There are few family names as Scottish as mine. There are five Scots tartan patterns for Stewart clans, and two more for those who spell it Stuart.
That heritage doesn’t necessarily make me Scottish. I’m one of millions worldwide who can claim at least some Scottish ancestry (including a large number of Crees in Eeyou Istchee), a diaspora that outnumbers the current population of Scotland. And, like most, I’ve never been to Scotland, nor do I know any relatives who speak in their famous brogue.
For that reason, I initially kept my emotional distance from the referendum campaign on independence for Scotland. I love the sound of bagpipes, but living in Quebec, I wasn’t very interested in an ethnocentric nationalism for its own sake. Our collective nightmare over the Charter of Quebec Values was enough to make any nationalism look tainted, even that of my own “people.”
Besides, for most of the campaign that ended dramatically September 18, it looked like the pro-independence campaign had little chance of success. Then, a few weeks before the vote, something clicked. Along with people around the world, I started paying more attention because it was clear something special was happening.
People realized this wasn’t about a choice between “us and them.” Or about a bunch of kilt-wearing, haggis-munching cultural snobs shouting “Scotland for the Scots!” Indeed, many of the leading figures in the Scotland independence campaign wore turbans and hijabs, but were considered no less Scottish for it.
Rather, it was about the ability of a nation to be free of the economic destruction that a series of right-wing governments in London have waged on the rest of the United Kingdom since the days of Margaret Thatcher. While the toffs in London thrive, the regions of Great Britain have withered as wealth is ever more concentrated in the financial casino economy of the south. That’s something that people around the world can identify with.
Here was an opportunity, people began to see, of building a better, more egalitarian society, one in which almost all of a nation’s wealth is not concentrated in an ever-smaller number of hands. It began to make practical sense. If Scotland’s weight in the British Parliament was not enough to help the UK turn from its self-destructive path, why not build one’s own road to a more sensible future?
Suddenly, it looked like the independence campaign had a real shot of winning. A few polls showed the Yes campaign with a small lead. All the momentum seemed to swing toward the promise of a future Scotland finally free of the sad history of slaughter and oppression that it has known under the English crown. The proof of that is the panic that ensued in the British government of David Cameron and the declining value of the pound.
That’s when the campaign started to resemble the 1995 referendum in Quebec, as government figures rushed north to promise devolution and blue skies forever if the Scots voted No… and to threaten fire and brimstone if they dared to vote Yes. As in Quebec, it worked, just enough, as the final vote came in at 55% to 45% against independence.
Nonetheless, all major parties in the British Parliament – the governing Conservative/Liberal-Democrat coalition and the opposition Labour Party – made firm promises to deliver powers of self-rule to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. And this, at least, will be a silver lining to a lost dream if it actually comes to pass. If London reneges on its promises, the example of Quebec shows that another referendum is always possible.
It’s a story the Cree of Eeyou Istchee can identify with, at least in part. Since the 1970s the Cree leadership has recognized that cultural and political survival depends on economic sovereignty – the same goal as the Scottish nationalists.
Step by step, the Crees have gathered economic powers under their control, increasing their political strength along the way. It hasn’t come in one fell swoop as the Scottish National Party had hoped, but there is a lesson they can learn from their Cree cousins.
But if the Cree have taken smaller but steadier steps toward their own sovereignty, there is a dark cloud on the horizon. The Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (known as FIPA), ratified in September by the Harper government, threatens to undo much of this progress and thrust the Cree Nation back into the subjugation that the Scots have known under London’s domination.
FIPA overrides existing treaty obligations to First Nations, and would enable Chinese investors to gain access to Indigenous territories and resources. This deal could come to resemble the 1707 Act of Union that brought Scotland under England’s thumb for a package of promises that turned out to be worthless. And if that is the case, the Cree may soon be looking more closely at the Scottish example.