Unity in crisis


When this country was riven by internal crisis a century ago at least it was indeed a matter of life and death. Today it’s just a matter of beer, licence plates and how to greet shoppers at the corner store.

Yes, back in mid-December 1917 Canada suffered through the ‘Conscription Crisis,’ as Robert Borden’s Tories fought and eventually won the bitterest election ever held in our land while the First World War continued across the Atlantic, claiming our sons in ever increasing numbers.

With French troops verging on mutiny and the Eastern Front collapsing as Russia was caught up in violent revolution, it was left to Britain and its allies from across the Empire to carry the fighting load against the Germans in those Western trenches.

Canada was urged by the Brits to send fresh troops but a conflict already mightily unpopular in Quebec became even more poisonous when Borden moved to introduce conscription. Whatever the ins and outs of that decision and its subsequent consequences there was no doubt huge issues were in play, testing national unity as never before.

There are many reasons to be thankful we’re not involved in such a dreadful war today, one of them being that Canada likely would not survive as a country, regardless of the outcome of actual combat.

Heck, we manage to get ourselves into such a lather over the most trifling things these days it’s a wonder we got to this 150th celebratory year. Chances are we won’t make the 200 mark unless we give our collective heads a shake and realize what a great country we constantly jeopardize with petty, small-minded antics.

First up into the goofy batter’s box is La Belle Province itself, whose government voted unanimously that shopkeepers should no longer be allowed to greet would-be customers with a hybrid ‘bonjour-hi’ as many now do. Nope, it must be ‘bonjour’ alone or else shut up shop. Dear me, is Quebec so skittish it must regulate something so simple as commercial politeness? Apparently so, it seems.

Then there’s New Brunswick, right next door. In the latest chapter of a bizarre, long-running soap opera, one of its residents went before the Supreme Court last week in his fight to buy beer in Quebec and bring it home to sup. Yes, the highest court in our land is hearing all about Gerard Comeau’s confiscated booze, courtesy of the Mounties, who charged him with violating New Brunswick’s liquor laws by bringing 14 cases of beer back into his home province in order to save a few bucks.

And before we pooh-pooh those silly easterners let’s look closer to home and the ludicrous spat that’s broken out between Alberta and Saskatchewan over licence plates.

Last week the flatlanders announced they were banning Alberta licence plates on trucks belonging to anyone working on government road and infrastructure projects in their province.

Apparently Wild Rose companies can still bid on Saskatchewan projects as long as they buy that province’s licenses to slap on vehicles involved in such work.

Alberta’s government wants to retaliate – maybe they’ll make all those Rider fans buy Stampeder or Eskimo flags before being allowed into our stadiums. Honestly, the way things are going you wouldn’t be surprised.

All of this would be funny if it didn’t pull at the increasingly frayed fabric binding this huge country together. Of course there are differences between Newfoundland and British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec, but if we can’t deal with licence plates, beer and corner shop greetings then we’re ultimately doomed when something serious and deadly puts our frail unity to the test.

Chris Nelson is a long-time journalist. His columns on Alberta politics run monthly in the St. Albert Gazette.


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Chris Nelson is a long-time journalist. His columns on Alberta politics appear monthly.