Blood & belonging: journeys into the new nationalism


By Michael Ignatieff | 1994-07-01 12:00:00

Michael Ignatieff's award-winning book, Blood and Belonging, explores the bigotry that has shattered world peace in the post-Cold War age. With the end of the conflict between East and West has come what he terms "ethnic nationalism," a danger comparable to the now-receding terror of war between the superpowers. The book calls for tolerance and cultural pluralism, both in such wealthy states as Canada and Germany, and in less fortunate parts of the world where poverty has tended to exacerbate disputes between peoples.

Ignatieff's critique of "ethnic nationalism" addresses the most serious causes of war in the world today: intolerance, authoritarianism, and extremism. In one of his most powerful passages, he describes a trip down the "Highway of Brotherhood and Unity" between Belgrade and Zagreb. "Towards Novaska," he notes, "you pass Serb house after Serb house, neatly dynamited, beside undisturbed Croat houses and gardens. When you turn toward Lipik, it is the turn of all the Croat houses and gardens. When you turn towards Lipik, it is the turn of all the Croat houses to be dynamited or fire bombed, next to their untouched Serb neighbors." He describes also the chilling motive for ethnic cleansing: a hysterical fear that you can no longer trust your neighbors, which results in their being driven out.

The book is sympathetic toward Ukrainian nationalists, victims of Stalin's terror who became the surprised victors of the Cold War. It stresses, however, that Ukraine's choice of independence over a democratic federal system for the USSR has been a disaster, resulting in extreme economic privation such as hunger and the loss of heat in homes in winter.

Ignatieff relates nationalism to a basic emotion of human beings-a desire to protect the graves of ancestors from desecration. On visiting his ancestral Ukrainian home, he was shocked to find that during the Stalin era one of his family's gravestones had been used for a butcher's chopping block. He warns that Crimea may prove the flash point for violence in the Ukraine.

His nightmarish tour of ethnic nationalism should make Canadians appreciate their relatively successful binational and multi-cultural society. I was shocked to learn that Turkish immigrants to Germany cannot become citizens, even after 10 years' residence. At the same time, persons of German ancestry, even if they cannot speak German, can become automatic citizens. This replicates the controversial Israeli immigration regulation, the "law of return," which at the same time has barred the repatriation of Palestinian refugees.

Ignatieff's comparisons of Canada to the dark details of other nations should shock English Canadians out of whining about French on the corn flake box-a negative view that dominated dialogue in the ill-fated Spicer Commission on National Unity. Germany's illiberal policies toward naturalization of immigrants are not atypical of Europe with its cruel policies of "guest workers," so visible in the shack towns in France. Likewise, Japan has an apartheid attitude towards foreign labor, whereas it searches the world for people of Japanese ancestry, despite having to give them language training.

This book underscores the fragility of Canada's significant achievements. One of Ignatieff's strange errors in Blood and Belonging is his statement that no people on whom genocide has been attempted will settle for less than their own state. The atrocities of Iraq against the Kurds, which were the basis for this statement, were equalled by the massacres of our own Acadian population in the 18th century. Forcibly deported, hundreds drowned from boats that sank; Acadian villages were destroyed and their residents scalped. Despite this horror, Acadians are not campaigning for a separate state. They are instead the most principled federalists in the country, and voted as a bloc for the Charlottetown Accord out of a desire to maintain national unity.

In using Ignatieff's arguments for the federalist cause, English-speaking Canadians must be careful not to fall into the error of dominant groups in other nations under attack by separatist minorities. Ignatieff himself, though correctly noting English-speaking Canadians' lack of oppression of the Quebecois, ignores the situation of French minorities in other provinces. Their fate actually provides an answer to the strange separatist argument that Ignatieff repeats without ever refuting: that only Quebec has a publicly funded minority language system. Many cities outside Quebec (e.g. Cornwall, Moncton, Winnipeg, and smaller communities such as Sudbury, Kapuskasing, and Cochrane) have the bi-national flavor that Ignatieff mistakenly attributes only to Montreal.

There are exceptions, of course. While other provinces have made great improvements over the past 30 years, Alberta, sticking stubbornly to intolerant principles, still resists similar recognition of the educational rights of a considerable French-speaking population. The Alberta Conservatives actually expelled an NDP member of the provincial legislature for the crime of speaking French.

The infamous "English only" deciarations of many Ontario municipalities outraged public opinion in Quebec and fuelled separatist sentiment. A documentary on Radio Canada's "Le Point" created an outcry in Quebec, when film clips of these hot-headed bigots were combined with scenes of the notorious stomping on the Quebec flag by Brockville's Association for the Preservation of English in Canada. Such intolerance by the majority is more explosive than the now (happily) repealed French-only sign law, which Ignatieff ridicules by depicting the forays of PQ secret agents to find small cardboard sheets deep in the woods of the Eastern Townships. While Quebec now has repealed its sign law, Sault Ste. Marie still proclaims itself as "English Only."

Ignatieff's most serious Canadian omission however, comes in his description of the conflicts between Quebec and native people. He correctly portrays the beauty of the struggle of the Cree Indians to prevent their land from being despoiled by another bout of dam mania by Hydro Quebec. However, he could have added the struggle of other native communities along the St. Lawrence to stop similar projects, and the visionary Algonkian efforts to apply the international model of sustainable development to the Laurentian provincial park. The famous conflict over the Oka golf course is a similar conflict, but the role of the para-military Warriors in it highlights the problems that Ignatieff chooses to ignore.

By ignoring the complicated problems of the Warriors' Society, Ignatieff may diminish the persuasive impact of his writings in Quebec. The Warriors are the only group in Canada akin to the "young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns," whom he castigates in former Yugoslavia. The problem of "young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips," the erosion of the state monopoly of armed force, and even the fax machines and four-wheel drive Cherokee Chiefs, are as much a blight on Warrior-dominated native communities in Quebec as they are in the Serbian enclave of Krajina. Krajina may be the archetypal Balkan warlord kingdom, but the pursuit of tobacco profits has produced equivalents in Canada. The scale of this problem is indicated by the recent lowering of the cigarette tax as a lesser evil than an increase in cancer rates.

The nobility of the Crees' nonviolent struggle for life in harmony with nature is of a different sort than the Warriors' armed struggle for profits from gambling, tobacco, and guns.

The Warriors' destruction of the archives of the Mohawk Traveling College in Akwesasne resembled the destruction of historical heritage that Ignatieff deplores in former Yugoslavia. Although an exercise in political, rather than "ethnic" cleansing, their armed assault on anti-casino blockades led to the abandonment by 3,000 Mohawks of their community in Akwesasne. While these Mohawks returned to their communities, many have now become exiles from Akwesasne, fleeing what they view as rule by a police state. For Canadians to achieve true justice, it will be necessary to be more even-handed in defending minority rights than Ignatieff urges in this otherwise splendid book.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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