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As Others See Us: the view from Canada

Passionately nationalist Le Devoir summed up this week’s “separatist summit” best in a cartoon.

It showed a kilted Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland, shaking the hand of his Quebec counterpart for talks. With a paper bag over his head. All this in the paper of choice for thinking Francophone sovereigntists, or nationalists.

Canadian federalists or unionists were delighted. “Ouch,” tweeted one when he saw the Le Devoir joke.

Canada’s often highly partisan newspapers - on both sides of the Quebec independence issue  - have been bigging up relations between would-be breakaway leaders in Edinburgh, Quebec and Barcelona for some time. Imagine then their disappointment - or joy - when Salmond appeared to cold-shoulder Pauline Marois.

Read some of the Canadian papers and you might think Quebec premier was over in Edinburgh to hatch a separatist plot. As The Herald revealed, Marois talked of handing a bundle of documents over to Salmond on how her own province, or “nation within Canada”, handled its two bitter independence referenda.

The FM wasn’t interested.

“Scotland’s leader didn’t ask much of Marois,” reported agency Canadian Press after referring to Scotland as a region. “He all but avoided being seen with her.”

La Presse, the moderate Francophone Montreal title, referred to the “historic meeting” between the two leaders having gone unnoticed. The big question at the post-summit press scrum, they reported, was: “Did Salmond not want to be seen with Marois?” So why did the supposed snub play so big across the pond?

Because there is a vague (and in my view slightly odd) notion in Canada that there is some kind of separatist league uniting would-be breakaway movements in Britain, Canada, Spain and Belgium.

Let me quote at length from one 2012 news feature from the London correspondent of the English-language Globe and Mail.

He wrote: “In Catalonia, Scotland and now Quebec, power is held by separatist parties that have little chance of winning a sovereignty referendum in the foreseeable future, but are instead using their electoral mandates to demand increasing devolution of power from the national government.

“There’s little coincidence in this: In the nine years since the Parti Québécois were last in power, the separatist movements in Canada, Britain and Spain have become increasingly interlinked and motivated by one another’s tactics.

“Their leaders nowadays meet with one another on a regular basis, study one another’s slogans and strategies, and celebrate their mutual victories.”

He added: “Officials in the SNP drop the Quebec referendum phrase ‘sovereignty-association’ into their conversations; members of the Catalan Convergence and Unity coalition hold conferences on the Scottish multi-question referendum strategy, and newly elected PQ Premier Pauline Marois has communicated with both movements about their strategies.”

(For what it is worth The Globe and Mail - like several other north American outlets - reckons Scots, Catalans and Quebecers are what it calls “Plan B” nationalists, those who don’t really want full-fat independence but use the threat of it to get more power and money from central governments. Of course, there are those in Scotland and Spain who, rightly or wrongly, feel the same way.)

Have the nationalist movements - Plan B or otherwise – really cross-pollinated?

Well, there certainly are contacts between the PQ and the SNP and Catalan groups such as CiU and the most left-wing and more firmly pro-independence Esquerra.

But how “in league” are they? Not very, in my view. Take last year’s big vote in Catalunya. The SNP didn’t congratulate nationalist parties on their victory. Nationalist ministers have kept their noses out of Spain. And now Salmond has “snubbed” Marois. Normally when Alex Salmond meets a dignitary, the Scottish Government provides free pictures. Not this time.

So what’s going on?

Me? I am not sure. Maybe SNP ministers would rather be compared to their counterparts in Denmark or Slovakia than to those in countries such as Catalunya or Quebec still to become independent?

SNP figures, for what it is worth, like to pitch the idea that Scotland’s issues are more akin to those of Canada (which cut its final constitutional strings with the UK as recently as the 1980s) than they are to Quebec.

Scotland’s cold shoulder for fellow nationalist movements hasn’t gone unnoticed in Spain either.

This week Madrid’s staunchly unionist La Razon asked why Salmond was distancing himself from Catalunya and Quebec. “Because he doesn’t want to associate himself with failed processes,” explained an expert, “or with the problem that EU membership will require the OK from all member states, including Spain.”

Some in the SNP and wider movement will privately admit to being a little squeamish about some of the rhetoric used by their supposed allies in Quebec. But I suspect they are just as worried about being caught in the crossfire of Canada's ill-tempered and shrill constitutional politics.

Canadians, meanwhile, can be pretty partisan over Scottish politics. But that is another blog.  This one in fact.  

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