The Back Page

ANOTHER UNITY CRISIS?

Paul Martin says he has ‘different views’ on Quebec. Let’s hear them.

PAUL WELLS February 23 2004
The Back Page

ANOTHER UNITY CRISIS?

Paul Martin says he has ‘different views’ on Quebec. Let’s hear them.

PAUL WELLS February 23 2004

ANOTHER UNITY CRISIS?

The Back Page

Paul Martin says he has ‘different views’ on Quebec. Let’s hear them.

PAUL WELLS

“LET US UNDERSTAND that the ends never justify the means,” Paul Martin told the House of Commons during the second day of the sponsorship-scandal firestorm last week. “National unity in this country is going to be protected by thousands of Canadians who stand up for their country. It will not be protected by people who violate the laws of this land.”

I couldn’t agree more. Canadians should always be standing up for their country.

Here’s one now:

“We’re not going to rewrite the Constitution,” Jean Lapierre told a television interviewer last week.

“We’re going to settle problems in a completely pragmatic way.

If we just respected the constitution of 1867, that would already be something.”

Lapierre is important because he will be Martin’s Quebec lieutenant if the Liberals win the next election. If words have any meaning, then Lapierre was saying the constitution of 1867 hasn’t been respected yet. Generally in Quebec when somebody says the constitution is being flouted, they mean the federal government is intruding into the province’s business—mostly health and education. This complaint isn’t unique to Quebec; you sometimes hear it in every corner of the country. But in Quebec it’s been at the centre of the political debate for decades.

So does Martin’s federal government plan to stop spending billions of dollars on health and education? Not as far as I can tell: when it laid out its plans in this month’s Throne Speech, there were chapters on a “Partnership for a Healthy Canada” and “Lifelong Learning.”

So did Lapierre mean anything? It’s hard to know. So far it’s hard to know much about Martin’s plans for Quebec, or for the day-today operation of the complex federation that is Canada. That’s because the main elements of the national-unity strategy Jean Chrétien put in place after the near-catastrophe of the 1995 referendum have already been dismantled. What will replace them? Hard to say.

Chrétien’s plan for saving the country after 1995 can be summed up in as little as four words: Stéphane Dion, Alfonso Gagliano. It’s a mixed record. Gagliano was the minister in charge of increasing the federal government’s visibility in Quebec. The auditor general has had choice words about the way he did it. Now Gagliano is out of a job. Martin cancelled the sponsorship program on his first day as prime minister. Good.

Dion famously wrote letters to rebut questionable claims from Quebec separatist leaders. He helped lead a legal challenge to the Parti Québécois’ plan for unilateral secession. Today Dion is out of cabinet and there is a vague sense in Martin’s Ottawa that Dion’s letters were “confrontational.” As for the end product of the legal challenge, the Clarity Act, Lapierre says it’s “useless.” Martin amended that to say that while he doesn’t think the act is useless, he doesn’t plan to use it.

The TV interviewer last week asked Lapierre: is Dion an asset for Liberals in Quebec? Lapierre replied, with a smile, “II le fut”—he used to be.

Well then. Gagliano gone, Dion gone. Good news and bad news. What replaces them?

The question matters because this can be a difficult country to hold together. Most of our prime ministers have faced a serious national-unity crisis while in office. Robert Borden and Mackenzie King faced crises over military conscription during the First and Second World Wars. Lester Pearson had to manage Charles de Gaulle’s “Vive le Québec Libre!” speech in 1967. Pierre Trudeau had the 1970 October Crisis and the 1980 referendum. Brian Mulroney had Meech Lake. Chrétien had the 1995 referendum.

Given that track record, it’s optimistic at best—nutty at worst—for a prime minister to hope he can avoid yet another crisis by relying on his charming disposition. Yet as far as I can tell that’s Martin’s plan.

Last week Martin told reporters Chrétien kept him in the dark about national-unity matters because he had “different views on Quebec.” Great. Different how? Martin’s only explanation was that he has always believed “the best way to ensure national unity was to accomplish great goals” and to “build a consensus.”

Goals as great as winning a world war? Starting a national pension system? Repatriating Canada’s constitution? Ending a generation of deficit spending? King, Pearson, Trudeau and Chrétien stepped right into the national-unity cowpie while they were accomplishing those goals. If Martin has plans radically more exciting than theirs, I haven’t heard them.

Chrétien’s national-unity strategy was heroic and squalid in equal measure. Martin has the good and the bad with a happy face. “Different views” on Quebec? Let’s hear them.

To comment: backpage@macleans.ca Read Paul Wells’s Weblog, “Inkless Wells,” at www.macleans.ca/paulwells