Photo; AFP, Lluis Gené
The Canadian consulate in Barcelona is located in a building overlooking Plaça de Catalunya. The Maple Leaf flying from the side of the building is quite privileged because as one looks around the plaça the only other national flags visible are either the Spanish rojigualda or the Catalan senyera. At about the time of Catalonia's national day on September 11, 2012, when a million and a half people filled the streets of Barcelona in support of Catalan independence, a banner appeared on an upper floor of the consulate’s building. The banner read in English, "Catalonia, next independent state in Europe." A few days later standing in the plaça looking up at the Canadian flag and the banner the sight elicited conflicting emotions in me.
Even though my family and I have been living in Catalonia since 2006, I see myself as a Canadian but I am also definitely a Catalan. My wife and our children were born in Canada but I was born in Catalonia and grew up in Montreal during the 1960s. I learned English and French but the language at home was Catalan. As Quebec struggled to find it's place in or out of Canada the dénouement resolved itself in a generally peaceful and democratic manner. The two Quebec referendums attest to the commitment to democracy by Canadians, including Quebecers. And now, when three hundred years of frustrated Catalan hopes may be coming to a head, I am not so sure that the Catalan question will be so quietly resolved.
A few days after the massive pro-independence march Artur Mas, President of the Catalan government, presented the Spanish government with a demand for fiscal autonomy, basically the right of Catalonia to collect and spend its own taxes. The demand arose from revelations earlier this year that Catalonia has a net loss of nine percent of its GDP, or that annually about 9 billion euros collected in Catalonia are spent elsewhere in Spain. The figure would go a long way to reducing Catalonia’s deficit and it's a figure that Madrid does not even dispute. Few here argue that some redistribution to poorer areas of Spain is in order but Catalonia’s contribution is felt to be excessive. As expected Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, rejected Mr Mas’ demand outright.
Spain is a complex country that belies the popular image of Spaniards as bullfighting and flamenco aficionados, soccer mad and who sip sangria. Each region of Spain has its own culture, cuisine, traditions and languages. There are five languages spoken in Spain--Castilian, Basque, Galician, Aranese and Catalan. Catalan itself has several dialects within Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic islands. But Spain’s great fault is the mindset of the Madrid politicians and their supporters in the media who insist that the country speak one language Castilian. There are few in positions of power in Madrid who would dare speak of a country that revels in the diversity of its constituent regions, including the diversity of cultures and uniqueness of the various languages and dialects.
When the last of Europe’s fascist dictators, General Francisco Franco, died in 1975 Catalans looked forward to ending the repression of their language and culture. The Spanish constitution of 1978 gave Catalonia significant powers to manage its own affairs especially in education and cultural matters. Catalan became the language of regional government for the first time in 40 years. Those powers are now under threat. The economic crisis now gripping Spain is being used by Mr. Rajoy’s centre-right Partido Popular to claw back those powers. Now is not the time to demand more concessions says Madrid to the Catalan government, it's time to pull together. The last thing most Catalans want to do is pull together with the rest of Spain, say the polls. The view in Catalonia is that the economic mess is Madrid's fault and that Catalans have been unfairly burdened supporting the Spanish economy. On top of that, the Partido Popular continues to attack Catalan culture and language.
The current movement for independence has been gathering steam since 2010 when the Spanish Supreme Court ruled that a new statute on Catalonia’s powers and responsibilities--worked out between Catalonia and Spain, approved by both parliaments, and supported by a majority of Catalans in a referendum--was not valid. Days after the Supreme Court’s ruling more than a million Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona in protest. Catalans felt that Madrid had negotiated in bad faith.
With the Spanish government's rejection of a fiscal pact Mr. Mas called for regional elections on November 25th that will be in essence a referendum on the road to independance, something that the Spanish constitution does not allow. No one knows when and if there will be a referendum on independence. Even if there is a one the independistas may not win, as polls put support for independence at just over 51%. No one knows how the Spanish government will react.
In 1960, when my parents decided to leave Spain, then under the dictatorship, and emigrated to Canada I was not quite four years old. My parents had concluded that they and their children had no future in Spain but we left one simmering social situation for another. Living in Montreal during the 1960s we were in the midst of the Quiet Revolution epitomised by the slogan “maitre chez nous.” The great debate between federalists and separatists was on. As Catalans, a minority group within Spain, our family could empathise with the aspirations of the French-Canadians but my parents also admired the democratic nature of Canada.
My father worked in an office in downtown Montreal and one day, in October 1969, when he arrived late after work in our Pierrefonds home he was particularly disturbed. That day Montreal had been the scene of riots and violence centred around the Murray-Hill garage. It did not help that the city had been without police protection because of a labour dispute. In the days after, my parents began talking about moving and by December we were living in Toronto. I was too young to understand how my parents felt but their teenage years had been marked by the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps my parents overreacted by leaving Quebec but they both had grim memories.
More than 70 years after it ended the spectre of the Civil War still hangs over Spain. Everyone has relatives, grandparents or in many cases parents, who lived through the war and its aftermath. It is a monster that no one wants to reawaken. But Catalans are tired of having their language and culture assailed. They are fed up with financially supporting the other regions of Spain while being treated as second-class citizens by a government that does not seem to value them. I cannot imagine Quebecers putting up with the linguistic and cultural assaults that Catalans have to endure.
There is keen interest here in Catalonia with what happens in Quebec and I am often asked when Quebec will become independant. I say that I don't know. The Parti Quebecois victory in last September's elections was closely followed by the Catalan press. Catalans are aware of Quebec’s independence referendums and the Catalan media is following Scotland's preparations for its own vote. Many Catalans look at the situation of Quebec and Scotland with some wistfulness, they want to also be able to vote for independence but know how intransient the Spanish government will be on this issue.
Ever since Mr. Mas called for elections the political debate in Catalonia and Spain has been degenerating. Two retired high-ranking army officers have said that force will have to be used if Catalonia decides to separate. A Spanish government minister has suggested that Mr. Mas should be arrested if he calls for a referendum. The Spanish minister of education has said that the Catalan education system is brainwashing students into independistas and they should instead be “Hispanized.” Two former Spanish prime ministers have both stated unequivocally that Catalonia will not be allowed separate. And the Spanish government continues to insist that a referendum in Catalonia would be illegal according to the Constitution but everyone knows that document was written up with the army breathing down everyone's neck.
The November 25th elections will not result in a Catalan declaration of independance but Mr. Mas' party, the CiU, will likely win a mandate to start some sort of process along with the help of several other parties and push for independence. The polls point to a majority of Catalans wanting major changes. There should be fireworks but I hope that they are only of the political kind. The independistas are being very careful to pursue their objectives peacefully and legally while firmly insisting that a democratic vote for independence cannot be stopped by the writing on some piece of paper.
For my family and I living here in Catalonia these are interesting times. We identify with the Catalans because the small town where we live is very Catalan, because I was born here and because my wife and daughters all now speak Catalan. We also recognise that Spain while it sees itself as a democracy does have some failings most seriously, in my opinion, its failure to recognise regional aspirations. Here in Catalonia the popular will on the street is coming up against the centralist mindset of Spain's ruling elites, like it has for hundreds of years. Plaça de Catalunya has been the scene of many transformative events in Catalan history especially during the civil war. I hope that the Canadian flag that flies over the huge square inspires the same spirit of democracy here in Catalonia that it does back home.