Sunday, August 09, 2009

Multi-ethnic communities - respecting the rights of minorities

In the third post in this series, Multi-ethnic communities - Adolf Hitler's contribution, I suggested that Adolph Hitler’s greatest contribution lay in the way he and the Nazi regime in their mad obsessions crystallised, took to their logical extreme, ideas that had been built into European thinking and thus discredited them. In doing so, Hitler laid the basis for the Nuremberg trails and for subsequent international action against war crimes.

This was a not insignificant achievement even if it can be likened to medical advances flowing from a deadly global pandemic. I finished the post by suggesting that international law was the first building block in encouraging different ethnic groups to live together in harmony because it imposed sanctions especially on official leaders who wanted to play the race or ethnicity card.

In this post I want to extend my discussion by looking briefly at one aspect of the Canadian experience.

The Seven Years War (really the nine years war:1754–1763) involved all the major European powers of the period and was, in some ways, the first fully global war because 340px-SevenYearsWarit was fought across three continents.

To give you an indication of scale, the map from Wikipedia shows the areas involved. Blue: Great Britain, Prussia, Portugal, Sweden with allies. Green: France, Spain, Austria, Russia with allies.

In the settlements that followed the end of the war, Britain gained, among other things, the French Settlements that had formed the heart of New France in what would become Canada. In doing so, they gained a deeply Roman Catholic population speaking another language. The continuing tensions between ethnic French and English in Canada has brought the country to the verge of break-up a number of times, yet so far Canada survives.

A key reason for this is that French Canada has been able to exercise direct political power in Quebec while also participating in power at national level. This need not stop a country breaking up, but it does provide a powerful weapon in keeping it together. Importantly in the Canadian case, it was French Canadian political leaders who played a key role in fighting the separatist tendencies present in Quebec.

In 1774 the British Parliament passed the Quebec Act. The Act was passed for purely pragmatic reasons. It was also passed at a time when the tensions and restrictions flowing from the Reformation were still very much alive, when those of the Roman Catholic persuasion were effectively prevented from sitting in the Parliament at Westminster.

The Act restored the former French civil tradition for private law, which had been ended in 1763. It allowed public office holders to practice the Roman Catholic faith, by replacing the oath sworn by officials from one to Elizabeth I and her heirs with one to George III that had no reference to the Protestant faith. This enabled, for the first time, French Canadians to legally participate in the affairs of the provincial government without formally renouncing their faith.

It also reestablished the collection of tithes, which had been stopped under the previous administrative rules, and it allowed Jesuit priests to return to the province.

The new Act was deeply unpopular further south and became another yet another of the planks that led to the American Revolution in the thirteen colonies. Deeply suspicious of papist influnce, angry that the new province of Quebec had been given title over part of the land that had belonged to New France, the rebels listed the Quebec Act as one of the grievances in their Declaration of Independence.

So in granting civil liberties to one group, the Act helped trigger a rebellion in another group. Yet it also helped lay the basis for what would become the Canadian nation.

Note to readers: You will find a full list of posts in this series here.

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