OPINION

What a concept: Quebecers are like the rest of us

PAUL WELLS May 22 2006
OPINION

What a concept: Quebecers are like the rest of us

PAUL WELLS May 22 2006

What a concept: Quebecers are like the rest of us

OPINION

PAUL WELLS

The thing about Quebec is that whatever the label says you should do probably won’t work. Especially if the label was written by experts on Quebec.

In 1999, the current editor of this magazine assigned me to write a newspaper column about the history of the New Democratic Party’s attempts to woo Quebec voters. It seemed a cruel assignment until I did the research. It’s actually an interesting story. The short version is that for 30 years the NDP twisted itself into pretzels to boost its support in Quebec. It says on the label that Quebecers are nationalist and social democratic. “If only a federal party would offer big-government solutions—but recognize the distinct Quebec nation!” the smart people said. (I paraphrase. Well, who am I kidding, I’m making the quote up for rhetorical effect.) “If only somebody recognized Quebec nationalism as a positive force!”

Gotcha, chief. Social-democrat party? Check. Recognize the Quebec nation? You bet. Generations of New Democrats argued for writing that idea into the Canadian Constitution. Asymmetrical federalism? The party itself set up a Quebec branch that was sometimes barely on speaking terms with the rest of the party. Quebec nationalism a positive force? No NDP leader would hear a word against it!

And in 30 years the party elected one MP in Quebec, briefly, in a by-election in 1990. Yet all along they were doing what the smart people said they were supposed to.

Then along comes this guy Stephen Harper and he wins 10 Quebec seats. Ten seats on his way to—well, you’ll get no predictions today, but the Conservatives came second in half the Quebec seats they lost. Every poll since the election has shown the Tories continuing to rise there since the election.

Social democrat? He’s a tax cutter. Constitutional change? No time soon. Quebec’s distinct nation? On this he is closer to the Stephen Harper of the early Reform years, who adamantly opposed the Meech and Charlottetown accords, than both the fans and detractors who see him as the second coming of Meech-era Brian Mulroney realize. When asked, the Prime Minister says distinct society recognition is yesterday’s debate and that he is happy to consider “useful”—read, not useless—ideas for the future. In short, this isn’t supposed to be working. So why is it working?

Harper realized that folks in Rouyn are also tired of high taxes and want to get ahead

On this question the Conservatives themselves are not entirely reliable witnesses. They didn’t plan to pick up 10 seats in Quebec. At the outset of the 2006 campaign, they hadn’t budgeted for serious efforts there. They had to shovel money in mid-campaign into suddenly competitive Quebec ridings. Their Quebec gains were based on a longshot hunch.

But since that hunch paid off at least modestly, let’s examine it. In 1997, Harper and the political scientist Tom Flanagan wrote an article complaining about how frequently Liberals win elections in this country. Casting about for the elements of a conservative counter-insurgency, Harper and Flanagan identified the “Three Sisters” of Canadian conservatism that, together, might form a governing coalition. One was classic Canadian Toryism, practised mostly in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. The other was Reform-style Western populism. The third, which Harper and Flanagan picked over with no real appetite, was the bleu strain of Quebec nationalism. “While not in itself a conservative movement,” they wrote, Quebec’s bleu tradition “appeals to the kinds of voters who in other provinces support conservative parties.”

The point here is big but subtle. A lot of Quebecers spend most of their day thinking the same way in Rouyn and Granby as people in Lethbridge and Brockville do, except they think it in French. Sometimes there’s a different spin to their political thinking, based on the idea that Quebec is a distinct nation and that if the Quebec government is allencompassing, then the Quebec nation will stay strong. But usually many are just tired of high taxes and they want a chance to get ahead, just like anyone else. Harper’s gambit was to speak to Quebecers about the ways they are like the rest of his pan-Canadian voter coalition, not about the esoteric differences. It is inherently a unifying discourse.

And it’s new. Both the province-friendly Mulroney and the at least rhetorically Ottawa-centric Jean Chrétien thought first about nationalism when they thought about Quebec. It made Mulroney want to flatter. It made Chrétien smell something he should mistrust. But most Quebecers feel nationalistic every June 24 and then less so. Basing your politics on their nationalism is like campaigning in Gaelic in Montreal because they have a big St. Patrick’s parade there. Harper is not guaranteed further success in Quebec: politics there has been prone to popularity bubbles lately and his may yet burst. But his success to date is based on, and therefore validates, the assumption that Quebecers and other Canadians are both kin and kind.