Pieces Of Sovereignty

By W.K. Wardroper, Anne-Marie Claret, Shirley Farlinger | 1991-09-01 12:00:00

Three views on sovereignty for Canada, for Québec and for the First Nations.


By W.K.Wardroper.

With the international situation in a state of flux and some countries, including Canada, suffering internal stresses, it is appropriate to examine the nature of sovereignty.

The origins of the concept of sovereignty are derived from European history dating back to the Middle Ages. The great barons owed allegiance to the sovereign-the king -and in turn their followers swore allegiance to them. The structure was based on a bargain involving an exchange of rights and obligations. The relationships were initially more personal than territorial but territory became increasingly important. Wars took place between sovereigns rather than between countries as we know them.

The first major true nation states to evolve were England and France, which had defined territorial boundaries and relatively homogeneous populations. From the fifteenth up to the nineteenth century Italian and German speaking populations remained under a large number of minor rulers. Collections of other distinct peoples existed within the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires.

At the Congress of Vienna the important powers settled the redrawing of the map of Europe following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. Among other subjects the decisions reflected the de facto acceptance of a body of customary international law, and particularly the recognition of the territorial rights of states.

Out of World War I emerged the League of Nations. This was a large step beyond the Congress of Vienna and a first major effort to institutionalize an important aspect of international law. The primary purpose of the League was to deter military aggression against the territorial integrity of member states.

The first effort had failed with the onset of World War II. The United Nations, committed to a second try at maintaining world peace, was born from that conflict. And the War precipitated the creation of new states, leading to over 150 members of the U.N.

However, the post-World War II international community has seen the proliferation of multilateral organizations, many of them specialized agencies of the U.N. and others such as NATO and GATT. In each of these cases the member states have voluntarily surrendered some measure of freedom of action, that is, some measure of sovereignty of the collective institution. Another example of such ceding of a degree of sovereignty exists in the European Economic Community. An entirely different case was presented by the Warsaw Pact (now defunct) and COMECON, both imposed on the Eastern European countries by the USSR.

During the nineteenth century many peoples were brought under the authority of colonial powers. The principle of self-determination, endorsed by the U.N., brought about the rapid emergence of these countries as sovereign states. But major powers co-opted some of them as client states with limitations on their freedom of action, e.g. Mozambique (USSR) and the Philippines (U.S.).

Limitations on sovereignty can arise through what are called "unequal" treaties, e.g. between China and some European countries in the nineteenth century and Panama and the U.S. under the Canal Treaty with the United States.

For Canada, the process from "colony " to "nation" was an evolutionary one (unlike the history of many other countries).

The Balfour Report of 1926 (later enshrined in the Statute of Westminster of 1931) declared that Britain and the Dominions were "autonomous communities" within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another in any respect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations."

The immediate post-war period was marked by an increasing sense of Canadian nationhood. The Canadian Citizenship Act came into force in 1947 and judicial appeals to the Privy Council in London ceased in 1949, the year that saw Canadian territory completed with the accession of Newfoundland.

But with the advent of the Cold War Canada found its defence policy and armed forces subordinated to those of the U.S., this despite the formation of the NATO alliance which we had hoped would avoid the constraints of a bilateral defence treaty.

In the face of this reality Canadians should not have been surprised by the territorial intrusions committed by the Arctic voyages of the USS Manhattan and the Polar Sea.

The passing of the Cold War provided the opportunity to regain a measure of independence for Canadian foreign and defence policy. But it coincided with the conclusion of the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S.

By its nature this Agreement is one-sided. It gives the U.S. unimpeded access to Canadian resources (most dramatic in the case of energy supplies) including Canadian water, despite government statements to the contrary. Of greater importance, it puts our country on the road to complete economic union with the U.S. Upon the 200th celebration of the U.S. Constitution President Reagan declared the Agreement to be the "new economic constitution for North America." The harmonization of policies and standards called for in the Agreement will progressively shift the process of national decision-making from Ottawa to Washington.

The Free Trade Agreement has demonstrably diminished Canadian sovereignty through the instrument of unequal treaty, an agreement not forced upon us but indeed sought by the Canadian Government. The political independence of Canada is being eroded, as was demonstrated by the manner in which the Prime Minister in consultation with President Bush took Canada into the Persian Gulf conflict.

W.K Wardroper is a policy analyst for the Council of Canadians.


By Anne-Marie Claret.

translated by Janet Creery

"Le non-poème, c'est ma tristesse ontologique, la souffrance d'être un autre.. . Le non-poème, c'est mon historicité vecue par substitutions. Le non-poème, c'est ma langue que je ne sais plus reconnaître, des marécages de mon esprit brumeux à ceux des signes aliénés de ma réalité... Or le poème ne peut se faire que contre le non-poème car le poème est émergence, car le poème est transcendance dans l'homogénéite d'un peuple qui libère sa durée inerte tenue emmurée..." Gaston Miron

L'Homme Rapaillé, 1965.

It almost goes without saying that an article on sovereignty must begin with a poem. First because poems pose with precision the question of language, which is neither a simple tool of communication nor a quaint "folk" element. It is a way of being in the world. Moreover poets, writers and artists have played a leading role in the rise of Québec nationalism. In an "alienated culture alienée," these creators have given pride to the "pea soup," to the "dish washer," to the "frog" and other "speak white." They have translated into words and music the aspirations of a people in quest of liberty.

