Sovereignty In Canada


Over the past few years, the U.S. role as an economic giant with the entire globe in its sights has become visible to all, along with its intent to take whatever steps it deems necessary to expand and police its imperial system. The initial response to this growing imperial presence was the spawning of a massive world-wide protest movement, the coming out party of which was celebrated in Seattle, Washington in 1999. Since those heady days, however, it has become evident that the concept of “anti-globalization” has reached the limits of its effectiveness as a framework for mobilizing and inspiring this protest.

As the American economic empire has begun to rely increasingly on military intervention to bolster its fortunes, this movement of protest too has begun to evolve in a more radical direction. If in its earliest stages, the protest was largely a negative one highlighting the malignant effects of increased “globalization”, the movement increasingly sees the necessity of a sharper critique of the limits of global capitalism, one which emphasizes the necessity of being both pro-democracy and anti-imperialist. Specifically, in our view, this involves building a multi-national movement of popular sovereignty that unites various non-elite groups across ethnic, racial and regional boundaries. The goal is not to defend the canadian state — which is so thoroughly integrated into the american imperial project — but to confront it; and to challenge the rule of transnational capital by demanding new institutions for popular democratic control of the economy, resource development and social expenditures.

We realize that our proposal is controversial and we fully anticipate and welcome a vigorous response. Our plan is to solicit opinions and further discussion from a wide variety of groups and individuals. Let the debate begin!

Popular Sovereignty in Question

Over the past fifteen years or so the concept of sovereignty in Canada had suffered an almost total eclipse. This fact can be explained as the upshot of three intertwined but partially contradictory factors. The major factor serving to explain the eclipse of the concept of sovereignty is of course the despair occasioned by the passage of the Canada-U.S.A. Free Trade Agreement. In the wake of this Agreement, opponents of free trade found it extremely difficult to respond effectively to the barrage of legislation and privatizations designed to deplete Canada of much of its distinctive historic infrastructure. Intimately linked to this local failure to defend national integrity and sovereignty, however, was a virtually global sense of despair at the massive worldwide assault on cultural, social and human rights in the name of neoliberalism. This pervasive sense of a lack of alternatives is summed up in the widespread but mistaken acceptance of the view that globalization had rendered the nation state largely irrelevant. The widely quoted dictum “think globally, act locally” is only the most well-known expression of this rejection of the nation as an important terrain of contestation.

There is, however, an important counter-weight to this explanation of the disappearance of the concept of sovereignty, at least within Canada itself. What is more, it is this that makes it possible to believe that the eclipse of sovereignty as a framework for democratic discussion may be temporary. The counter-weight is this: in the very period when the issue of Canadian sovereignty has gone into eclipse, the issue of the multiple sovereignties within the Canadian state has emerged as a live and increasingly contentious issue. To put it simply, many more Canadians now recognize as a significant aspect of their nation’s ultimate political horizons the issue of the multiple sovereignty claims that exist within the Canadian state. This does not mean that a majority of Canadians support these rights: it simply means that there is a more widespread feeling that the demands of First Nations peoples for a sovereignty of their own and of the persistent desire of Quebecois for some form of nation-hood are not about to disappear. Any attempt, therefore, to begin a new discussion of sovereignty must take cognizance of this changed constellation of political consciousness. A popular sovereignty movement cannot be about defending the Canadian state, but confronting it and changing it – radically – to accomodate a variety of sovereignty claims.

Recognition of this change implies a wholly new project: it means the construction of a distinctly multi-national Canadian sovereignty. Quite naturally, this project will require extensive listening, sharing, negotiation, and political goodwill. As of yet, however, little thought has been given as to how we might bring this about.

Canada and the US Imperial System

The disappearance of the vocabulary of sovereignty from the mainstream media and mainstream political discourse has taken place alongside Canada’s accelerated integration within the U.S. imperial system. Since the mid-1990s, this political and social reality has been widely understood to be the inevitable outcome of the world-wide phenomenon of globalization. Understanding the disappearance of the concept of Canadian sovereignty therefore implies understanding the process of globalization. The reality of this, however, is very different from its popular media representations.

Despite media arguments to the contrary, rather than being about consumer choice or technological logic, globalization is primarily an essential component of neo-liberal state policy. Globalization is aimed principally at reducing production costs and restoring profitability in the face of growing capitalist competition. Increasing competitiveness through capital mobility performs the function of disciplining labour, capital and the state.

