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Performing Federal A/symmetry: What Institutional Symbolism Reveals About Multinational States

Published: 1 June 2020
Author: Karlo Basta

What is the purpose of institutions in multinational states? Drawing on the experience of Quebec and Canada, Karlo Basta, University of Edinburgh, examines institutions as symbols, expressing specific visions of the state and the nature of the community it encompasses. 

What is the purpose of institutions in multinational states? That question is at the core of a recent article I published in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics.  

Most social scientists who study institutions in plural states – notably scholars of federalism, ethnic conflict, and consociationalism – have, in all their diversity, provided largely instrumental answers to that question. Institutions (say, territorial autonomy of some form or another) matter because they do stuff. They protect a community’s political interests, preserve its language, or protect the physical wellbeing of its members, among other things.

What institutions do is, of course, consequential, but it pays to acknowledge that they may matter as much for what they mean for communities they govern. Put differently, apart from being political instruments, institutions are symbols, expressing specific visions of the state and of the nature of the community that the state encompasses. I make my case by drawing on the experience of Quebec and Canada.

Since the early 1960s, successive governments of Quebec have demanded more autonomy and recognition from the Canadian federal government. The federal leadership frequently – though not always – conceded these demands (for greater fiscal autonomy, policy opt-outs, etc.), but equally frequently insisted that the rights extended to Quebec be formally available to all other provinces, even when they did not ask for this. A situation of de facto federal asymmetry was accompanied by de jure federal symmetry.

The federal performance of symmetry chafed in Quebec. It meant that the understanding that many Quebeckers had of themselves as a nation – and of Quebec as not just another province, but a national state – went unrecognized. This led to increasing calls for the formal constitutional recognition of Quebec as a ‘distinct society’.

The opportunity for that recognition came in the second half of the 1980s, when, for electoral reasons, the federal Prime Minister Mulroney tried to ‘bring Quebec into the constitutional fold’. The Meech Lake Accord of 1987 combined instrumental concessions to all provinces (e.g., greater provincial influence over immigration, enhanced ability to opt out of new federal programs, etc.) with a symbolic concession to Quebec via the so-called ‘distinct society’ clause. The clause effectively constitutionalized the notion that Quebeckers were a distinctive nation, that their province was their national state and, by extension, that Canada was a multinational political reality.

The ‘distinct society’ clause was also the most contentious part of the Meech Lake Accord, both among the Canadian political elites and the general public. The political backlash resulting from this attempt at formal asymmetry and recognition of Quebec ensured that neither Meech Lake, nor its successor, Charlottetown Accord, would pass. In turn, this failure was interpreted in Quebec as Canada’s repudiation of the multinational vision of the state. It was the single most important factor leading to the 1995 referendum on Quebec’s sovereignty, one that the ‘yes’ side narrowly lost.

Why did Meech Lake fail? Just as formal symmetry implied the misrecognition of the Quebec nationalist vision of the Canadian state (as at least a bi-national one), so the formal asymmetry expressed in the distinct society clause constituted a misrecognition of the Canadian nationalist vision of Canada as, effectively, a nation-state. The politics of recognition, with due deference to Charles Taylor, works in both directions.

In the Canadian national narrative, Quebec can be ‘different’, but that difference is more folkloric than political. As Alberta’s premier Ralph Klein put it in 1996 in discussing distinct status for Quebec “if there’s no special status whatsoever and this is simply a recognition that there is something distinct about Quebec, or if there’s a mechanism to allow any province to have within Constitution an identification of distinctiveness, without implying special status, that maybe could be sold”. He was performing symmetry just as his federal counterparts did in the 1960s and 70s.

Klein was not the only politician outside Quebec to think this way. What is more, his view seemed to have broad societal support. In one poll in late 1995, recognition of Quebec’s distinctiveness, combined with formal asymmetry for the province, was opposed by a whopping 88% of Canadians. This was two months after the 1995 referendum nearly took Quebec out of Canada.

All this points to the possibility that the core axis around which the politics in multinational states revolves does not concern instrumental ‘levels of autonomy’. Rather, conflict in those polities is at root about whose story gets to be institutionalized.

If that is so, then we ought to re-think our explanatory accounts of whether and how institutions help the stability and inclusiveness of multinational states. What may in instrumental terms appear a perfectly adequate measure of autonomy may be inadequate from the perspective of minority communities if it fails to offer acceptable symbolic recognition. Yet, if such recognition was to be conceded, it may be unacceptable to members of the majority, particularly if it upends their own symbolic vision of the state.  

If this seems pessimistic, it ought not to. The first step in ‘solving a problem’, as the saying goes, is acknowledging that there is one.   


Read more from Karlo Basta in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics Special Issue "State and Majority Nationalism in Plurinational States: Responding to Challenges from Below". The article examines the importance of institutional meaning by exploring the politics of federal a/symmetry in Canada. 


Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

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