What Is A Nation?

January 30, 2018 Uncategorized Comments (0) 488

Canadian nationalism has historically had a difficult relationship with the idea of the nation itself. Are we a nation? Or a land of many nations? Most prominent in this discussion has been the question of French Canada.

In this essay, I will argue that both Quebec and Canada are nations. I will examine what the definitions of ‘nation’ are. I will then argue which types of nation, or combination thereof, are more robust than others. The central question can then be answered as to what type of nation Quebec and Canada each are, and how they fit together; answering this question will draw on defining the past of each nationhood, and follow into speculating on their future.

One will usually see a ‘nation’ defined as roughly ‘a large aggregate of people with common characteristics’, and this is generally correct – but of course leaves much to be defined. ‘Nation’ is derived from the Latin natio, which translates to ‘birth’, and is related to concepts such as people, tribe, race, class, stock, breed, etc. As one can see, the rough definition fits the etymology insofar as it denotes classifying large groups of people.

Often, one will encounter the ethnic-civic nationalism dichotomy when seeking to define what a nation is. This dichotomy essentially states that one is either chiefly concerned with the biological character of the population (ethnic), or is chiefly concerned with their political allegiance (civic), and defines the nation according to one of these criterion foremost. However, I agree with Michel Seymour that this is much too simplistic, and leaves the end goal of nationalism as being a homogenous nation-state only. This is a major difficulty, because, as will be shown, nations often exist without homogeneity, and often without having their own state; so, nationalism can easily have an end result other than a homogenous nation-state.

So, it is necessary to start distinguishing between types of nations more finely. I again refer to Seymour, whom I’m mostly in agreement with, that while ethnic and civic nationalisms are legitimate forms of nationalism, there are others that lay somewhere in between or are adjacent to these concepts. First, I’ll define the already mentioned concepts: the ethnic concept defines the nation as those who do share a common ancestry, or those who at least believe they do; the civic concept defines the nation as those who are within the scope of a sovereign state. Seymour posits a few other concepts. The cultural concept of the nation is one that is apolitical, and defines the nation as those “sharing the same language and culture and sharing an attachment to the same history” (Seymour 233), and “there is a legally recognised territory on which it forms the majority of the population.” (234)

It is also possible for a cultural nation to be multinational; Seymour uses the example that the British cultural nation (as distinct from the state of the United Kingdom) consists of the cultural nations of England, Scotland, and Wales. The diaspora concept of the nation is one in which the nation is those who “would not be located mostly on one particular territory and which would not form a majority on any territory.” (234) This definition is held as distinct from emigrants of a nation spreading elsewhere in the world, but Seymour does qualify that emigrants are the diaspora of a nation in a way; this will be relevant to defining the nations of Quebec and Canada. Lastly, the sociopolitical concept of the nation is like the cultural concept, but it contains a political element. However, it is also distinct from the civic concept in that it does not require the political component to be a sovereign state. What one is left with is a concentrated cultural majority – a “national majority” (235) – that exists within a political framework that may also contain national minorities.

I argue that the most ‘true’ sense of a nation will consist of all three features: biology, society, and state. As has been demonstrated etymologically, a nation is fundamentally about differentiation, and so a most thorough differentiation will be achieved by including all elements. Starting with biology first, if one accepts the theory of evolution, and the Out of Africa theory (or any common origin point), one must accept the differentiation of humans into different, diffuse populations adapted to different environments over time – just the same as every other species. It is from this spectrum of human diversity that ethnic or racial components of nation are derived. I draw on Seymour’s idea that a nation is neither entirely objective nor entirely subjective as applicable to the ethnic or racial component of nation since, while human diversity exists just as it does for any other species, it must be understood it is a spectrum; therefore, categorical ethnicities and races cannot be determined, and so human taxonomy must be open to debate to some degree.

From this natural basis, one can deduce how different societies or cultures are initially derived as results of the differences of the populations that create them, as well as the geographic features that both cause those differences, and also shape social life. It is important to recognize that ultimately different geographies, populations, and societies all exist on a reinforcing (of differentiation) feedback loop. Lastly, it is quite natural that differentiated groups, vying for power, will participate in politics; I agree with both Michael Keating and Reginald Trotter that self-determination is the principle goal of a nation, and this will necessarily entail involvement in the management of power. I emphasise that this conception of the political component is entirely accepting of political forms other than a sovereign state. This summarizes what, in my opinion, is the most robust concept of nation.

To first consider Quebec, I argue it is a nation because it did, and does fit a majority of the explored definitions. Quebec has an ethnic or racial (I will explore the specifics of this later) component in that its founding population are diasporan French who created the nation of French Canada, which Seymour classifies as a cultural nation; it is relevant to emphasise that my use of the term ‘diaspora’ here does not agree with Seymour’s diaspora nation because, of course, there is a concentrated majority of French in France. Next, French settlers brought their culture with them, and as it interacted with a new environment, other European cultures it had experience with, and Aboriginal cultures it did not, it evolved into the Quebecois culture. This fits as a cultural nation in that there has always been a French-Quebecois majority in a legally recognised territory of different forms since French colonization. Lastly, the political forms Quebec has existed, and does exist in would exclude it as a civic nation, but combined with its culture, would fit the sociopolitical concept; this is because its political form has never been a sovereign state, but always a colony of either France or Britain, and presently a province of Canada.