The major forces behind the drive for increased globalization are the transnational corporations whose logic requires the free movement of capital, goods and skilled peoples across borders. This free movement succeeds best when national sovereignty is replaced by the “supra-sovereignty” of international agencies like the WTO, the IMF and NAFTA. The rules imposed by these international organizations are designed to give priority to the needs of capital. In this sense, globalization is the enemy of local custom, democratically determined legislation, regulations and standards and the needs of local populations and communities. In this light, it is clear that globalization is nothing other than a renaming of the logic of global capitalism itself. Since these processes are deeply rooted in this global logic, the overall tendency, despite obvious stresses and strains, appears to be irreversible. but as we shall argue, defeatable in its imperialist form.

The Nation State and Globalization

If globalization itself is a reality, some things that are said about its implications and manifestations are illusory. Apologists for globalization (as well as some of its critics) suggest, for example, that globalization has led to the eclipse of the role of the nation state. At best, this is only a partial truth.

In the first place, the nation state remains relevant because this is where the social relations of capitalism are reproduced. These relations include the basic antagonistic relation between owners and workers. But it also includes such things as property rights, markets, contracts, controlling immigration flows, and the methods and procedures for enforcing international agreements.

Perhaps more obviously, however, the neo-liberal legislation that forms the backbone for the globalization project has been largely the work of the national governments of the dominant northern capitalist states. It is these national governments that have negotiated the terms of the WTO and regional agreements like NAFTA, and engaged in military interventions in the Gulf, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, in the dominated southern hemisphere, national governments have also been decisive in the process of globalization too. This has been true whether those nations and governments have submitted to the demands of finance capital and the dictates of the IMF or have attempted to mount some form of resistance.

Seen in this light, the experience in Canada has not been unusual: it has more or less mirrored that of other dominant northern capitalist states. The Canadian state has been crucially important in negotiating Canada’s role within the imperial system and in managing that relationship on behalf of capital. This basic reality has become increasingly clear in recent years.

What truth is there, then, behind the so-called “internationalism” of globalization and the eclipse of the nation-state? Essentially, what it means is that global capitalism has been attempting to achieve a new working arrangement between the dominant nations and the rest of the world economy.

Capital is increasingly “international” only in the sense that capital now depends on a slightly larger number of states to achieve its successful social reproduction. But this does not mean that capital has lost its national form. Capital still requires a home base, which typically means one of the dominant northern nations. But capital now has a much greater sense of the imperial power needed to legitimize and police the areas into which it wishes to expand. Given present geo-political and military realities, however, this also means that the various national capitalist projects have become more dependent than ever on the US state. This is because the US has become absolutely central in terms of enforcing the global stability capital requires for its successful social reproduction.

National Sovereignty as a Historical Concept

In a full sense, national sovereignty has rarely been attained by any nation state. Throughout the existence of the capitalist nation-state as a dominant political form, few nations have enjoyed anything like full-fledged autonomy, control and recognition. This basic concept is best grasped in historical rather than merely abstract terms, and Canada is a particularly useful instance for thinking about it in this way.

Since its birth, Canada has been a subordinate part of somebody or other’s imperial system. Its culture, economy and security have been shaped, if not fully determined by, its subordinate role within a variety of imperial systems. In this respect, Canada has never known a fully sovereign existence.

First, of course Canada was a collection of separate British colonies. Following the process of Confederation (1867), Canada began to display a degree of independence in the drive to nation-hood. However, even with the series of nation-building projects launched by the Canadian state in the earliest stages of Confederation (a project that included clearing the land of indigenous nations and constitutionally subordinating the francophone nation), Canada never ceased being an economic, cultural and military colony of the British. In this sense, the earliest attempts to build a coherent Canadian national project were limited and only partially successful.

Early in the new century, the overall imperial situation began to change. As the USA gradually replaced Britain as the world’s leading imperial and cultural power, Canada found itself increasingly intertwined with its neighbour to the south. As early as the mid-1920s, in fact, Canada had become more economically attached to the USA than to Britain. Following the end of the Second World War, the Canadian military security, along with its secret service, also became fully integrated into the US imperial security system. The major forms of economic attachment, with Canada acting as both a supplier of resources and as a market for manufacturing goods, then took a major leap forward in the 1950s.

In concert with these economic developments, there was a similar shift in national-cultural terms. The first result of this was that Canada gradually weaned itself off Britain. But the consistently strong economic, demographic and cultural pressure of the USA to the south has meant that since that time Canada has always been in danger of becoming a US cultural colony.

