Columns

What Liberals won’t admit

Chrétien’s Liberals are content to have the PQ in power in Quebec—so long as there is no real danger of pushing sovereignty too far

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 29 2001
Columns

What Liberals won’t admit

Chrétien’s Liberals are content to have the PQ in power in Quebec—so long as there is no real danger of pushing sovereignty too far

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 29 2001

What Liberals won’t admit

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Chrétien’s Liberals are content to have the PQ in power in Quebec—so long as there is no real danger of pushing sovereignty too far

One day last summer, Jean Charest had lunch at a friend’s house in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. The Quebec Liberal leader was, one lunchmate recalls, in an ebullient mood. After a while, the conversation turned to what-ifs—such as what might happen if Charest were to become premier, and Paul Martin became prime minister. Charest spoke warmly of Martin, describing him as someone much more in tune with mainstream public opinion in Quebec than Jean Chrétien. As premier, Charest said, he would urge Prime Minister Martin to open constitutional talks with Quebec—and to do so quickly, because “if he doesn’t do it while he’s in his honeymoon period, the rest of the country won’t have any patience after that.”

Left unspoken was another scenario— what if Charest becomes premier, and Jean Chrétien is still PM, showing no sign of going anywhere? Last week, we saw the answer. As premier, Charest would table a list of constitutional demands—and the PM, as he made clear through his obfuscation on the subject, would shove the proposal to the bottom of his in-tray. The story—Charest’s action and the PM’s reaction—fell off the radar screen after a couple of days.

That serves as a reminder of a reality that federal Liberals don’t like to admit: they are quite content to have a sovereigntist party in power in Quebec—just so long as it is in no danger of pushing that option too far. After all, a federalist government in Quebec makes things so messy. The provincial Liberals have a long tradition of making tiresome, impossible-to-fulfil constitutional demands, as Charest has just done, and they stir up other provinces by continually leading a push for devolution of powers. Charest is a pal of Ralph Klein, and who in Ottawa likes the prospect of Quebec and Alberta forming a strategic alliance? It’s bad enough that Western premiers are now considering a summit to discuss feelings of alienation: if Quebec and the bumptious Mike Harris Ontario Tories were tossed into the mix, suddenly the PM could face a full-blown premiers’ uprising.

On the other hand, relations between the federal Libs and the Parti Québécois are, well, tidy. There’s no need for talk about changing the Constitution, because secessionists want no part of it. PQ ministers maintain cordial but cool relations with their counterparts in other provinces, so they seldom play a leading role in any initiatives. When federal-provincial talks on various issues fail, the feds can always blame the PQ for torpedoing things. And the prospect of another referen-

dum, however distant, allows the Libs to remind voters that they’re the most-trusted party on national unity issues. Some supercynics believe the Libs have, on occasion, gone out of their way to help the PQ at election time. In 1994, for example, just as then-premier Daniel Johnson was preparing for an election, the federal Liberals made a surprise decision to close Collège militaire royal in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. CMR had been created to counter anti-francophone prejudices in the military, and the decision caused an uproar that contributed to Johnson’s defeat in the election.

In fact, on that occasion, the Libs simply misread the scale of public opinion— and their later efforts to rectify matters were ruined by foot-dragging from Johnson’s people. But that just teaches the same lesson of realpolitik: anytime negotiations on anything fail between federalists in Ottawa and Quebec City, those efforts will be cited by sovereigntists as proof that the system doesn’t work. So on issues like constitutional reform, a mind-set develops that it’s better to not try at all than to try and be seen to fail.

That attitude drives Liberals in Quebec City crazy, in a carefully controlled way. If they complain too loudly about Ottawa’s intransigence, they aid the secessionists—but if they don’t complain at all, they’re seen as the PM’s lapdogs. Still, unhappy federalists in Quebec are better off than grumbling people in Western Canada: at least the PM pays attention to the former, while appearing oblivious to concerns of the latter. The striking thing on both fronts is that the Libs have seldom in recent memory been better-placed to reach out and take decisive action. They have a strong majority, a new mandate and every other party in the House of Commons is in disarray. The Alliance, NDP and Conservatives all face leadership questions, and the meltdown within the PQ caused by Lucien Bouchard’s resignation will preoccupy the Bloc Québécois for some time to come.

In fact, the PM is likely the one person in federal politics who could try to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold without being vilified in English Canada: think here of the old observation that only Nixon could have gone to China to reopen relations. Martin, if he ever becomes PM, will arouse great hopes in Quebec—which will be enough to evoke equal suspicions in the rest of the country. Different formula, same frustrating results. No wonder the Quebec sovereignty movement sometimes fades but never dies: its existence is too convenient for too many people.