Scottish independence referendum: Canada reacts

The reaction in Canada to the referendum in Scotland has been interesting to watch. Some have looked to the process as a model for us to follow should there ever be a third referendum in Quebec. Others have offered up the Canadian federation as a model for a future, federated United Kingdom. These arguments merit consideration, but they also serve to obscure a more fundamental lesson for us to draw from the Scottish experience.The dynamics of the home stretch of the Scottish campaign probably hit too close to home for many political observers in Canada. As we watched pro-union leaders improvise a counteroffensive to a rising YES vote, and then watch the YES side improvise its response, it was almost impossible not to let our minds dart back to 1995. And while we should be careful not to make too many inferences as to what the Scottish vote means for Canada, one lesson stands out.As the campaign rhetoric heated up, there was no reliable, independent policy research to act as a counterweight to some of the positions taken by leaders in both campaigns: costs of separation, impact on future economic growth, broad strokes of what a relationship between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK would have looked like – to say nothing of EU membership. In case we had forgotten how fundamentally ill-prepared both sides were in the lead up to our own vote in 1995, author and journalist Chantal Hébert has vividly reminded us in her new book The Morning After that all of our leaders – YES and NO – had not a clue on what they would have done if 25,000 people had voted the other way on that fateful night.Twenty years after that near-miss, those of us who are committed to a united Canada probably know less about how we should approach the next referendum than we did on the eve of engaging in the last one. There was a brief moment of collective panic last February when federalist opinion leaders were convinced then-Premier Marois had her majority in the bag and we realized we were unprepared for what might follow. But the day after the historic PQ defeat, too many of us quickly congratulated ourselves that the “other side” was on the mat, and decided we could therefore go back to addressing “real priorities.” To the proponents of that view, I ask: what priority could possibly be more real to a country than to seek to understand itself better?Canada is changing. By almost every meaningful measure, we are not the same country we were a few decades ago. Our economy is more open to the world and draws its strengths from different regions and sectors. Our people are older, more diverse and more urban. Our provinces have a different relationship with Ottawa and with each other. All the while, many of our fundamental challenges remain the same. A founding partner in Confederation has yet to sign on to our country's basic law, we continue to struggle with the aspirations of our regions, and fundamental issues concerning our Aboriginal peoples remain unresolved. We need to renew our approach to solving pan-Canadian problems, and the only thing we know for sure is that the 'old ways' won't get us there.Precisely because the constitutional noise is dialed down almost to mute, now is the time to invest in rethinking federal arrangements and institutions, and better understanding public attitudes toward the federation. If Canadians want to make progress on Senate reform, relations with Aboriginal peoples, eliminating internal trade barriers, agreeing on a national approach to energy and climate change, recognizing the specificity of Quebec as a nation within a united Canada, or resolving any fiscal imbalance, we have to start by re-engaging on the basic research we stopped doing 20 years ago because of lack of budgets and political will.To be prepared, governments across Canada have to declare today that understanding our country is a top priority. This is not about choosing, or not, to “open the constitution.” It is about making sure we know enough about ourselves and the country we share to be ready with meaningful answers when difficult questions come up. Fini, l'improvisation.Let us not await the next crisis unprepared and in ignorance. We will find it is then too late for preparation and insight. Besides, if the project of Canada isn't worth the investment, what is?Graham Fox is president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP), a national, independent, nonpartisan think tank headquartered in Montreal.