A Canadian Reacts to the Scottish Referendum

I’m a Canadian exchange student. My only connection to Scotland is my arrival here on September 8th, ten days before the referendum. So when people asked me  which way I would vote if I was Scottish, I told them that I don’t really feel entitled to an opinion on the independence referendum because I don’t know Scotland in the way that those who live and work here do. I was an outsider looking in; a sort of political tourist.  As I absorbed the atmosphere surrounding the impending referendum, it became increasingly clear to me that many people were basing their vote on their feelings about their Scottish identities.

This is interesting to me as a Canadian because we have a similar situation with separatist movements in Quebec. You may know Quebec as “The French part” of Canada; it’s a former French colony that was handed over to the British in 1763 after France lost a war. Despite Britain’s numerous attempts to assimilate them, there has always been an undercurrent of separatism among the inhabitants of Quebec. This lead to two referenda on the province’s separation, both of which have been incredibly close (to give you an idea of the numbers: the final count for the 1995 referendum on Quebec’s separation was 49% ‘Yes’ to 51% ‘No’).

I was raised in Alberta, a part of the country that is largely English-speaking. Canada has a system where the citizens of each province pay a portion of their income (through income taxes) into a central pot that gets redistributed throughout the country to allow all provinces equal opportunity to fund social services. Alberta is the richest province in Canada; the citizens of Alberta pay the most money into the pot and the Albertan government doesn’t receive any money from it.

Quebec, on the other hand, receives the most money from the pot out of any province. There’s a popular perception in Alberta that we are, in effect, paying for the socialist paradise that Quebeckers enjoy – things like cheap childcare and low tuition rates. True or not, this idea that we’re “giving our money away” to those who aren’t grateful for it is an image that permeates Albertan culture when we talk about the less fortunate provinces. Whenever the separatist movement gains ground in Quebec, we talk about the province like we’re worried parents, complaining that the kids are spoiled and incapable of taking care of themselves without our help.

In light of all this, my hope for a ‘Yes’ vote for Scotland was surprising. I didn’t expect, as someone that isn’t even from here, to feel so much in favour of a Scottish separation. To be clear, I’m not talking about the economy – while I could consider the economic arguments, they were far less important to me than the sentiment behind the whole enterprise. I wanted this nation to take the chance and I wanted that chance to work out.

This is strange because I have feelings of a similar sentimental nature concerning Quebec; but on the opposite side. I want them to stay, and it’s important for me and my conception of what it means to be Canadian that our French heritage and the culture of Quebec remains a part of Canada. If Quebec separates, I would feel like Canada had lost something interesting and important. I want Quebeckers to be happy; I just want them to be happy at home.

As Canadians we’ve had a national identity crisis for so long that it’s become our national identity. We cling to cheesy stereotypes like our passion for hockey, our love for maple syrup or the frequency of our apologies out of desperation, because finding unity is hard and this is the best we can do. Unlike those of us in the English-speaking portions of the country, Separatist Quebec seems to know what it is and what it wants. Sometimes the desperate attempts to preserve Quebecois culture — things like legislation to prevent Quebecois children from going to school in an institution that instructs in English, or having to change all the English signage to French — seem at best excessive and at worst oppressive. But at the same time, this English speaker kind of likes that Quebec is what it is. It makes Canada exciting.

I can’t speak to the experience of voting for or against Scottish independence because I’m not Scottish; and I don’t know how individual people came around to making their decisions. But I wonder how different the dynamic is between the UK and Canada, in terms of how connected people feel to the separate identities they have to hold to live in those countries. Perhaps the Better Together campaign struck a chord in some voters when they talked about a Yes vote being a vote against Britishness; maybe Scotland’s No vote wasn’t a vote for fear, but a vote for unity.

Nik Jarvis

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