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Quebec's Call for Clarity

What the Federal Election Results from Quebec Mean for Canada
Beryl P. Wajsman 20 July 2004

Sir Georges-Etienne Cartier


“Let every student of human nature take this as a rule---that whatever the mind seizes and dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction is to be held in suspicion.”

~ Francis Bacon


We are about to be inundated by analyses of Quebec representation in the Federal Cabinet. They will focus on all the timeworn questions of how much is enough, are we listening to Quebec and will Quebecers be satisfied. Perhaps they should have listened during the election and got the right message.


Some days before the vote a national political commentator called to ask me why there was such a vehement reaction here against the Sponsorship Affair. He had concluded that this was the root of the Liberal malaise in Quebec and the reason for the strong Bloc numbers. Sadly he had it wrong about Quebec. As does most of the country most of the time.


In Quebec, politics is a national sport. Whether through vote or voice it is participatory. And the populace comes equipped with a heightened recognition of, and a lower tolerance for, false piety. In simple terms, and with apologies to H.L. Mencken, if you are going to have intimate relations with a McCormick Reaper that’s your business but don’t run on a platform of family values.


Most may not have liked the aims of the Federal sponsorship dollars. But having lived through the Oxygene Neuf imbroglio, amongst others, Quebec voters were not likely to do a dramatic flip-flop for that reason alone. The 2000 Election after all did see the first Liberal seat victory in Quebec in some 16 years. No, the explanation runs deeper than that.


The first stirrings of resentment came in reaction to comments by federal Liberals that “…this was the way politics was played in Quebec…”. The game is played hard here no doubt, but it is played hard everywhere contrary to the smug complacencies of most Canadians. The attack ads of the last campaign are eloquent testimony to that.


The second factor that played against the Liberals in Quebec was the nagging sense that the turmoil and tumult of the House Public Accounts Committee was a collective case of “…she doeth protest too much…” The sight of so many veteran politicians engaged in attempting to reverse their own deflowering was a bit too much to take for Quebec stomachs.


Thirdly, there was much more focus in Quebec on the institutional intimacies of Earnscliffe and the relationships of the Prime Minister and his family to CSL than was evident in the national media. All this attention culminated some ten days before the election in a French CBC news program entitled “Enjeux” on the offshore status of the 28 inter-related CSL companies.


Finally there were some real bread-and-butter issues that got major play on the ground. The most important of which was a campaign led by labour and social action groups on the reform of U.I. seasonality provisions. This reached a crescendo some two weeks before the election when we were awash in signs on every fifth lamppost asking “Qui à volé l’argent des chomeurs?”(Who stole the money from the unemployed?) In a society where some 40% of workers and their families have some relations to unions the social justice agenda cannot be successfully addressed through carefully worded election promises.


A Quebec Senator once made the point that the real two solitudes in Quebec are not between Francophone and Anglophone. The real two solitudes he said was the constant friction and creative tension between that half of Quebec society that was arguably the most politically progressive in North America and the other half who were truly the heirs of Duplessis.


Our hope for the future rests with the recognition by all Canadians that in the final analysis this Quebec is not the society of Maurice Duplessis nor for that matter of Camilien Houde. This is the society where Louis-Joseph Papineau led the struggle for full emancipation of all minorities in 1832 eight years before England. This is the place where Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine battled successfully for the first experiment in responsible government in the British Empire. Here is the ground that responded to Georges-Etienne Cartier’s call to put aside petty differences and helped give life to the seeds of a great new country. Here is the culture that nurtured Laurier’s vision of an inclusionary and internationalist Canada of the 20th Century.


Quebec was the indispensable crucible that forged the heroism of men like Jean Marchand and Pierre Elliot Trudeau in the 1950’s and 1960’s who broke the back of a revanchiste right and a retrograde clergy and paved the way for a re-definition of what Canada is as a nation through their social policies of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  This was the battleground for Jean Lesage’s “Revolution Tranquille” that made so many more of us true stakeholders in our governance and established a model that was followed nationally. And yes, this was the stage where René Levesque gave voice and vigor to a national striving but steadfastly maintained Quebec’s full dedication to democratic principles and pluralistic doctrines.


This is the Quebec we must draw from our institutional memories. This is the Quebec we must learn to talk to. A Quebec whose political patrimony yields much of the heart and soul of the Canadian progressive tradition. And if we can reverse our failure of faith in ourselves as Canadians and abandon our cautions of contempt, we may finally begin to comprehend how stands Quebec.







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