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Harper's Appeasing of Quebec

Suddenly it's the Conservatives who look soft on sovereignty.

By Rafe Mair 26 Dec 2005 |

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Stephen Harper has rolled the dice and we'll know soon enough if he made a "pass "or has "crapped out".

I refer, of course, to his statement that he would give more powers to Quebec including more say on the international stage. What he's saying is saying, of course, is this: "Gilles, old boy, if we're the largest party in the next parliament we will be happy to work with you, our part of the deal being more power to Quebec".

At the same time he's saying this to Ontarians, who, seeing Ontario as the linchpin of Confederation, always have Quebec in mind when voting: "Don't worry, I'll be very nice to la belle province".

A bit of history

I think, as they say in Contract Bridge, it's time to review the bidding. There has been a sovereignty movement in Quebec from the start. It was clear at the time of the Constitutional debates in Charlottetown and Quebec City in 1864 that Quebec was not like other provinces but that she would come into Confederation on the same basis as the other three provinces and those to come. There was no talk of "two founding nations". Quite the opposite, it was one country and one national citizenship and no one made that clearer than George Etienne Cartier, the leading Quebec Father of Confederation.

Separatism went into a long slumber under the leadership of the Catholic Church and paternalistic governments until Jean Lesage's Quiet Revolution of 1960. The government was suddenly secularized and the motto became "maitres chez nous" – masters of our own house. One of the things that escaped from Lesage's Pandora's box was separatism and the Parti Quebecois was spawned and led by one of Lesage's former Minister, Rene Levesque. He demanded "sovereignty-association", well described by then BC Premier Bill Bennett, as "divorce with bedroom privileges". In 1980 Levesque held a Quebec referendum on "sovereignty-association" which failed by a ratio of 60 to 40, though later analysis showed that about 50 percent of French speaking Quebeckers were in favour.

The lines were drawn in the sand. On one side were Levesque and company. On the other were Pierre Trudeau and others, who took the position that in a constitutional sense, all provinces were equal.

No one suggested that Quebec wasn't different. Other regions are different too, though perhaps not to the same degree. But before the constitutional bar of justice, all provinces were the same. Though no great fan of Trudeau, I agreed with his stand and still do.

Slippery slope

In 1982, Trudeau patriated the constitution and Rene Levesque claimed that it didn't apply to Quebec. The Quebec Appellate Court, all French speaking Quebeckers, unanimously upheld the legality of the new Constitution Act as did the Supreme Court of Canada, sitting with a full bench including three Quebeckers.

Trudeau's position was simply this: once you start using constitutional goodies to buy off Quebec there's no going back. He knew, as most historians knew, that national partnerships don't have a very good record. Norway-Sweden, Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, former Yugoslavia are a few examples. It was clear to him that if you made constitutional concessions to Quebec, you would soon be at the point of "sovereignty-association" and that once there, Quebec independence would follow shortly.

Brian Mulroney thought otherwise. He believed that if you designated Quebec a special constitutional status, gave them a guarantee of 25 percnet of the House of Commons for all time, and a veto over proposed Constitutional amendments that would satisfy Quebec and "make Canada whole." This, perhaps, was the worst example of his inherent blowhardness.

Trudeau opposed the Charlottetown Accord saying bluntly that Quebec doesn't need special designation or special powers and that to give them any would cause a lot of long term trouble. As we know, Charlottetown failed and Liberal governments since have utterly ignored the wishes of the electorate and have given Quebec special status and a veto, two of the main features of Meech Lake/Charlottetown.

Weasel words haunt

The situation in Quebec is, as I have warned over and over, very dangerous. Jean Charest will, in order to keep the PQ out of office, continue to make demands and Ottawa will, however reluctantly, meet them. The famous Joe Clark weasel words "asymmetrical federalism", is now the key phrase. We, so say the weasels, must have a country not of provinces all subject to the Constitution and all equal before the law, but nine such provinces and an exception.

Before condoning or condemning such a progression of power transfer, we should look at the logical end result. Would we not have, then, a sort of Czechoslovakia? Would it be a viable political entity?

Surely every sensible corpuscle of our bodies answers yes to the first question and a resounding NO to the second. Quebec, with what amounts to a partnership with the Rest of Canada would soon break up the partnership and achieve its independence. The emotional compulsion to do so and the momentum would be overwhelming. The fact that Quebec would be poorer for the move is irrelevant. Slovakia stood to lose substantially if the partnership broke up yet it initiated the divorce.

Political payoff?

It remains to assess the political ramifications of Harper's statement. It won't gain him any votes in Quebec and could well hurt him in Western Canada which has long been very strong on the 10 juridically equal provinces approach. The real question is Ontario which will always vote for whatever they think will keep Quebec happy.

Politics is a strange business. Scant months ago, people would have seen the Conservatives as tough on Quebec's sovereignty notions and the Liberals as the appeasers. In a trice it's Harper the misguided (in my view) appeaser and Martin standing as Captain Canada.

If nothing else, Stephen Harper has recognized and identified as a political issue that has been the Conservative Party's "elephant in the room". Quebec sovereignty is an acknowledged issue in a federal election. Perhaps he should be thanked for that.

I think, however, that he's hastened the departure of Quebec and the consequent breakup of the nation which, looking at how far we've already gone down that road, may be inevitable anyway.

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. His website is  [Tyee]

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