Is this what a post-nationalist Quebec looks like?


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.


Is this what a post-nationalist Quebec looks like?

  1. Quebec nationalism remains a potent force. But Quebecers have taken a pragmatic turn of late. Pragmatic people don't fix things that aren't broken.

    A case in point: Stephen Harper's Conservatives, less than two months ago, prevailed against the Bloc in the most french-speaking riding in all of Quebec, Riviere-du-Loup. That riding had been held by the Bloc since its inception in 1993.

    This little noticed by-election could be the shape of things to come in eastern Quebec.

    • I agree with you Quebec politics have taken a pragmatic turn, but I'm not as sure Rivière-du-Loup is much of a bellwether for Conservative fortunes in Quebec. The Bas-Saint-Laurent has always been more sympathetic to conservatives than other regions of Quebec (see: the Bernier clan, Mario Dumont and the ADQ in general). So while it's true the Bloc had held the riding since 1993, the MP (Paul Crête) stayed the same through all those years, meaning it's hard to get a feel for whether voters had in fact taken to Crête or the party. That's not to say there won't be Tory breakthrough, just that basing that belief on by-election results may be misguided.

  2. It is a very interesting development but the real question is why is this happening? I think the explanation lies in the fact that Canadian federalism has been so accommodating to Quebec nationalism. The fact that an overtly separatist party could actually contest (and win!) elections in Quebec gave people in the province a good preview of what independence would really mean and they saw that it wasn't all that different than what we already have in Canada so why bother? As long as Quebec retains power of culture/language than there's no really no pressing existential reason to leave Canada.

    Course there's also no reason to love it. But that's another story.

    • Agreed. But the longterm consequences of this constant accomodation will likely be felt elsewhere, as Premiers in other provinces are increasingly motivated to replicate Quebec's successful approach. You can call it nationalism, autonimism or parochialism, or whetever you like, but the coming national debates about the environment, pensions, and interprovincial transfers of wealth in the face of increasing social program costs are inevitably going to give rise to 'couteau a la gorge' emanating from more than just Quebec.

  3. Don't break out the champagne. There are still plenty of national unity issues in this country.

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