BENOIT AUBIN January 23 2006


BENOIT AUBIN January 23 2006




Two little events that occurred at the same time in Montreal last week help explain why Stephen Harper’s Conserva-

tives were able to get a bandwagon rolling in

“liberal” Quebec without too much difficulty. On Tuesday, the Rolling Stones repeatedly called out to their audience in French at the Bell Centre. Mick Jagger opened with a resounding, and vernacular, “Salut, les Québécois!” and then went on to joke that the 18,000 fans had filled the cavernous arena only to escape the leaders’ debate taking place across town. And at that two-hour, French-language marathon in the bowels of Radio-Canada on Blvd René-Lévesque, only one of the four leaders allowed himself to slip into English: Gilles Duceppe. He referred in English to “nationbuilding” to explain why Quebec and Canada should be good neighbours instead of one country. And he chastised the feds’ “Ottawaknows-best” attitude as the main source of Quebec’s beefs with Canada.

So do like Mick, and tell Quebecers they exist on their own, even in the eyes of peripatetic British rockers. Do like Gilles: using English words is all right, even cool in Quebec, now that most Anglos are bilingual and English is not perceived as the threat it used to be. Or do like Stephen: tell Quebecers you know they’re different, that they have special needs, which require special responsibilities, and that you respect that. You’ll make a lot of friends, fast, despite being an anglo with a right-wing agenda.

Some local Liberals rolled their eyes in alarm when Paul Martin took “national unity” out of its semi-retirement, telling other Canadians that Liberals were the only ones able to save Canada from the separatist threat. Threat? It’s all so quiet in Quebec at the moment. No outrage, no passion, no crowds marching in Montreal protesting this or that about Canada. There is only Gilles Duceppe —who incidentally gave little more than lip service to “la souveraineté” during that French-language debate—for fear of alien-


Said they would fight, depending on the war

ating his many not-too-separatist supporters.

In the 1970s, René Lévesque personified the Québécois underdog, chastising “Westmount Rhodesians.” In the nineties, Lucien Bouchard rode the wave of public outrage after other Canadians refused to recognize Quebec as a distinct society. Today’s buzz? “Indifference,” says Alain Giguère, the head of the CROP polling firm. “People here feel

Of Quebecers are willing to bear arms for Canada

less and less Canadian. Our belonging to Canada has become increasingly trivialized— Canadian symbols play an ever decreasing part in the personal identity of a number of Quebecers,” he says. Many people here, especially the younger ones, see themselves as citizens of the world, with a culture brewed in Quebec. Maple leaf, just incidental. Mick Jagger got that one right.

Giguère’s conclusion? “After the Quiet Revolution, we may be headed toward some form of Quiet Separation.”

Jacques Frémont, a constitutional expert, had reached roughly the same conclusion, even without reading CROP’S data. “I’m not sure 100,000 Canadians could be mobilized to come to Montreal to beg us to stay, like they did in 1995; Canadians have moved on to other things, and Quebecers are identifying less and less with Canada.” His own conclusion: “The days of passionate divorce talk are over; what lies ahead could well be dissolution, separation amid indifference or boredom.”

Well, at least no hard feelings. But a bad taste remains in many people’s mouths, Frémont adds. “It’s become very difficult to be a Quebec federalist nowadays.” Why? “There has been so much crap, so much cynicism going on, that citizens have stopped taking the political process seriously. They don’t recognize themselves in our institutions anymore.”

Forget for a moment that the sponsorship scandal was the hideous pork-barrel caper that gave birth to the Gomery inquiry-and then to this premature winter election. Its very concept—boost Canadian patriotism in Quebec by shoving the flag down everyone’s throat, so to speak-was ill advised. CROP’S polling, Giguère says, shows that “the traditional national symbols, such as the Queen, the CBC, bilingualism, the prime ministereven hockey-have lost traction as identity factors, everywhere in Canada. Their decline

was just much more dramatic in Quebec.” Save the country by flogging a dead horse? “Canadians and Quebecers have evolved, their attitudes have changed, but the message about the country has not followed.” Canada needs a new pitch, new symbols, a new rallying cry: “Maybe then, interest would be rejuvenated.”

Frémont looks at it in more political terms. “There was a great opportunity for renewal two years ago, when Paul Martin and Jean Charest were elected: two Quebecers, two staunch federalists. I’m afraid that opportunity was missed.” Cue Stephen Harper. He comes to Quebec, admits there is a fiscal imbalance (in Quebec, that’s code for “federalism-gone-bad”), hints at a form of decentralized confederation, and, voilàl

Quebec has been there before, of course: Brian Mulroney, Robert Bourassa. “The Meech Lake debacle is still reverberating in Quebec today” says Senator Jean-Claude Rivest, a close adviser to Bourassa at the

2^% ÄJ pssi See bilingualism as ‘very important’ to identity

time. Quebecers today are still longing for “double-talk federalism”—a strong Quebec inside a united Canada. “I am convinced that support for separation would not be as high as it is now if there was a middle-ground option available between the centralizing federalism we have seen in the last decade, and another referendum on separation,” Rivest told Maclean’s.

Stephen Harper’s somewhat vague promise of “flexible federalism” has allowed him to claim this elusive middle ground, between the rock and the hard place. Rivest, a Quebec Liberal, was named to the Senate by Mulroney, a Conservative, but he’s been sitting as an independent, saying he could not support the Conservatives’ right-wing agenda. Today? “A Conservative government would probably be good for Canada,” he said. “It would change the political culture in Ottawa.”

And thus, save national unity, maybe? M