It was during the sixties and seventies that what has become known as the "national question" emerged in Québec. The sixties, with its "Quiet Revolution", were the time of Québec's initiation into modernity (development of the state, nationalization of certain services and lay institutions). Slogans such as "Maîtres Chez Nous" and "Vive le Québec Libre" date from that period, as do the creation of the Parti Québecois and the first actions of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). It was also during that period that we started to talk about a more specifically Québecois project, and a Québecois identity. Which is not to say that the national question only goes back thirty or so years. The short history of Québec is studded with sovereigntist resistance to the privileges and profits of the Anglo-Saxon establishment.

In May 1980, the victory of the 'No' in the referendum on sovereignty-association brought about a period of apathy for the sovereigntists. It should be noted that during the referendum campaign Ottawa and its allies launched a veritable scare campaign. They said that elderly people would lose their pensions and that a sovereign Québec would be an economic disaster and a gulag. We should remember this because it is possible that such low blows would be repeated targeting, among others, ethnic minorities.

In December 1988, the Supreme Court's invalidation of certain statutes concerning signs abruptly reawakened the nationalist sentiment. Despite the winter cold, Québecois descended by the thousands into the streets to denounce this new blow from Ottawa denying Quebec the right to assure the legal protection of the French language in the North American context of galloping anglicization.

More recently, the failure of the Meech Lake accord disillusioned many Québecois who still thought that federalism was salvageable. If the timid and lacklustre status of "distinct society" was difficult to accept, how could a new understanding with the rest of Canada be possible? For many, it seemed like more than two centuries of going around in circles. As the sovereignist author Pierre Bourgault said, we must decide whether we want to be a province like the others or a country like the others.

A nationalist consensus seems to be emerging more and more clearly from all sectors of the population. The business community's endorsement of sovereignty explains some of this growing movement. But even if the independence movement includes a range of political stripes, we can confidently say that it is not a rallying to race, nor a falling back on ourselves but, rather, an opening onto the world and the future, one which takes into account the changing reality of Québec today. We will have to work with a more and more multicultural society. We will also have to negotiate nation to nation with the indigenous people. A sovereign Québec denying the indigenous people their right to sovereignty would be an aberration, if not a contradiction.

For the moment, when we speak of sovereignty, it is more a question of the constitutional rearrangement (form) than of the social project (content). Such a project remains to be defined. Let's not deny it, the dominant intellectual trends in Quebec are largely the same as those in Canada, the United States or Europe: neo-liberalism and its noisy advocates of competition and the conquest of markets.

Nonetheless, it is possible to support the sovereignty of a people without endorsing the policies of its government.

It is certain that as a Québecois pacifist I feel myself closer to the pacifists of Toronto or the ecologists of Halifax than to certain Québec businessmen who think of nothing but profit.

My friends will remain my friends and my adversaries will remain my adversaries. The sovereignty of Québec would not change my planetary consciousness or the values which have always motivated my social activism.

What will the Québec of tomorrow look like? No one call really predict. The former premier René Levesque once said that "independence is not a prize for perfect peoples." It follows that we must understand Québec's accession to sovereignty as a necessary step, a historic moment, a tool. It is not the end, but rather the beginning. And, here as elsewhere, the most important task will remain the building of a less violent , more cooperative world.

First Nations

By Shirley Farlinger

The issue of Canadian sovereignty and Canada's indigenous peoples is a story still in the making. We can only offer some resources which will increase our understanding.

From 1949 the Canadian government sought to ensure sovereignty in the High Arctic with policies that included the relocation of Inuit people to remote Arctic islands, according to Northern Perspectives, Spring 1991. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs reviewed the case and recommended in June 1990 that the government 'acknowledge the roles played by the Quebec Inuit relocated to the High Arctic in protection of Canadian sovereignty in the North' and offer an apology and compensation. The Honourable Tom Siddon refused, saying 'the decisions by the Federal Government in the 1950s appear to have been solely related to improving the harsh social and economic conditions facing the Inuit at Inukjuak at that time.'

The question of land claims for indigenous peoples is closely linked to sovereignty. A recent court case in British Columbia has dashed the hopes of native peoples for receiving justice from the legal approach when their land claims were denied. Neil Sterritt, hereditary chief of the GITKSAN-WETSVWETEN recommends the books Reaching Just Settlements: Land Claims in British Columbia available from the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Drumbeat: Anger and Renewal in Indian Country, edited by Boyce Richarson and Indian Tribes as Sovereign Governments. AIRI Press.

For people concerned about peace in all countries it was disheartening to watch the use of Canada's Armed Forces to resolve the problems at Kahnawake and Kanasatake in Quebec. A year later the problems are not resolved.

Another Oka may occur as the building of James bay Phase II proceeds. The story is told in Strangers Devour the Land by Boyce Richardson. He has also produced a film, Flooding Job's Garden, to be shown on TV Ontario on Sept. 26.

The mining of uranium, the testing of new missiles and continuing low level flights from Goose Bay over Nitassinan are all examples of the disregard of military policy makers for indigenous populations.

The Cree of James Bay have taken their case to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations meeting in Geneva. They and other Canadian native groups will ask the United Nations (whose declaration of universal rights and principles to protect the legal, cultural and political rights of indigenous people around the world will not be ready until 1995) to intercede now. Chief Ted Moses of the James Bay Cree Nation said in his submission that the Cree will remove half of Quebec's territory by declaring their independence if Quebec does. He sees the federal government's recognition of Quebec as a distinct society as racist if first nations are denied that right.

Federal Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark has agreed to reform the Constitution with a parallel process of negotiations in which the Assembly of First Nations representing 600,000 people will be funded to do its own review of how the Constitution should be amended.

Written with material from Strangers Devour the Land, the Globe and Mail and Northern Perspectives.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1991

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1991, page 7. Some rights reserved.

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