outside of Quebec’s boundaries. The insider view, one of longstanding, has been dualist. Quebecers, overwhelmingly francophone, are just as overwhelmingly aware that they constitute a distinct collectivity rooted in a particular territory – a nation (a word which McRoberts notes has held different connotations in French than English over time). Canada, according to this view, is understood as composed of two collectivities and therefore represents a political agreement of longstanding between two nations.

McRoberts details how at times Quebec outsiders, (for example other provincial premiers – prior to the Second World War — and Lester B. Pearson during the 1960s), have shared this view, although they defined the political agreement or compact to accord with the English terminological understandings (of ‘nation’ for example). He describes the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism as an earnest attempt to promote, as legitimate, the dualist conception of Canadian history and to rationalize the application of that conception. At the time, there were indications that Quebec nationalism would be accommodated within Canada and overall national unity, however it was understood, looked achievable.

By the late 1960s, according to McRoberts, Pierre Trudeau undermined this strategy. First, he implemented a federal language policy that ignored regional difference, and over-rode provincial preference, in favour of recognizing, and prescribing, individual equality – henceforth all would strive to be uniformly bi-lingual. The outcome was greater division, not unification. Second, Trudeau moved beyond a bicultural prescription for policy to one that endorsed multiculturalism – a move that McRoberts regards — as Quebecers did — as alarming because it implied that the dualist concept had become outdated before having been properly instated. To McRoberts, it was also overly fragmenting: the presumption appearing to be that if two collectivities have proven unable to iron out an arrangement, a greater number of collectivities will be proportionately less able. And finally, he believes switching to a promotion of multiculturalism was unwarranted: McRoberts seems sure that things were progressing in a promising direction before Trudeau meddled.

According to McRoberts, Trudeau and his supporters (in this account, they appear to be very nearly exclusively Anglophones outsiders, not insider Quebec francophones), shared a common misconception. They mistakenly thought Trudeau was representative of the quintessential French Canadian along with being a visionary capable of speaking for Quebec about that entity’s potential when in fact he was an anomaly – a Quebecer who thought that because he could be, and desired to be, a Canadian first, every Quebecer could and would follow suit. It follows that the Official Languages Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – policies based on fabrications of Quebec and Canada, not grounded in real understanding – were not solutions that lived up to expectations. ‘Unity’ was not effected. Quebec’s true insider vision was left uncommunicated. Quebers’ insider identity, as outsiders to Canada, was not diminished.

McRoberts devotes a number of pages to outlining a prescription of his own – largely based on a speculative analysis of ‘what might have been.’ After reading his laying out in detail all of the reasons why the ideas of one man – Trudeau — should never have been given the weight they were, I found it hard to make the transition to non-skepticism that taking another solitary man’s proposals — McRobert’s — for nation-mending to heart demands. And, as mentioned at the outset of this note, I am not convinced that his vision is entirely clear. There is a great deal of ‘identity talk’ and in many instances there seems to be confusion of personal identity with collective identity – in that McRoberts seems to assume that the two are either commensurate or the latter is a macrocosmic expression of the former. For example, Trudeau’s supposedly ‘divided’ identity seems to have led him to ideas that McRoberts judges to have been ultimately divisive when applied to the Canadian polity. In my opinion it is more likely that the two types of identity are logically separate reactions to qualitatively different phenomena. Personal identity encompasses the sense of self: ‘I know that I am distinct from other beings’, whereas a collective identity arises out of similarity: ‘I am so much in agreement with a group of other people on a contested issue that I am a member of the group.’ In addition, I suspect that McRoberts mistakes the effect for cause: he concentrates on the emotive arguments over identity that deal with perceptions and signals of difference, rather than looking for the sources of such arguments — concrete issues such as conditions of economic and political inequality. In the end, McRoberts does not surmount what he presents to be Trudeau’s mistaken notion: that the coherence of an individual identity can be imposed on a collective polity such as that which inhabits Canada.


[1] Kenneth McRoberts, Misconceiving Canada: The Struggle for National Unity (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997), xi-xii.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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