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World: Analysis From Washington--Demography, Language, Politics

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 10 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ethnolinguistic groups which form a majority in one unit of a federal system may try to improve their situation by seeking independence.

But closely related ethnolinguistic groups which form minorities in other units of the same federation are much more likely to pursue a path of accommodation with the existing social and political regime.

And that pattern, very much on view this past week at the meeting of 49 Francophone countries, has some important implications for both governments and minorities elsewhere about how to promote inter-ethnic understanding and also when such understanding is likely to become difficult, if not impossible.

This year, Canada played host to the Francophonie, a meeting of leaders of the countries where French is either the official or a predominant language. But Ottawa decided to hold the meeting in New Brunswick, a maritime province which is officially bilingual, rather than in the fiercely Francophone province of Quebec.

The calculation of the Canadian government was transparently obvious. It wanted to detract attention from Quebec, where a French-speaking majority is actively challenging the English-speaking minority there, and in the rest of Canada, up to and including talking about the possibility of independence.

And the federal authorities hoped to focus the world's attention on the very different relationship between Francophones and Anglophones in the martime provinces, where 280,000 French speakers live at peace with their much more numerous English-speaking neighbors, maintain a strong Canadian identity, and resolutely oppose Quebec secessionism.

The situation of the Francophones in Quebec is both well-known and typical of other linguistic and cultural minorities who dominate or come to dominate one unit of a federal state.

But the situation of their fellow Francophones in the Martime provinces is less widely understood but just as instructive if rather more complicated.

Expelled from the region by the British in the 18th century and celebrated in Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem "Evangeline," the Acadians as these French speakers call themselves in the past lived in isolation from the Anglophone communities of these Canadian provinces or alternatively were subject to sometimes fierce assimilatory pressures.

But more recently, the situation has changed. New Brunswick, where the overwhelming majority of the Acadians of Canada now live, is officially bilingual and actively supports the intellectual and cultural life of its Acadian population.

As a result, the Acadians have experienced a revival in recent years, one so strong that a Paris journal has referred to it as "the revenge of the Acadians." But their revival has been within the context of Canadian multiculturalism.

Too small a percentage of their own region's population to contemplate independence, the Acadians have not only sought accomodation with the Anglophone majority there and in Canada as a whole but actively opposed secessionist ideas in Quebec.

Their attitudes on Quebec may surprise some, but they are rooted in a serious calculation, one that highlights the way in which ethnic groups typically behave in a remarkably rational way.

On the one hand, the Acadians know that without Quebec, they would be an even more tiny minority in Canada and would thus likely lose some of the gains they have made.

On the other, they recognise that the distaste many Anglophone Canadians now feel for Quebec's Francophone community could easily be visited on them were they to support that province's independence.

This pattern has some important lessons for federal governments which must cope with ethnic challenges and for ethnic communities living in a federal system.

For federal governments, it suggests that they should not confuse a challenge by members of an ethnic group living on a particular federal territory with a challenge by that group as a whole. Governments often may thus have the chance to structure challenges and to divide challengers.

They may be able to change the borders of federal units in order to change the ethnic mix. Or, more probably, they may be able to promote more tolerant social arrangements where members of a group that is challenging the authority of the state elsewhere find themselves living.

And either of these strategies will tend to demobilize ethnic challenges, at least until such challenges reach the stage of a violent break with the existing system.

For ethnic or ethnolinguistic groups, in contrast, the Canadian experience highlights both the limits of ethnic loyalties alone and the ways in which demography and politics play in the manifestation of these loyalties.

Such groups may thus be tempted to adopt an even more provocative style in order to force the issue for their co-ethnics who live in minority status elsewhere within the federation.

Or these groups may be tempted to conclude that they can play a complex politics within the system that will benefit them more than any drive for independence.

To the extent that governments and ethnolinguistic communities around the world draw these lessons from the Canadian experience, the impact of this year's meeting of French-speaking nations will be far greater than any of their organizers could possibly have expected.