Canada's Saskatchewan, and the difficulties of defining a nation

Early last month, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe declared he wanted the Canadian province to become 'a nation within a nation', demanding Saskatchewan gain additional autonomy in policy areas including taxation and immigration. Yet, writes Adam Stokes, defining a nation is a difficult task, and the Saskatchewan example shows why

The recent case of Saskatchewan underlines a seemingly simple question, to which there is no simple answer: What makes a nation? Debate about what makes a nation differs from the debate about whether a nation should have full political independence. Catalonia and Scotland are good examples of this. Scott Moe’s Saskatchewan Party, on the other hand, is a regionalist party. It promises to 'keep Saskatchewan strong,' but it is not in favour of full independence.

No single definition

There is no single definition of 'a nation'. This raises a difficulty because it means that when we assess a region’s claim to nationhood, all conclusions are subjective. That being said, numerous scholars have attempted to define what makes a nation. French philosopher Ernest Renan argued:

A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things… constitute this soul… One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received.

Ernest renan, what is a nation?

What's interesting about Renan’s definition is that it includes two distinct elements. Together, these create the concept of a nation. The first element is a common national history; the second, a present will of the people to continue being a nation. But while these characteristics are interesting, the problem of subjectivity remains.

Different interpretations... different conclusions

When determining what a common national history is, different interpretations of history could lead to multiple conclusions as to which specific groups have experienced enough of a common history to be considered a single nation, and which groups have not. With regards to the will of the people to be a nation, in theory this characteristic should be less subjective. Through opinion polling or referenda it could be possible to determine whether a group of people consider themselves a nation. However, even this has some limitations. For one, there is no guarantee that such a discussion would lead to a clear conclusion. This is especially true if there is strong disagreement between those who think they are part of a specific nation and those who do not.

opinion polling or referenda can determine whether people consider themselves a nation – but even this has limitations

Culture is also an important element of nationhood. This can include national symbols, such as a flag, natural emblems, or a language. Language in particular is a key element of the national discourse in many stateless nations; think, for example, of the Basque Country. However, even language as a national symbol has its limitations. There are examples of recognised nations which have two or more widely spoken languages. In Belgium, for instance, there are clear linguistic divides between the Dutch- and French-speaking communities.

The case of Saskatchewan

Looking at Saskatchewan, the issues around the subjectivity of what makes a nation are clear. We've already noted that Saskatchewan’s Premier believes Saskatchewan should be recognised as a nation within Canada. However, subjectivity prevents us from determining definitively whether Saskatchewan has enough of a distinct history or culture to be a nation in its own right.

In terms of history, Saskatchewan has never been an independent nation. In fact, it has only been a Canadian province since 1905, having previously been part of the North West Territories. Neither does Saskatchewan have a distinct language. The majority of Saskatchewan’s population are English-speakers, something it shares with every other Canadian province except Quebec.

Saskatchewan does, however, have distinct cultural symbols. These include natural emblems, such as the White-Tailed Deer and Saskatoon Berry, and its own flag. Identity in Saskatchewan is complex because the province is home to many groups of indigenous peoples, each with their own distinct cultures and languages. There are currently 70 recognised First Nation communities within Saskatchewan, which belong to five linguistic groups. Interestingly, Saskatchewan’s official motto, From Many Peoples Strength, references this multicultural heritage. According to the Multicultural Council of Saskatchewan, the motto:

expresses Saskatchewan's multicultural heritage, the contribution of the First Nations and MĂ©tis cultures, and the key role of immigration in the province.

A distinct Saskatchewan identity?

Given the subjective nature of determining whether Saskatchewan has enough of a distinctive culture or history to be a nation, one could argue that its people's views then become even more significant. The Saskatchewan Party has enjoyed considerable success in recent regional elections. We might interpret this as evidence of a distinct Saskatchewan identity within the province. The party has won every election to the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly since 2007, most recently in October of last year.

One obvious way to determine whether the people of Saskatchewan want to be a nation would be to hold a referendum on the issue. Canada is no stranger to referenda on constitutional issues. Quebec, for example, has held two, on the issue of its sovereignty, in 1980 and 1995. So far, however, Premier Moe has not indicated that any referendum is on the cards.

The next election for the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly is not due until 2024. It will be interesting, therefore, to see where Premier Moe and the Saskatchewan Party takes this issue next. Regardless, it is clear that the subjective debate on what makes a nation means the conversation around Saskatchewan’s claim to nationhood will continue for some time.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Adam Stokes
Adam Stokes
PhD Candidate, University of Reading

Adam's research interests include nationalism and secessionism.

The working title of his thesis is Exploring the Left-Right Ideological Variance of National Independence Parties in Canada and Western Europe.

Follow him on Twitter @AdamStok97

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