COLUMNS

Playing the Quebec card

"Don't vote for the Bloc—it will only encourage the PQ.' That Liberal message has worked before, and it may win them some seats this time around.

PAUL WELLS December 5 2005
COLUMNS

Playing the Quebec card

"Don't vote for the Bloc—it will only encourage the PQ.' That Liberal message has worked before, and it may win them some seats this time around.

PAUL WELLS December 5 2005

Playing the Quebec card

COLUMNS

"Don't vote for the Bloc—it will only encourage the PQ.' That Liberal message has worked before, and it may win them some seats this time around.

PAUL WELLS

“Life,” as Wynton Marsalis likes to say, “has a board for every behind.” Which is how it came to pass that Jean Lapierre got sent out into the lobby of the House of Commons to defend the Clarity Act.

Lapierre has been no great booster of the Clarity Act, which constrains Parliament’s response to any future referendum on Quebec secession. “Useless,” he called it when Paul Martin lured the Bloc Québécois cofounder back to the Liberal party last year. Lapierre’s recruitment was the cornerstone of Martin’s super-clever 2004 campaign strategy. The Martin board’s assumption, a perfect reflection of their towering self-regard, was that if pokey old Jean Chrétien could win 36 of Quebec’s 75 federal seats, they would send in the pros to collect the rest.

At the time, a TV interviewer asked Lapierre whether Stéphane Dion, the Clarity Act’s author, was an asset for the Liberals in Quebec. Lapierre smirked. “Il le fût”—he used to be.

Funny the way things work out. The Grits lost Quebec seats. Blame Adscam, absolutely. But tub-thumping federalist rhetoric helped the Liberals post better Quebec results in the end than had seemed likely in their darkest days. Which explains Paul Martin’s late-breaking—and, just maybe, career-saving—decision to wrap himself in the flag for the Quebec component of the 2005 campaign.

Just over a week ago, fresh from a trip to Asia, the Prime Minister sent out a news release giving the gears to André Boisclair, the shiny new Parti Québécois leader. Boisclair has said he will ignore the Clarity Act and issue a uni-

Boisclair promises a referendum, and a revolutionary act of secession. For the Liberals, the strategy couldn't be clearer.

lateral declaration of independence if he wins any majority in a referendum. Calling the Clarity Act useless, you might say. “Mr. Boisclair’s declaration amounts to a rejection of the rule of law in favour of political expediency,” Martin’s statement said. “The project of Quebec separation is one that I will fight with every ounce of my being as Prime Minister, as a proud Quebecer and proud Canadian.”

The next day a pack of scribes met Lapierre at a scrum microphone. “Well, my concern is that Mr. Boisclair is really jumping the gun right now,” he said. Quebec’s Liberal premier, Jean Charest, is going to be re-elected, so “Mr. Boisclair is being pretty presumptuous.” And what about when Lapierre called the Clarity Act useless? Well, he said, all he meant was that it would never be used because the separatists wouldn’t win the next election.

Lapierre’s biggest problem was that, even as he spoke, two Bloc Québécois staffers were handing reporters transcripts of his comments

from 2004. So the lady from the CBC was able to refresh his memory: “At the time, you said, ‘If there was a will in Quebec, a clear will to separate, they would not be able to stop a will like that by trying to have tricks.’ ” Whoops. “I have always maintained that since day one,” Lapierre replied gamely. “A clear will means a clear question and a clear answer.”

So how was Lapierre any different from Boisclair? “Mr. Boisclair said he is going to ignore the law of the land. And I don’t believe we should ignore the law of the land under any circumstances.”

Well, that was all very excruciating. Here’s what happened. Lapierre became collateral damage when his boss decided to fight the 2005 election in Quebec the way Jean Chré-

tien fought 1997 and 2000.

While we’re on the topic of Boisclair, I might as well repeat that his unilateral declaration of independence would produce only chaos unless he could make the federal government stop exercising its legal authority in Quebec. That can’t happen without Ottawa’s consent. And the withdrawal would have to be negotiated. The Clarity Act says the conditions for that negotiation are a clear majority on a clear question. And the Supreme Court said the same thing before that. It doesn’t matter whether André Boisclair ignores these constraints: Parliament cannot.

But of course this isn’t just about Paul Martin’s own (strikingly belated!) discovery of these principles. This is strategy, and it could hardly be simpler. The Liberal message in this election will be that Bloc Québécois success would give heart to Boisclair as he prepares for a 2007 provincial election. Boisclair promises a referendum if he wins,

with a revolutionary act of secession on its heels. So Quebecers who believe in Canada can’t afford to stay home in this election, or vote Bloc.

That was the theme of the workmanlike stump speech Martin test-drove at a Montreal fundraiser last Wednesday. He lectured Gilles Duceppe on the rule of law, listed rosy economic stats, and asked: “Are we going to throw all of that away—that tremendous opportunity—and plunge ourselves into another referendum?”

Martin’s speech wasn’t art, but it didn’t have to be. It sets the stage for the kind of polarized campaign that has worked to the Liberals’ advantage since the Bloc was formed. A Canada-wide debacle for the Grits may yet swamp the benefits of that strategy. The Liberals’ national game remains shaky indeed. But on current form I expect them to pick up seats in Quebec. Is Jean Lapierre an asset in this campaign? Il le fût. NI

READ PAUL WELLS'S WEBLOG, “Inkless Wells,” at www.macleans.ca/paulwells