Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Montenegro Through an Atlantic Canadian Prism

A while back, I linked approvingly to Douglas Muir's Halfway Down the Danube post, "Free Montenegro! Or maybe not.". This post was critical of Montenegro's progression to independence on multiple grounds. nwhyte rightly asked me why I was so critical. It isn't because of any prejudice of mine against small states, highly successful and dynamic countries like Luxembourg, Singapore, Estonia, Slovenia, or Barbados. It certainly because I dislike small human islands, geographical or social. Rather, it's because of my biography.

* * *

First, some historical background.

For a time, in the 1970s and the 1980s, there was an annoying tendency among certain Canadian nationalists to identify Canada as a semi-colonial territory. Margaret Atwood, in her seminal 1972 survey Survival, argued (in my view, correctly) that Canadian literature and its authors have been preoccupied by attempts to survive in the midst of a hostile natural environment, and that this marginality is accented by Canada's location under the wing of one or another Great Power. Endurance is one key to Canadian identity.

The central symbol for Canada--and this is based on numerous instances of its occurrence in both English and French Canadian literature--is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance. Like the Frontier and The Island, it is a multi-faceted and adaptable idea. For early explorers and settlers, it meant bare survival in the face of "hostile" elements and/or natives: carving out a place and a way of keeping alive. But the word can also suggest survival of a crisis or disaster, like a hurricane or a wreck, and many Canadian poems have this kind of survival as a theme; what you might call 'grim' survival as opposed to 'bare' survival. For French Canada after the English took over it became cultural survival, hanging on as a people, retaining a religion and a language under an alien government. And in English Canada now while the Americans are taking over it is acquiring a similar meaning. (Atwood 32)

Unfortunately, some people overly enamoured of Immannuel Wallerstein's world system theory went too far. Immanuel Wallerstein proposed that the world as a human system is united by what he calls the "world-economy"--a global capitalist economy that is the product of the immense European expansion overseas that began in the 15th century--and is divided between prosperous "core" economies and marginal "peripheral" economies. There further exists a special category of intermediate economies (the "semiperiphery") that may rank with core economies in a particular aspect such as living standards, control over natural resources, or a large domestic market, but which are ultimately dependent upon core economies for their intermediate status.

For too many Canadian nationalists of the 1970s and 1980s, Canada was a semi-peripheral country, exporting a wide variety of staple commodities and comparatively few manufactured goods or specialized services, yet producing some manufactured exports and investing in foreign economies. This classification is inaccurate when it is used in relation to Canada at any time after the first quarter of the 20th century, when British dominions like Canada became authentically independent states, Canada became an urbanized and an industrialized country with a very high standard of living and subsequently a major technological power and foreign investor. The idea that Canada in the 1970s was comparable to, say, Yugoslavia in any way apart from their shared status as middle powers, verges upon the ridiculous. Trudeau was not Tito no matter what Albertans might say, Slovenia is not Québec, and the RCMP is certainly not the JNA.

Even so, one comparison does come to mind. Atlantic Canada--the four eastern provinces of Canada, though you could as easily add much of eastern Québec on socioeconomic and geographical grounds to this category--is a region with a strong maritime tradition that took Atlantic Canadians away from their continental hinterland, with an agricultural economy that never really managed to modernize despite (among other factors) tourism and lags behind its continental hinterland, and (unsurprisingly) a history of mass emigration. The Adriatic coastline of the former Yugoslavia has a surprisingly similar sort of history, with strong maritime traditions, an agricultural economy that never really modernized and which remains highly dependent on tourism, and (again, unsurprisingly) histories of massive emigration. Dalmatia--the region occupying most of the coastal areas of independent Croatia--has firmly welded into the Croatian nation-state by, among other factors, the war of independence. Montenegro, an autonomous republic linked only tenuously with Serbia, seems to be shifting towards independence.

* * *

I've often imagined how I'd react if, for some bizarre reason, Prince Edward Island held a referendum on separation from Canada. I've come to the conclusion that two thoughts would take immediate precedence.

1. "Leave. Leave, by the name of all that's still holy, while you still qualify as Canadian citizens and no one can trap you on the Island."

2. "Stay, liquidate all your assets, buy up the land and other property now available at low prices, and build yourself a real-estate empire."

Within Canada, for the past century and a third the Island's democratically-elected provincial governments have presided over an uninterrupted period of relative economic decline. Once, the Island was one of the richest parts of the world, with a shipbuilding industry; now, GDP per capita seems to be on par with some of the richer newly-industrialized and post-communist countries. We are slipping down the list, and we do not know how to catch up. We want to become innovative, but how do we do that, why we decide to approach innovation as a fixed goal not as a state of constant innovation and turmoil, roll a 6 on a 12-sided die and advance to tech level 7. We want to attract more immigrants, but how do we want to do that, we want to inaugurate a system not too far removed from indentured servitude, keep our "guests" at home while we leave in droves.

Prince Edward Island has never been an independent state. It is true that, between 1867 and 1873, the Island was independent of the young Dominion of Canada, but that was because we hadn't yet exhausted our financial reserves building a provincial railway (now gone, its bed serving as a fine hiking and biking trail) and Ottawa hadn't offered to buy out our absentee landlords. Newfoundland, our near neighbour, was an independent state for a long while, poor and incapable of social advances even before it was prostrated by the Great Depression. One of the more notable facts in the last decade of our neighbour province's political history is the attempt, in 1932, of an angry mob in St. John's to lynch the prime minister. The suspension of constitutional government is a mere afterword in comparison.

Would an independent Prince Edward Island do as well as, say, an independent Newfoundland? No. Newfoundlanders have a certain dynamism about them and their culture, a strong collective identity creatively expressed, that might yet allow them to relaunch their national project. There is nothing comparable on the Island apart from a sense of collective identity verging on ethnicity that's expressed mainly in quiet soft xenophobia. Islanders are uncreative. Islanders won't change their ways unless they suffer terribly, and even then I suspect we'd try for cheap deus ex machina one-shot solutions: arranging our annexation by Japan, leasing out West Prince to China for use as a short-range missile base, encouraging the approaching Tau Cetian merchant fleet to pick us as Earth's sole entrepôt for interstellar trade. I have no confidence in Islanders' ability to manage their province's future in a way that doesn't require our dependency on some outside agency. If I did, perhaps I'd have stayed.

* * *

I know that I may be being unfair to Montenegro in saddling that nascent nation-state with the psychic baggage thrown onto me by Prince Edward Island. I certainly don't think that Montenegro should be forced to remain in a federation that a majority of Montenegrins don't seem to want, not that the federation seems to serve any constructive purpose in any case. Then again, the prospects for an independent Montenegro seem worse in many ways than the prospects for an independent Island. Are Montenegrins are a separate nation or just a variety of Serb? What future role will the Bosniak and Albanian minorities have? How can the economy be modernized? What sort of relationship can Montenegrins build with a European Union that does not seem terribly keen on the idea of expansion? I leave aside the question of Montenegro's responsibility for the 1991 siege and bombardment of Dubrovnik and the looting of that city's hinterland, and reports that the Montenegrin government has Mafia connections.

My conclusion? If the group of people leading a nascent nation-state is as incompetent as the typical Atlantic Canadian political elite, be very concerned.
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