Quebec

THE INDISTINCT SOCIETY

The Bloc may be popular, but Quebecers are in tune with Canada

PETER DONOLO May 17 2004
Quebec

THE INDISTINCT SOCIETY

The Bloc may be popular, but Quebecers are in tune with Canada

PETER DONOLO May 17 2004

THE INDISTINCT SOCIETY

Quebec

The Bloc may be popular, but Quebecers are in tune with Canada

PETER DONOLO

IF THE POLLS are any indication, we’re about to be faced with a startling paradox: a large contingent of Bloc Québécois MPs-from a Quebec that has never felt more in sync with the rest of Canada. Call it the second Quiet Revolution. While virtually no one has been paying attention, a seismic change has taken place in Quebec. And it’s one that can only have lasting positive effects for our country and its unity.

For the first time in our common history, Quebecers and their fellow Canadians are united on a wide gamut of issues. From Canada’s place in the world, to a focus on nurturing social programs, to tolerance in areas such as marijuana legislation and gay marriage, to support for initiatives such as the Kyoto agreement on climate change, Quebecers believe there’s a Canadian approach—and it’s one they embrace.

In The Strategic Counsel’s year-end poll for Maclean’s last December, a whopping 69 per cent of Quebecers felt “proud to be Canadian” due to our “diverse country” and “socially progressive” stands on issues such as those cited above. Moreover, while a healthy majority of Canadians shared that view from coast to coast, nowhere was the proportion greater than among Quebecers.

This overt embrace of common Canadian values is unprecedented. Up to the mid-20th century, English and French Canada lived in what Hugh MacLennan memorably dubbed “two solitudes,” with Quebec heavily Churchridden and economically dominated by ules anglais” and the rest of Canada sentimentally tied to the British Empire. With the Quiet Revolution of the ’60s and the pent up energy and desire for change that drove Quebec for the succeeding three decades, it seemed like in its rush to modernity Quebec would pass the rest of Canada by.

ON A wide range of issues, Quebecers have come to believe there’s a Canadian approach-and it’s one they embrace

So what happened? How did we go from almost losing a country in the razor-thin outcome of the 1995 Quebec referendum to this new consensus on Canadian values?

One answer lies in that other perennial Canadian obsession, our relationship with the United States. For decades, Quebecers were the most pro-American of Canadians. In fact, Quebecers generally regarded Americans more favourably than English Canadians. Unlike English Canada, the U.S. was not seen to have historically mistreated Quebec or French Canada. Hence the long line of unabashedly pro-American separatist leaders, from René Lévesque (who pointedly chose to attach himself to the U.S. rather than Canadian army as a war correspondent during the Second World War) to Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard (whose spouse is American-born).

Throughout the late 1980s, Maclean’s year-end polls consistently showed Quebec was the province in Canada with the highest support for economic integration with the U.S. In the 1988 election, Quebec was the only province in which there was no serious opposition to the Free Trade Agreement. In the 1995 referendum, a key argument of the Yes side was that in separating, Quebec could, in effect, cut out the middle man called Canada, maintaining all its unfettered free trade ties and privileges with the U.S.

Fast forward to 2004, when Quebec has gone from being the most pro-American region in Canada to being the most antiAmerican. In the year-end poll, more than 60 per cent of Quebecers said their attitude toward the United States had become more negative in recent years—compared to just under half of Canadians as a whole.

The key trigger has undoubtedly been the general orientation of the Bush administration—which is broadly unpopular in Canada —and, in particular, the Iraq war. The biggest anti-war protests have been in Quebec. During the leaders’ debate in the 2003 Quebec election, all three party leaders wore anti-war lapel ribbons. Shortly before his death, separatist firebrand Pierre Bourgault told a Montreal radio station that it was a shame that Jean Chrétien would not be running for re-election, because he would vote for him for having kept Canada out of Iraq.

As Quebec has snapped out of its longtime infatuation with the United States, a second phenomenon has taken shape: the normalization of its relationship with the rest of Canada. The near-death experience of the 1995 referendum was, in hindsight, essential in rekindling Quebecers’ ardour for the nation. It took that kind of shock to the system to finally put an end to what had become a totally predictable and dysfunctional relationship between Quebec and the rest of the country. The “knife to the throat” is what the late political scientist Léon Dion called it: the constant threat that unless Quebec got its way on this issue or that, it might leave Canada altogether.

A combination of referendum fatigue among Quebecers, the Clarity Act in Ottawa (laying out the ground rules if there’s ever another referendum on Quebec separation), and the trauma of almost losing a country put an end to that and, even more importantly, to the constant demands for constitutional change.

As Quebecers have reflected on the sobering aftermath of the 1995 referendum, they’ve done so with the confidence of a French language and culture that is stronger and more firmly entrenched than at any time in the history of Canada. And they’ve also adopted a quintessentially Canadian approach of frankly celebrating Quebec’s ethnic diversity—a kind of societal rejection of Parizeau’s referendum night harangue against “ethnics.”

Taken together, these trends of rejection of the U.S., a new post-referendum selfimage and a rediscovery of shared values with the rest of Canada point to a happy result: more and more, the Distinct Society is distinctly Canadian.

What does it mean for the future? Well, for the short term, it may not change much. As is often the case, politicians are the last ones to pick up on major social change. Witness the fact that in the countdown to the federal election, the three main national parties are chasing the nationalist vote in Quebec. Paul Martin has bypassed federalist standard-bearers Stéphane Dion and Martin Cauchon and appointed former MP and BQ co-founder Jean Lapierre as his Quebec lieutenant. Lapierre has referred to the Clarity Act as “useless” and, with great fanfare, recruited “former” separatists to run for the Liberals. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has mused openly about forming a coalition with the BQ, and entrusted the Quebec organization of his recent leadership campaign to a one-time Parizeau aide. And the NDP’s Jack Layton has publicly restated his party’s long-time message of welcome to Quebec nationalists—in the manner of one grievance-based politician reflexively appealing to the presumed grievances of others.

Ironically, indications are that the Bloc Québécois may be dropping its nationalist diatribes and focusing on implicitly Canadian-value issues, such as health spending, multilateralism, gun control and progressive stands on gay marriage and Kyoto.

The long-term outlook can’t help but be positive. Through our country’s history, commentators have often likened the relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada to a marriage, often quarrelsome and troubled. To build on that analogy, it might be said that the marriage has matured past its rocky youth, past its passions and dalliances, to a comfortable, mature state of shared outlook and values. There may be more exciting ways of living together. But it’s hard to think of a more successful—or, for that matter more Canadian—one. lil

Peter Donolo served as Jean Chrétien’s communications director from 1993 to 1999. He is now executive vice president at the market research firm The Strategic Counsel.