If your life’s mate was musing about leaving you, how would you react?
Would you buy small baubles that you could not afford, in the hope that your generosity would be appreciated? Would you dismiss the continuing criticisms as inconsequential, or warn that, bad as life might be with you, it would be even worse without? Would you, in short, offer terms of endearment, or begin to consider terms of separation?
In the case of Jean Chrétien’s government and its approach to Quebec, the answer is “yes” to most of the above. Therein lies the problem. The federal Liberals’ dilemma in Quebec is not that they have no strategy—but rather that they have too many. When Chrétien thinks of Quebec, he tends, like Stephen Leacock’s comic character Lord Ronald, to fling himself upon his horse and ride madly off in all directions.
The Liberals cannot decide whether Quebec’s seven million citizens should be collectively spanked, seduced, scolded, or left in silence, so they try each. Initially, Chrétien kept a level tone in exchanges with the Bloc Québécois in the House of Commons. Now, his manner is scolding: in increasingly testy exchanges with Bloc MPs, a speech in Ottawa last week, and another this week in Montreal, Chrétien has again begun discussing the issue of national unity.
Meanwhile, the Liberals’ efforts at seduction are piddling and clumsy. They amount to embracing and trumpeting every occasion on which the federal government gives money directly to Quebec communities. The most recent and ridiculous of those, of course, was the $4.5-million grant to help build an industrial history museum in the Prime Minister’s St. Maurice riding. Another example was the Liberals’ move in March to award an international environmental agency to Montreal over 24 competitors, including Toronto. Although that decision was eminently defensible, Environment Minister Sheila Copps handled the announcement so clumsily that the result was a nasty turf
war between the two cities—and a lingering impression elsewhere that Quebec was once again receiving preferential treatment. In fact, relatively few people in Quebec—other than those with direct vested interests—are impressed by projects that carry the whiff of pork-barreling. On the other hand, the province’s tired and dwindling band of federalists in the provincial Liberal government would desperately welcome a sign that their cousins in Ottawa are prepared to deal with them, rather than ignore them. Among other things, the federal Liberals have scuttled a manpower-training deal with Quebec that could have been advantageous to both sides; embarrassed Premier Daniel Johnson’s government by closing Collège militaire royal without warning; and infuriated their provincial counterparts by promising—again without consultation—to “re-examine” a drug patent law that has had a large and beneficial economic impact in Quebec by attracting new investment there by pharmaceutical companies. Fine treatment for Johnson, the most unabashedly federalist premier the province has had in 30 years.
Another problem is that Chrétien— whose inner circle consists almost entirely of Quebecers—has too many policy coaches and too few star players. None of the Liberals’ Quebec ministers evokes much interest at home, other than Finance Minister Paul Martin—who is regarded, despite his father’s francophone roots, as more of an anglophone. The only federalist who evokes real excitement in Quebec is Jean Charest, a leader bereft of a party. To use an obvious metaphor for this time of year, when they last confronted Quebec sovereignty head-on in 1980 the Liberals were the political equivalent of the Montreal Canadiens—a talentladen dynasty. The latter-day Liberals and Canadiens are short on offence, outmatched by their opposition and overly dependent on tradition and miracles. And in Quebec’s political season, the playoffs are just beginning.
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