Originally published in the Georgia Straight, June, 1995.

Down With Unity

by Michael Brockington


 In the months leading up to the Quebec referendum, politicians will be repeating the word until their lips grow numb. 

Unity. A word custom-built for politics. A little vague, but it pushes all the right buttons -- the patriotism button, the wanting-to-belong button. It's warm and fuzzy as a hot rabbit sandwich and equally hard to swallow when you think about it.

 It's tough to oppose unity. Not even Jacques Parizeau can be caught promoting the virtues of chaos, fragmentation and dismemberment. Which is certainly sensible, considering the lack of agreement among various flavours of separatists. 

So how does it work, exactly, this unity?

 In France recently, the Bishop of Evreux was removed from his ministry for supporting homosexual relationships, contraception, ordination of married priests, and other renegade causes. According to the Catholic Church, "The prelate has not revealed himself suitable to carry out the ministry of unity, which is the first task of a bishop." The Vatican, arguably one of the world's most successful dictatorships, has little tolerance for difference of opinion. Unity becomes a rhetorical tool it uses to assert its power.

 Another example. The USSR was unified. And now it's a collage of nation states, breakaway republics, warring factions. Whether this brave new mess is an improvement on the totalitarian monolith that preceded it is still an open question, but many believe so.

 Consider the United States -- a country with unity embedded in the very name of the nation. If we Canadians were really so keen on being unified and all, the sensible thing would be to lay off our customs guards and apply for U.S. statehood. Lower taxes, no more NAFTA disputes and the satisfaction of finally getting rid of the Senate. Without the Canuck buck exchange rate to worry about we could all afford to visit Disneyland again.

 Or would that be just a little too unified?

Unity has never been a defining feature of Canadian existence. We'd rather have a good argument. French and Anglo are incapable of agreement, even in the face of a global crisis like WWII. That proud symbol of unity which is our flag provoked an unholy ruckus when adopted, forced through parliament by closure after close to a century of off-and-on debate. Continual in-fighting probably explains why we've never managed to invade some third-world country. Domestic squabbles have the advantage of distracting the country from foreign adventures. 

Our political system is designed to encourage continual bickering between its various parties and levels -- though political theorists may prefer to call it a system of checks and balances. The objective is to prevent any particular government from running wild and completely ruining what many of us think is a pretty good country. And as we saw with the Charlottetown Accord, on those rare occasions when the political powers find agreement, the public is united only in opposition.

 We have, essentially, an isometric government: it exerts great effort pushing against itself, but rarely moves. Those who advocate streamlining government miss this crucial point. An efficient bureaucracy would find far too much time to interfere in the affairs of citizens. Better by far it should chase its own tail. The prospect of a level of native self-government should delight anyone who understands the principle. 

And all this is as it should be. Who could tolerate the idea of a marriage free of arguments? There's a word for that: it's called co-dependency. We don't need our partners grafted onto us, like siamese twins joined at head or hip or groin. We look for a sympathetic someone with whom we can be independent together. 

The concept of Canadian unity may be a tidy political fiction; however, it ignores what is truly great about this country -- namely diversity, and its necessary companion, tolerance. Tolerating your neighbor is as Canadian as beaver pie. It means you don't agree with the people next door, but you don't shoot them either. It can even mean finding some acceptable compromise amid our differences.

 Canadian identity has often been defined as being not-American, an identity predicated on difference. What this really means, of course, is we Anglos believe we're British. We spell our words strangely, elect a parliament, and are generally far too polite. But an Anglo in Britian -- or, for that matter, a Quebecois in France -- quickly discovers he is neither British nor French, but Canuck. Immigrants from other cultures surely experience the same dislocation. In this distance from our origins, we find a shared alienation.

 Difference is the spice and the friction that keeps us warm in this cold land. This is the stuff we are born from, and this is the joy of living in Canada. Our current multiculturalism and immigration policies, though suffering backlash, still assert the extraordinary value of our differences. The fact that I am unlike you, that we will disagree -- this is a prime feature of our common character, and no myth of unity should be permitted to obscure its peculiar and obstinate beauty.

 Though the contention may seem bizarre, `Canadian Unity' strikes me as a concept that is fundamentally un-patriotic. It's an imported notion, another sign that Free Trade has gone too far.

Webster's first definition for unity is "The quality or state of not being multiple: Oneness." The price to be paid is conformity. To be truly unified, we need to become homogenous, like amoebas. Uniqueness must be suppressed, our diverse singularities subsumed to the archetype. A `national character' replaces individual character.

 In the extreme case, you wind up with stormtroopers goosestepping down the boulevard, identical in costume, mien and gene. Some might say this would be undesirable. Immigration would have to be curtailed, racial purity laws instituted, genetic weaknesses corrected. Still, we have the biotechnology today to approach these things humanely. And the Nazis have provided a clear demonstration of what can be achieved by a nation truly united.

Unity on the right devolves to fascism, on the left, Stalinism. Class unity promotes aristocracy; religious unity, theocracy. Middle-class unity? Mediocracy. Thanks to our incessant squabbling over differences we have managed to side-step these ugly possibilities.

 United we stand, singular and alone. Divided? We still can stand, and if one of us should stumble, the rest can help him up. The distinction is between unity and community.

 None of which should be taken as an argument for Quebec separation. Pas de tout. They should remain in Canada where we can continue to nag and bitch at one another without creating an international incident. 

I value Quebec's distinctiveness. Let us insist they preserve it. The quality is uncommon and even valuable in a region, customary in a nation. You Quebecois can be disagreeable bastards, and I like that.

 A successful argument against unity does have one unfortunate corollary: no-one can be expected to agree with it. All the same, I hope this rant evokes some resonance, establishes some tentative understanding. 

If it does, then perhaps you'll join me in decrying the false premise and promise of Canadian unity. Raise your voice in protest the next time some politician tries to manipulate us with this shoddy rhetoric. 

All together, then: Down with Unity! 

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