UP FRONT

ASLEEP, AT LEAST FOR NOW

Although the threat of Quebec separation has receded, federalists should be vigilant

Mary Janigan January 12 2004
UP FRONT

ASLEEP, AT LEAST FOR NOW

Although the threat of Quebec separation has receded, federalists should be vigilant

Mary Janigan January 12 2004

ASLEEP, AT LEAST FOR NOW

ON THE ISSUES

Although the threat of Quebec separation has receded, federalists should be vigilant

Mary Janigan

THE PROJECT was deliciously quixotic. In September 1998, after taking a university course in Canadian studies, Ivan Ashbury decided something had to be done to enhance national unity. So the retired Peterborough, Ont., resident and four long-time friends started sending earnest letters, laboriously translated into French, to strangers they selected from Quebec telephone directories. The letters were charming, calling for mutual understanding and asking for the recipient’s thoughts on how to improve English-French relations.

Over 4V2 years, Ashbury, now 93, and his elderly buddies sent out 4,000 letters at their own expense. They received only 40 replies, mostly from federalists. Undaunted, the former accountant and his resolute band kept writing until last April, when Liberal Jean Charest was elected Quebec premier. “We felt Charest would support Quebec’s interests within Canada,” he says. “So we felt we would be wasting our time.”

It is our destiny that national unity will forever be an issue. But we are in a rare spell of relative peace. In a Maclean’s year-end poll, conducted by Strategic Counsel, a mere one per cent of Canadians selected national unity as “the most important issue facing Canada today” among 16 possible categories. At the top was “health care and hospitals” at 27 per cent. That was followed by unemployment and the economy at 14 per cent. Like Ashbury, most Canadians seem more optimistic about the nation’s chances.

« A mere one per cent selected national unity as the ‘most important issue facing Canada* today among 16 possible categories.

And the short-term outlook is good. In an astute move, Paul Martin shifted Pierre Pettigrew from International Trade to Idealth and Intergovernmental Affairs. The combination is both novel and clever because Ottawa is now negotiating with the provinces to reform medicare. Pettigrew is an able bargainer: in the mid-1990s, against seemingly impossible odds, the Quebec minister won provincial co-operation for the National Child Benefit, which provides payments to lower-income kids. (Quebec itself did not officially sign on—but it has effectively participated in the program.) “Pettigrew is non-confrontational and respected,” says Ken Battle, president of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy. He pauses dramatically, relishing the phrase. “He could be the Man for Medicare.”

The provinces are doing their bit for unity, too. Early last month, premiers and territorial leaders put the finishing touches on their Council of the Federation, which will bring them together twice a year and create an Ottawa-based secretariat. The federal government is not a member. But perhaps Quebec would quit if Ottawa were. “This is a great idea: Quebec is dealing with equals in areas like social policy,” notes Queen’s University economist Tom Courchene. “The provinces know they are being dragged apart by the pressures of north-south trade between different regions of Canada and the U.S. This is a way to strengthen some of the social and political east-west ties.”

None of this means we can all go back to sleep. Ashbury and his cohorts are now working with the local school board to ensure that teenagers have the opportunity to communicate with their counterparts in other regions. “We want to prevent another change of opinion happening in Quebec,” he says warily. Good try. But there will always be strains in any federation: if not Quebec, Alberta may be tugging at its ties. Perhaps all we can do is relish the fact that we have a break. And not expect it to last. f?il

Mary Janigan is a political and policy writer. mary.janigan@macleans.rogers.com