OPINION

When you open a can of worms, what do you find?

Behind two thick walls, in a cliffside fort, Harper declared his closeness to Quebecers

PAUL WELLS July 1 2006
OPINION

When you open a can of worms, what do you find?

Behind two thick walls, in a cliffside fort, Harper declared his closeness to Quebecers

PAUL WELLS July 1 2006

When you open a can of worms, what do you find?

OPINION

Behind two thick walls, in a cliffside fort, Harper declared his closeness to Quebecers

PAUL WELLS

The Citadel in Quebec City was built in the 19th century by Elias Walker Durnford for multiple purposes. The British garrison there could defend against an American attack from the west—or against an uprising in the French-speaking city to the east. Even today, this brutish fortress, cut into a cliff face, is a bear to get into. On Friday, my cabbie had to drive through two thick walls, along narrow streets, stopping three times so I could wave my press pass at earnest soldiers. For all their ability to make themselves heard inside the Citadel, the two dozen protesters outside the gate might as well have been in Bonn.

This entrenched redoubt is where Stephen Harper brought his cabinet to celebrate his close relationship with the people of Quebec.

The federal cabinet was meeting here for the first time since the 1950s, on the eve of St. Jean Baptiste day—or as Harper called it, in keeping with local fashion, Quebec’s “Fête Nationale.” The next day, after this column’s deadline, he was to attend a “picnic” in the Beauce. That would be the home of Maxime Bernier, his industry minister, the most reliably federalist corner of francophone Quebec. One presumes the picnic venue wasn’t drilled into the side of a mountain, but clearly Harper prefers congenial venues for what are made to look like bold gestures.

When one comes to Quebec for what many Quebecers call Quebec’s national day, one risks being asked whether Quebec constitutes a nation. Harper and his ministers were. Their answers were...long. “I see that Mr. Boisclair”—that would be André Boisclair, the young Parti Québécois leader— “is asking that question,” Harper said to a journalist who was asking that question but who was not André Boisclair. “The last time I answered that I said that I note that the National Assembly has made such a declaration and I recognize that it has done so.”

Ah.

But “the real question” which must be put to Boisclair, Harper said, was: “Will he hold a referendum on the independence of Quebec? Yes or no?” Later, pressed, Harper called the question of Quebec’s nationhood “a semantic argument that doesn’t serve any real purpose.” That’s an easy sentiment to applaud. I applaud it. But then, I didn’t bring the federal cabinet into Quebec City and call the weekend’s holiday a “national” holiday.

When one opens a can of worms, one sometimes finds worms.

After Harper left, four of his ministers took turns at the nation’s (nations’?) most secluded scrum microphone to field questions of their own. The two Quebecers danced their own jaunty dance around the nationhood question. “Quebecers and the National Assembly are sovereign within their own areas of competence,” Maxime Bernier announced.

Josée Verner was even more fun. “Quebec has a unique and distinct personality,” she chirped. “Quebec is happy to be part of this government.” Then she asserted that you certainly would never see a Liberal government daring to hold a cabinet meeting here.

The assertion was built on shaky facts and an appalling assumption.The entire Liberal caucus, not just the cabinet, met in Quebec City in the late 1990s and in rock-ribbed nationalist Chicoutimi in 2002. Those meetings were in hotels, not in forts in cliffs, as will the party’s next leadership debate in September.

But why should it be otherwise? Perhaps one day our politicians will stop asserting that any Canadian should ever expect to be greeted anywhere in Quebec with anything but open arms and good food. Joe Clark once

held a party conference in Quebec City, levelling the same dark, stupid calumny against Stockwell Day’s Canadian Alliance. Or more properly, against the people of Quebec. Because what’s the assumption here, if it isn’t that Quebecers cannot be trusted to keep the peace when strangers visit?

One dark secret of Canadian politics is that Quebecers are not wholly different from nonQuebecers. Harper made that point more successfully with his words than his pageantry.

Are his policies rejected here? Nope: his plan to send cheques to parents “is actually supported more strongly in Quebec than anywhere else in the country.” His Afghanistan adventure receives less support here, but enough, “on balance.” On Kyoto, “Quebecers are like all other Canadians: you ask them whether they support Kyoto, they say yes. You ask them what they think it means, they have no idea.”

Harper won 10 Quebec seats in the 2006 election. Whether that was the beginning or the end of a breakthrough will depend on him, on Quebecers, and on the Liberals. Several pundits—Rex Murphy, Chantal Hébert, even Michel Vastel—say Stéphane Dion is the surprise of the Liberal leadership race. Quietly, Conservatives admit they would rather not have to think about that, because Dion would present them with something besides an empty net in Quebec. Fortunately for Harper, Liberals have worked hard lately to make his life easy. Why would that stop? Happy Canada Day. Is Canada a nation? Sometimes. M

ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells between editions, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells