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Donald Lenihan

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Judging Nycole Turmel: Shall We have a Stoning?

Posted: 08/03/11 01:45 PM ET

Nycole Turmel insists she's a federalist, even though she has been a member of two sovereigntist parties. The Ottawa commentariat is in a tizzy.

People in this town really should get a life.

Now, before someone accuses me of being a collaborateur, let me declare my bona fides as a good Canadian. I was born and raised in Alberta, spent six years in Victoria, and the last 25 living in Toronto, Ottawa and Aylmer, Quebec--yes, that Aylmer, political base of the tainted Turmel.

I have travelled back and forth across every part of Canada more times than most Ottawans have gone to their cottages. I fought in the constitutional wars, was married to a Québécoise, and raised my son as a francophone.

After all that, here's what I know about Quebec: It is what it is, an emotional and conflicted member of the Canadian family. But then, when it comes to identity, how many Canadians are not emotional and conflicted?

I can't count the number of ex-pats from Ontario, now living on the West Coast, who have proudly declared to me that, once they crossed the Rockies, they never looked back. If suddenly they had to choose between the Gulf Islands and the Maple Leaf, precious few would give up the mild climate and soaring firs to skate again on the Ottawa canal.

And speaking of emotional and conflicted, what of Alberta, my native province? How many times has the wild rose threatened to prick us 'Central Canadians' until we all bleed to death? I don't see why we can live with a prime minister who wanted to build a firewall around the oil patch and declare virtual independence from Ottawa, but we fear an interim leader of the opposition because she belonged to a separatist party -- the very same separatist party, recall, that formed Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition from 1993 to 1997.

Finally, has everyone in Ottawa forgotten how Brian Mulroney promised to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold with honour and dignity? It was none other than the dauphin of Quebec separatism, Rene Levesque, who called on Quebeckers to take le beau risque and support the Conservatives. When Mulroney won the biggest majority in Canadian history, practically everyone in his Quebec caucus was a Parti Québécois supporter. Many of them owed their victory to the PQ organization. No one seemed to think it was a bad thing then.

I have no desire to defend Nycole Turmel or to apologize for her political choices and loyalties, except to say that if being Canadian means being free of emotional conflicts around identity, we are a nation of traitors.

Unlike our neighbours to the south, Canadians have never found themselves in just one flag or a single hymn. Our brand of quiet patriotism is all about learning to live with our tangled roots. Those who wish we were more like the Americans really wish we were a different people -- purebreds rather than mongrels.

I disagree. This is a big and diverse country with a complex history. As a result, our loyalties are often divided and pull in different directions. Thus it is rightly said of les Québécois that no matter where they live, they never really leave Quebec. But this is hardly unique to les Québécois. The same could be said of Newfoundlanders -- and I admire them for it.

Far from being un-Canadian, I think a deep identification with some part of Canada is typically Canadian, as are the mixed loyalties that result. Our willingness as a people to accommodate this is a cultural strength, not a weakness, one that many countries around the world view with envy.

The Turmel case brings all this into sharp focus and forces us to make a choice about what we want Canada to be. On the one hand, we can treat Turmel's mixed loyalties as a sin and stone her for them. On the other hand, we can choose to see Canada differently, as a bold and unfinished experiment in living with diversity.

I say put down the stones and let Turmel go her way.