Singh’s “Points of Difference”: National Unity

(This post is the second in a series. Previously, I examined Singh’s claim about Abortion Rights.)

At the first Leader’s Debate on Sept 12th, 2019, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh proposed four “points of difference” between the NDP and the Greens. One of his claims was that the NDP has “a solid position when it comes down to national unity”, and by implication, that the Greens do not. Is this claim legitimate?

Unfortunately, Singh didn’t mention national unity again during the Maclean’s debate (and neither did Elizabeth May). This leaves us in a difficult spot, because it’s not obvious what his comment referred to.

Party Platforms

Looking at the two parties’ platforms, it turns out the Green Platform doesn’t include a single mention of the word “unity”… and neither does the NDP Platform.

The NDP platform also doesn’t mention “federation”, “federalism”, or the constitution (other than one brief reference to Indigenous land rights).

The Green platform mentions federalism once, when it promises to promote “collaborative federalism” through the establishment of a Council of Canadian Governments that would include representatives from federal, provincial/territorial, municipal, and Indigenous governments.

The NDP platform does contain several mentions of politicians using “divisive rhetoric” and “dividing communities” through fear. The Green platform makes a similar comment in its introduction.

Overall, neither platform seems particularly concerned with national unity, and the NDP doesn’t appear to have taken any significant commitment or stance on the subject so far in their campaign.

So, what was Singh referring to?

Perhaps what he had in mind were recent events involving a sovereignist former NDP MP who defected to the Greens and generated significant media coverage in doing so.

L’affaire Nantel

Pierre Nantel is an MP who was elected in 2011 and 2015 as a member of the NDP. On August 16th, the NDP ejected him from their caucus when they discovered he had been in discussions to join another party.

Elizabeth May confirmed at that time that she had, in fact, been in discussions with Nantel for about a year to join the Greens. Later, on August 19th, Nantel formally announced his GPC candidacy, citing “apathy and inaction” on climate change as his reason for moving to the Greens.

This is where national unity enters the story.

On September 10th, during an interview with Benoit Dutrizac of QUB radio, Nantel commented on Québec’s future in Canada, suggesting “Let’s separate as fast as possible”, and stating he would vote “yes” on a hypothetical future referendum to separate from Canada.

When asked for comment by CBC, the Green Party stated that “Although the Green Party has the utmost respect for the unique culture of Quebec, it does not support the sovereignist movement”.

What followed next was a confusing series of he-said she-said comments about Nantel’s sovereignist views.

On September 11th, Elizabeth May claimed at her campaign launch event that Nantel “is not a separatist. He’s a strong Quebecer within the context of Canada,” and furthermore that the Greens “won’t play games around separatism around Quebec”.

On September 12th, the Green Party released a statement by Nantel that included these comments:

I voted for Quebec’s independence in 1995. But as a federal MP over the last 8 years, I have never advocated for independance in the House of Commons. That position won’t change—because I firmly believe that debate must happen in Quebec, not in Ottawa.

Later on September 12th, Nantel was interviewed by Radio-Canada and said “Of course I’m a sovereignist, everyone knows, and that’s always been the case”. Nantel also claimed that May was “enthusiastic” about welcoming more sovereignists into the Green Party, so long as they didn’t advocate for Québec sovereignty in Parliament, which he had also agreed to not do.

On September 13th, in an interview with CBC Power & Politics, May repeated the claim that Nantel was not a separatist, stating that “Sovereigntism and separatism they are … it may seem like it’s splitting hairs, but a lot of Quebecers are sovereignists—they respect the sovereignty of Quebec. They’re not interested in separating. Pierre is not a separatist. He’s not interested in breaking up the country.”

Finally, also on September 13th, May was interviewed by Carol Off of As It Happens and was asked again about Nantel. This time, May said “I don’t want anyone in the Green Party caucus federally who doesn’t understand that we have to hold Canada together. A united Canada is necessary to deliver on climate action. And that’s where Pierre stands now.”

How to summarize this mess? Clearly Nantel is a separatist. He voted for separation in 1995, would vote for separation in future, and hopes separation happens “as soon as possible”. Does he need to get a tattoo of Jacques Parizeau before the Greens will admit the truth?

And Yet: So What?

So Nantel is a separatist, sovereignist, nationalist, whatever. But does that mean the Greens “don’t have a solid position on national unity”?

Certainly they have made their stance and expectations clear: they “do not support the sovereignist movement”, and they expect their MP’s not to raise the issue of Québec sovereignty in Parliament.

However, as with the previous issue of access to abortion, the question is not whether the position is clear, but whether it is “solid”. Meaning, can voters expect the position to hold under all reasonable circumstances?

This time, the answer might be a little less clear-cut.

So long as the party only sees one sovereignist MP elected (assuming they even do that), that single MP would not have sufficient bargaining power to change the party’s overall policies and stances.

But if the party really is “enthusiastic” about welcoming more sovereignists, as Nantel claims, then the future makeup of the party could change. If a large number of environmentally-minded sovereignists follow Nantel’s lead by joining the Greens, and if a significant number of them are elected, then what?

The balance of bargaining power would change, and if it changed enough, the party might find itself having to shift from a federalist stance to an “agnostic” stance that embraced both federalists and separatists as part of a bigger tent.

Does this make the Green party’s stance on national unity less than 100% solid? If so, then the NDP’s stance is not solid either. After all, Nantel was an NDP MP for 8 years, and was ejected not for being a sovereignist, but simply for getting caught negotiating with the Greens.

The Final Verdict

There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that would support Singh’s comparison on the issue of national unity. Neither party’s platform deals with national unity; neither leader has made it a major theme of their campaign; and both parties have welcomed at least one openly sovereignist candidate/MP.

For the second time, it appears Singh was hoping to make hay off current events that would be known to supporters, rather than identifying real differences between the parties.

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