The Cost of Separation Might Not Matter


By Robert Delaney

The assignment came in from the Financial Times: use the fate of Quebec’s financial community as an example of what Scotland faces whether or not it votes for independence. Max word count: 500.

Reuven Brenner, from McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, and Joe Martin, director of the Canadian business history programme at University of Toronto’s Rotman School graciously provided colour and anecdotes to back up what we all know. Separatism scares money away, and the consequences are long term.

If this is so apparent, why is the fervour to break away so strong?

Quite obviously, a good number of Scots and Quebecois don’t care about the economic consequences. There was no room to examine this in 500 words, so I need to expand on the Scotish-Quebecois connection here.

As a third-generation U.S. citizen of Irish and Italian descent – who’s lived in six countries and recently pledged allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II as part of the Canadian citizenship process, I have no strong cultural ties. I don’t know a single word of Gaelic and the only words familiar to me in Italian relate to food. (Doesn’t everyone like his/her pasta al dente?)

Canada was good enough to offer a solution when, nine years ago, I needed a country progressive and secular enough to recognize my marriage without any qualifications or caveats. I live in Toronto, where it’s not unusual to hear Russian, Arabic, Mandarin, Farsi, Hindi, and Portuguese within the confines of a five-minute stroll down Queen Street West, (recently dubbed the world’s second hippest neighborhood.)

Who wouldn’t want to belong to this country?

As part of the citizenship test, I had to know the details of the prejudice, violence, and subjugation that Francophones endured throughout a lengthy chunk of Canadian history. But weren’t many of Quebec’s grievances addressed in the policies that followed the 1976 provincial election?

Not enough. And perhaps the effort is futile.

It wasn’t until I began reading about “ethnie” in grad school that I had to acknowledge that practicalities aren’t always front of mind for people with strong cultural ties.

Anthony Smith, an ethnosymbologist well regarded in nationalism studies, helped develop the idea of ethnie, a mix of “ancestry myths and historical memories” that doesn’t require borders, and has meaning for people regardless of how elites or the powers-that-be manipulate the narrative. Ethnie, as Smith sees it, legitimizes the national narrative as a channeling of feelings “deeply embedded in our language and everyday practices, suggesting a social reality that cannot be easily dissolved.”

Neither my experience nor that of recent immigrants can be compared to the social reality of Quebec. What we’re seeing play out in Scotland, and the tension that will surely endure in Quebec, is a competition between practicality and ethnie.

My Financial Times article concludes with a quote from Dr. Brenner: “if they do not have access to credit, sovereignty becomes a costly illusion.”

If I had scope to discuss ethnie, I would have been able to add the following rejoinder: But we shouldn’t underestimate the number of people willing to bear that cost.