Some Earlier Nation-Building Projects in Canada

It was the Liberal Party in the 1960s that presided over the last major sustained challenge to the possibility of creeping American absorption with the launching of a largely state-supported programme of Canadiana. The principal purpose of this was to mark the centenary celebration of 1967, although there was already the sense among the political leadership in Ottawa that a stronger sense of Canadian identity might be necessary to offset the awakening of the sovereignty movement in Quebec. The period from the mid-60s to the mid-70s was also the most creative period in the development of our health care system. The National Energy Program, too, was launched in this period. It was the first time in our history when a number of intellectuals made the issue of Canadian sovereignty a media issue. One part of this work focused on reflections on nationalism-in particular, on the prospects for a new Canadian nationalism. A second part of this work, more concerned with the intersection of nation, class and power, was a new political economy focused on attempting to redefine Canada’s role within the American economic empire and the possible alternatives to this.

From around this time too, there were attempts to rekindle a nation-building project by political forces linked to the Canadian capitalist class. Naturally, these also emerged from within the Liberal Party. The first was a nationalist fragment led by Walter Gordon and others, who together formed the Committee for an Independent Canada in 1970. In the mid-1980s, this fragment re-emerged as The Council of Canadians, with Mel Hurtig’s short-lived National Party (1992) being a late offshoot of this overall political initiative. The premise of all these efforts was that an independent capitalist class in Canada, nurtured by the state, could gradually capture significant parts of the economy and reduce its investment-trade-cultural dependence on the USA. Seldom, if ever, was the racial and gendered leadership of this nation questioned. This attempt was decisively hampered by the fact that, for many years now, major sectors of Canada’s capitalist class have no interest in a nation-building project. They either see themselves as part of international capital or are outrightly foreign-owned, mainly by US corporations.

This reflects the trend toward the world-wide de-nationalization of capital in favor of a new continentalist-regional orientation, a division of the world into three major sectors centred on North America, Western Europe, and North East Asia. The difference in Canada is simply that continental orientation occurred earlier and penetrated more deeply here than elsewhere.

Towards an Alternative: Multi-National Class-Based Sovereignty in Canada

The nation is not a homogeneous social space. In Canada, Pierre Trudeau’s decades-long national unity obsession was to a large extent aimed at obfuscating this fact. The obsession with keeping Quebec in Canada while at the same time insisting that it is a province just like all the others has caused our politics to be mainly concerned with how resources and power get divided between provinces rather than how they are divided by class. Years ago, Gad Horowitz argued in Canadian Dimension that only by ending the national unity obsession could we develop a “class politics [that] could unite the nation by uniting its various non-elites across ethnic and regional barriers.” The solution, he said, was to recognize the national character of the Quebecois and provide that province with a “special status”.

The first political attempt to formulate the concept of an alternative to status quo sovereignty in Canada was undertaken by the Waffle, a reform movement that emerged within the New Democratic Party between the years 1969 and 1972. The Waffle was the first important political reform movement to insist that the nation-building project in Canada had to be socialist and led by the working class. Moreover, the Waffle took the position that this project had to give full recognition to the right of self-determination to francophones in Quebec. In retrospect, we can see the efforts of the Waffle as the first genuine attempt by the Left to formulate the concept of a multi-national class-based Canadian sovereignty.

However, the social democratic NDP, firmly wedded to private ownership of the economy and the dominant concept of a status quo sovereignty centered on Ottawa, could not accept the Waffle position, and so expelled it in 1972. The immediate effects of this decision was bad for all concerned. The Waffle could not sustain itself as an independent organization and disappeared within a couple of years as a viable political force. Meanwhile, the NDP’s support for status quo sovereignty meant that it could find no home among the francophone working class in Quebec. In turn, this meant that the NDP could never hope to form the federal government in Ottawa, with obvious consequences for the security of social programs, workers rights, and progressive legislation right across Canada.

More importantly, the battle within the NDP seems to suggest that a progressive sovereignty movement today must build on the idea that there can be no single unified center for all the multi-national sovereignty claims that exist in Canada. For this reason, a sovereignty movement must look toward the building of a different kind of state. A major first step in this direction was the initiative of the socialist-feminist-inspired National Action Committee on the Status of Women. In the spirit of Gad Horowitz’s earlier formulation, NAC proposed the concept of an “assymetric federalism” during the two constitutional debates of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though the Charlottetown Accord was decisively defeated, it is of significance that this concept never subsequently entered the vocabulary of the political class. Moreover, since that time the National Action Committee has been starved of funds. It would appear that the supporters of the status quo would rather give up on the idea of constitutional reform altogether than embrace democratic and inclusive concepts that have the potential to resolve issues in the interests of a majority of the people.


