Réal Caouette is fond of saying that when he takes his message of Social Credit across Canada, he tells the same things to people in every different region in the land. “When I step on the dog’s tail in Halifax,” he says by way of explanation, “he barks in Vancouver.”
Caouette gets marks for political candor, perhaps, but not much for political realism. The inescapable fact of Canadian politics is that whether or not the same bark is heard in Vancouver or Hamilton or Halifax, it is not perceived the same way as it is in his native Quebec. On October 30, one quarter of the Quebec electorate voted for Social Credit; outside that province Social Credit won no seats and hardly a notice.
Caouette’s experience was, of course, not unique. A similarly erratic response (if not quite so extreme), greeted David Lewis, Robert Stanfield and Pierre Trudeau. And that hard truth, as much as anything else, is what emerged from the federal election: a fragmented country, a deadlocked Parliament. Dogs were barking all over the country, but in every region a different sound was heard.
Political leaders would like to believe differently. They would like to believe that there is a unity and a homogeneity in the country which gives politics a sweet logic and consistency. It is all so easy in Britain, for example, where a 3% swing in votes in Liverpool, for example, means that there is a 3% swing from Land’s End to John O’Groats; the British electorate shifts as a body. In Canada, things are not so simple.
The central anomaly of our fragmented and fractious body politic is, as it always has been, Quebec. The nasty realization on the morning after election night was that, of the two parties that led the polls, one was massively represented in Quebec and the other was represented almost not at all. Of the two smaller parties, the NDP has-never managed to win a seat in Quebec. None of the four parties wanted such an imbalance; but their campaigns to have it otherwise were frustrated by their own history and that of Quebec.
The Conservatives led the vote in every region of the country except Quebec and British Columbia (in BC they came a close second), but their standing in Quebec is so low and the Liberal sweep in that province so heavy, that the Liberals captured the greatest share of the national popular vote. Without a foot solidly entrenched in French Canada, the Conservatives’ assumption that they are a national party is at best tenuous.
Liberal strength elsewhere in the country seems, partly, to have evaporated because they were too closely identified with Quebec. The New Democratic party, the fulcrum of power in the new Parliament, has no claim to national party status, despite some increase in seats. Although almost one voter in five supports the NDP, they have no seats east of the Ottawa River and none in Alberta. Réal Caouette still talks of expanding his empire from coast to coast, but Social Credit as a federal force in the West has never recovered from the twin shock of the Diefenbaker landslide of 1958 and the rise of the Quebec Créditistes a decade ago.
The sad divisions in the country can be seen in the profound semantic misunderstanding (perhaps wilful by some) of the phenomenon of “French power.” In Quebec, the Liberals boasted of their role in Ottawa in an attempt to put down the separatist claim that French Canadians are powerless within Confederation; the Liberals saw their power as a justification, to Quebec, of federalism. But outside Quebec,
“French power” was seen not as a bulwark but as a threat. One issue; two interpretations.
Before the election, Canadians everywhere cited unemployment and unhappiness with the government’s economic policies as the priority issue of the campaign. Yet the two regions most seriously hit by unemployment, the Atlantic provinces and Quebec, maintained or increased Liberal strength. One issue; more than one response.
The fragmentation of voting across the country becomes more alarming when one examines the composition of the two “national” parties. They have evolved through the old game of nonideological, ins-and-outs politics, where one group governs while its indistinguishable alternative waits in the wings for its turn to govern. They have become less political parties than crude coalitions, whose only unifying force is a desire for power.
Many Liberal candidates, for example, saw no inconsistency in vigorously ignoring their leader and his policies during the campaign. In particular, many non-Quebec Liberals, including Cabinet ministers, have long been openly hostile to the bilingual policies of the Trudeau government. Even within a region such as Quebec, what ties exist between a subtle and sophisticated figure like Gérard Pelletier and those rural Quebec Liberal MPs who are dismissed contemptuously by senior liberals as “our Créditistes”?
The Conservatives are, if anything, even less inspiring. Poor Robert Stanfield found himself having to disavow some of the sentiments of both supporters and candidates. In the last Parliament, he had to live with an insipient western party within his party; now he will have to spread his flexible umbrella to accommodate a quite different crew of urban Ontario members. Even Stanfield’s powers of compromise may be taxed in reconciling Gordon Fairweather, the sensitive former Attorney-General of New Brunswick, with Claude Wagner, the messianic law-and-order former Quebec justice minister. The voters spared him the problem of integrating other French Canadians into his Parliamentary caucus.
The temptation may be to throw our hands in the air and bewail, like one commentator, “this absurd and appalling situation” of minority government. Equally, there is the temptation to re-fashion the shape of our politics: give Social Credit to the Tories as a Quebec base and give the NDP to the Liberals. Or, ideologically, split Liberals and Social Crediters into left and right between the NDP and the Conservatives. But political parties are not created so simply. Party traditions grow in response to pressures which are regional or ideological; they are sustained by factors as diverse as opportunism, the mystique of the family, and the forces of economics and culture. Canada has seen the rise of a variety of political movements; some have found an enduring niche, some have perished in isolation. Other countries have seen an even greater proliferation of parties, and the same may yet be in store for Canada.
The country’s voters were undoubtedly inconsiderate in not clearly favoring a single party, but the suspicion remains that a two-party system is not around the corner. There are too many regional divisions, including the power of provincial governments, for monolithic politics. Elections reflect the electorate, and the electorate of Canada is now not unified and coherent, however inconvenient that may be. ■
John Gray is a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.