To compare Quebec to my own definition, I argue that it did, and does still fit the definition, but with a need to be qualified. As was mentioned, there was and still is (StatsCan) an ethnic or racial component of Quebec in its French population. The spectrum of human diversity mentioned earlier will now be exemplified: in attempting to define Canada, Graham McInnes mentions the “heritage of two races” (344), in reference to Britons and French, as one of the three factors that define the Canadian spirit. Of course, today Britons and French are thought of as ethnicities (of the same race) rather than races, so it was a racial component, but today it is an ethnic one. It would seem what constitutes an ethnicity or race is arbitrary, but it isn’t entirely: it is true that Britons and French are populations distinct from each other, simply by the fact that the two populations have been breeding in relative isolation from each other and have adapted to relatively different geographies.

The point here is that neighbouring populations separated by geography and breeding in relative isolation from one another are logically more similar to each than they are to a population on the other side of the planet that has adapted to a severely different geography and bred in relative isolation. However, exactly what level of aggregation constitutes enough difference to distinguish ethnicities, and then races from each other is a matter for debate outside the scope of this paper. Today, Quebec has less of an ethnic component because French occupy less of a proportion of the population than they originally did. This raises the question of when exactly the ethnic component of a nation vanishes, and, again referring to the spectrum of human diversity, there probably isn’t a quantitative answer. What can be drawn from observations of human diversity is that, the higher the rate and quantity of people from ever-more different populations that come into a nation, the less likely it is that they will be absorbed by the founding population, and that the founding culture will therefore be maintained in the long-term.

Culturally, Quebec still maintains a relatively strong component, but like the ethnic component, less so than originally; this is because of the implementation of multicultural policy by the federal government. I agree with Seymour’s conclusion that “a policy of multiculturalism plays against the Quebec nation…it was from the very beginning conceived as a way to deny the existence of two welcoming cultural communities within Canada.” This is most strongly demonstrated in the last two subsections of section 3 (1) of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, in which it is made clear that there is a need to balance diversity with the existence of the founding cultures. Further, there is a glaring issue with regards to the maintenance of a cultural nation and the premise that diversity is value-positive rather than value-neutral, which both Seymour (ironically) and the mentioned Act assume. It is simple: if one truly values diversity, in the context of culture, for example, one would see value in both a crowd gathering to cook foreign/exotic food for a festival, and a crowd gathering to stone an accused adulteress; they’re both ‘diverse’ cultural practices. The reality is the former is considered valuable and civilized, and the latter is considered savagery – the fact that both are different and foreign customs does not determine their value. Politically, Quebec fits my definition of a nation without qualification.

Canada is also a nation because it did, and does fit a majority of the explored definitions. Canada has a racial (in accordance with prior exploration of ethnicities and races, I deduce that, if today’s common classifications of Britons and French as ethnicities are accepted, the component here must be at a larger aggregation level than ‘ethnic’) component in that its founding population are diasporan British and French; again, my use of the term ‘diaspora’ here does not agree with Seymour’s diaspora nation. Canada does not fit the cultural nation definition, because, if one observes the majority in each province, one will find there is two majority cultures; I would argue it is more accurate to say Canada is a bi-cultural European-Christian (the two most prominent shared attributes of Britain and France) nation at the largest level of aggregation. The political forms Canada existed in as a colony of France and Britain would mean it was excluded from being a civic nation until 1867. Canada has always classified as a sociopolitical nation because there has been a dominant either French or British culture within a form of political organisation.

Canada is essentially in the same position as Quebec in relation to my definition of nation, but Quebec is somewhat more secure in its status as a nation. This is because the founding ethnic majority, Britons, are a somewhat weaker majority (StatsCan) of the national aggregation than French are in Quebec. Canada is also somewhat weaker than Quebec in maintaining a national culture, as can be seen in Quebec’s adaptation of Canadian multicultural policy to ‘interculturalism’ (Winter 21); and proposed policy, such as Bill 60 the ‘Quebec Charter of Values’, which was a politically-correctly phrased, and thinly-veiled blocking of Islam in Quebec, which is the strongest competitor to Christianity (a fundamental component of French-Quebecois culture), being the only other proselytizing monotheism. Canada has always had some sort of political component, and so fits my definition.

Both Quebec and Canada are nations by most of the explored definitions: they each have an ethnic, cultural, political, and sociopolitical component to them. I personally argue they are both nations by my own definition, which is essentially the conglomeration of the explored definitions. Perhaps the most interesting question raised is exactly when a nation ceases to be a nation due to heterogeneity.


Works Cited

“Canadian Multiculturalism Act.” Justice Laws Website. Government of Canada, n.d. Web.

Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests, H.R. 60, 40th Leg., Québec Official Publisher 20 (2013). Web.

“Ethnic origins, 2006 counts, for Canada, provinces and territories – 20% sample data.” Statistics Canada. Government of Canada, n.d. Web.

Keating, Michael. “Stateless Nation-Building: Quebec, Catalonia and Scotland in the Changing State System.” Nations and Nationalism 3.4 (1997): 689-717. Wiley Online Library. Web.

McInnes, Graham. “Is Canada A Nation?” Queen’s Quarterly 45 (1938): 342-51. ProQuest. Web.

Seymour, Michel. “Quebec and Canada at the crossroads: a nation within a nation.” Nations and Nationalism 6.2 (2000): 227-55. Wiley Online Library. Web.

Triadafilopoulos, Triadafilos, ed. “Dismantling White Canada: Race, Rights, and the Origins of the Points System.” Wanted and Welcome? N.p.: Springer New York, n.d. 15-37. Springer Link. Web.

Trotter, Reginald. “Which Way Canada?” Queen’s Quarterly 45 (1938): 289-98. ProQuest. Web.

Winter, Elke, and Adina Madularea. 2014. “Multiculturalism Research Synthesis 2009-2013.” A CERIS Report Submitted to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Ottawa. Web.

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