This is a very brief and incomplete picture, but it demonstrates five important points.

First, the globalization of capital is long-standing. Its acceleration over the past quarter century is an essential step in the reproduction and sustainability of capitalism in the face of a number of difficult challenges. From our perspective, it seems clear that there is no going back to the so-called golden era of capitalism that preceded the neo-liberalist project. This means that the kinds of moderate reforms available in the past, building on welfare capitalism, are unavailable today. Ours may be the first generation to come up against the real limits of capitalism.

The second point then is that without a strong national resistance movement, there can be no effective fight against imperialist globalization. It is on the basis of this strong nationalist resistance movement that we will be able to build the essential Resistance Internationale. Clearly, a new internationalism begins by building a network of powerful national movements That challenges the power of transnational capital at home. Without them, inter-nationalism is an empty abstraction. Only an international coalition of national movements and social movements will be capable of forcing a retreat on global capital and its agencies, controlling financial speculation and dealing with third world debt and the threat of ecological disaster. So far, the anti-capitalist movement here has not focused on the struggle for sovereignty and the resumption of the nation-building project. In part, this is partly due to internal differences that are long-standing among socialists of various tendencies. However, the major problem has been the slowness with which we have recognized the way in which globalization has actually emptied politics of the concepts of sovereignty and nation.

Third, Canada’s nation-building project has never been fully implemented. Part of the reason for this is that previous attempts were badly distorted both by their imperial subordination and by failure to think beyond the accompanying colonial policies in the face of the existing sovereignty claims of indigenous and francophone peoples. If there is no returning to the golden age of welfare capitalism, there can also be no return to Trudeau-style status quo sovereignty.

Fourth, this project is not the Waffle mark two. It is about building an anti-capitalist, multi-national popular sovereignty movement that sees itself as part of a new international movement. It is not about defending the Canadian state but opposing it as a colonial state and as a significant part of the U.S – led imperial state. It is about building a different kind of state and a different kind of society. In the final analysis, sovereignty is without meaning if it isn’t about building a democratic economy that includes various forms of collective, community and cooperative ownership of the productive forces that shape our communities and our lives.

Fifth, there will be no easy victories-not even small ones. The US economic and military dominance of the world is incredibly extensive. With the passage of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA, Canada is much more closely integrated to the USA. Revulsion towards the US is not nearly as strong as it was when the issue of sovereignty first engaged a wide audience in Canada at the height of the Vietnam War. Unlike then too, third world liberation movements seem almost extinct.

But victory for the victors too comes at a price. It is therefore not difficult to sense a deep unease, about where, if anywhere, the neoliberal project is headed. Although people may not put it in these terms, it is not difficult to see that much of this sense of foreboding is actually a legitimate response to an almost complete sense of disempowerment-in the First Nations bands, in Quebec towns and in most of the provinces of English Canada. At some point in the future, then, it seems that the need to reclaim the sovereignty debate will make itself felt on the mass political level. The Council of Canadians, which has played a central role in the anti-globalization movement, is one important vehicle for re-launching the campaign for a struggle for Canadian sovereignty.

For now, however, victories will be found in raising public awareness, slowing down the spread of corporate globalization where we can and above all building the anti-capitalist movement-nationally and internationally. In the meantime, we can aid this process through undertaking debate and by becoming more radical ourselves-in our analysis, in our strategies and in our demands for reform.


Here are some questions meant to help the discussion of this important issue within the movement:

1. How do we see Canada’s economic, cultural and security role in relation to the US imperial system?

2. How would a nation-building project fit into the struggles against neo-liberal globalization, against capitalism/imperialism and against war?

3.What form would such a nation-building project assume?

4. How would it take into account the multi-national character of Canada?

5. How do the issues of multiculturalism and anti-racism relate to the concept of a multi-national sovereignty in Canada?

6. What utility would there be for the contents/demands/visions of previous nation-building projects?

7. Who or what force(es) should lead/champion such a project?

8. Is it useful to distinguish between sovereignty and nationalism?

9. What is the relationship between our socialist project and the sovereignty/national Project?

10. What is the relationship between our goal of international solidarity and sovereignty?

11. What does economic and cultural sovereignty mean and how feasible is it in the light of today’s economic and technical realities?

This article appears in the July-August issue of Canadian Dimension magazine

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