CANADA

Canada’s X-files

In Ottawa, as in the TV series, strange things regularly occur that are baffling to mere mortals

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 4 1995
CANADA

Canada’s X-files

In Ottawa, as in the TV series, strange things regularly occur that are baffling to mere mortals

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 4 1995

Canada’s X-files

In Ottawa, as in the TV series, strange things regularly occur that are baffling to mere mortals

BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Perhaps the best way to understand Canadian politics is to compare it to an episode of the television sci-fi series The X-Files. In both, strange things regularly occur that are incomprehensible to the average mortal—but it doesn’t matter, because nothing is ever resolved anyway. Consider last week—if you dare. First, Lucien Bouchard, the putative next premier of a province that recently split down the middle voting on its constitutional future, insisted that Quebecers are “united,” while the rest of the country is divided. Then, Jean Chrétien, the Prime Minister of Canada, said he wants to give Quebec official recognition as a distinct society and a veto over constitutional change— even though there is little support for the notion outside Quebec. But no matter: Chrétien can’t give the gifts no one wants him to make because the people they are intended for don’t want to receive them. Predictably,

Bouchard, after insisting he wants nothing from Canada, is now humiliated that he may receive precisely that.

In the wake of the referendum, the sci-fi analogy makes particular sense because there are now two parallel political universes that coexist but don’t really touch. The first is the constitutional debate in which everything is framed by the notion of Quebec versus the rest of the country, and the second is between English-Canadians who are increasingly fed up with the first debate. Those who think the House of Commons is out of touch with the feelings of ordinary Canadians should consider the notion that on the unity issue, the three major parties in the Commons almost perfectly mirror the public mood. To wit: The Bloc Québécois: The real problem for Quebec sovereigntists is that they know what they want—a separate nation—but they’ve never had to think about what to do once they have it. Would a sovereign Quebec be the socialist paradise that Jacques Parizeau and union leaders described during the referendum campaign, or the lean, mean, pro-business machine that people like pseudo-separatist Mario Dumont like to envision? That isn’t an issue for

Bouchard because, as he said last week, he will cut Quebec’s budget, maintain all social services, and freeze taxes at the same time. Unencumbered as he is by any economic training, he hasn’t had to worry about how to achieve that. But the Bloc, without his rhetorical magic, is much more likely to find that reality bites.

Reform: Picture this—a cohesive strain of English-Canadian thought on constitutional issues. Through both accident and design, Reform now find themselves in potentially the best position of any major federal party for the next two years because the big two issues— deficit-cutting and getting ready for a possible life without Quebec—are sermons they’ve been preaching for many years now. True, their views on both are still more extreme than the mainstream in English Canada. But with Chrétien’s position as federalism’s champion weakened by the referendum, and public frustration growing over the dialogue of the deaf between Quebec and Ottawa, Reform, at the least, seems certain to have established a permanent place in the country’s political firmament

The Liberals: Even when it is unintended, the Liberals cover almost all points on the political compass. In one corner are Chrétien, his staff of (almost all Quebec native) advisers and aides, his Quebec MPs, and his cabinet, who are beholden to him. On the other side are most of the more-than 150 MPs from outside the province who felt shut out of the referendum debate, and are determined not to let the same happen next time. For now, the differences inside the party are likely to remain private. The real turf war will begin about a year from now, when MPs start to consider the imminent triple threat of another federal election, a crucial first minister’s constitutional conference in 1997, and the near-certainty of another Quebec referendum the same year.

The truth is out there, as the X-Files’ Fox Mulder likes to say. But, as he also says, trust no one. Not a bad notion for the new constitutional episode that lies ahead.