In December 2008, just after Jean Charest’s third consecutive election victory, I wrote this: “Like Bourassa, Charest has positioned himself as both a critic of the federal government and a supporter of the federation.” At the time, I thought it was Charest who’d turned a corner, who’d come to understand that nationalism is an essential characteristic of Quebec politics, and that it could be embraced and molded to fit even a federalist’s political agenda. I wrote it half-expecting Charest to spend 2009 burnishing his Captain Quebec credentials by picking meaningless fights with the federal government. But, barring a few minor exceptions, those battles never materialized.
Sure, Quebec is still in a fightin’ mood at the prospect of a national securities regulator. And Charest couldn’t stop himself from taking a few pot-shots at Ottawa over its hang-ups in Copenhagen. But these were hardly Quebec vs. The Imperial Commanders Of Windsor Castle. After all, it’s hard to pitch them as such when you’ve got Alberta and Ontario on your side.
In a sense, it was a fitting end to what was arguably the least-nationalist decade in 50 years. (And to those already tempted to write back that 2000-2009 isn’t a decade in the proper sense of the term: I don’t care. Really. Don’t bother.) Consider:
• It’s the first decade since the PQ arrived on the political scene the party hasn’t won an election. The last one dates back to 1998, under Lucien Bouchard; the PQ is on its third leader since then.
• It’s the first decade since the 1970s not to feature a referendum. Even the PQ has lost interest now that it’s gotten hard to win even a simple election.
• Five years on, the most important political scandal of our time—Gomery—has had little effect on politics in Quebec. Granted, it set the Liberals way, way back. But one would think the embezzlement of millions in federal funds earmarked for the mollifying of nationalist sentiment in Quebec would cause a more serious rupture than a simple changing of the guard at the top of the federalist food chain.
• Even at the height of the furor over reasonable accommodations and the apparent recomposition of Quebec’s ethnic make-up, independence, once perceived as the solution to all the province’s insecurities, never really got any steam behind it.
There are no doubt a million reasons for the apparent détente between Quebec nationalists and Ottawa: globalization, 9/11, the economic collapse of 2008-2009, the PQ’s failure to recruit new blood, etc. But looking back on what I wrote about Charest in 2008, specifically my assessment that he embraced nationalism to great success, I’m increasingly prone to thinking I got it only part right. The nationalists, whether they meant to or not, saved Charest a lot of trouble by meeting him halfway there.