Still here, and more alienated than ever -

Still here, and more alienated than ever

If separatism is dying, that doesn’t mean that la belle province has finally come around to the virtues of federalism.


Peter Mccabe/CP

If a sign of the relative health of the Quebec sovereignty movement is the amount of anxiety its most outspoken proponents cause in the rest of Canada, then the movement is almost certainly at death’s door. Where it was noticed, Gilles Duceppe’s quixotic springtime tour of the country promoting his vision for an independent Quebec got a friendly, if cockeyed, reception. Then, a few weeks ago, the former editor of Le Devoir and arch-separatist Lise Bissonnette was given a lifetime achievement award by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, for which she was given a warm standing ovation at the gala in Toronto.

But if separatism is dying, that doesn’t mean that la belle province has finally come around to the virtues of federalism. If anything, the alienation of Quebecers from the rest of Canada is probably higher than it has been anytime since the Second World War, and recent polls suggest that if support for separatism is only at about 40 per cent, it is because the question is simply irrelevant.

For the 20th anniversary of the failure of the Meech Lake accord, Chantal Hébert wrote a column for Le Devoir that was unfortunately paid little attention in the English-speaking media. Hébert argued that Quebec’s traditional Meech-era demands had ceased to have any resonance with either of the main federal parties. More worrisome still is that newer and, in many ways, more pressing concerns in Quebec were also falling into a political black hole.

These include Quebec’s opposition to a national securities regulator, its enthusiasm for measures to mitigate climate change, support for the national gun registry (which was created, don’t forget, in response to the massacre of women at the École Polytechnique in 1989), and the push to require that future nominees to the Supreme Court be fully bilingual.
Most ominously, the Conservatives—with the full support of the Liberals—are moving ahead with a bill to reallocate seats in the House of Commons. This will see Quebec’s share of MPs soon fall below 25 per cent, and even below the province’s actual demographic weight in the country.

We could debate till the cows come home the merits of each of these proposals, but on the main point Hébert is right: the short-circuited relations between Quebecers and the federal government are now utterly fritzed. And the single biggest obstacle standing in the way of more normal relations between the solitudes? The ongoing presence of the Bloc Québécois, which was founded in 1991 in response to the rejection of Meech Lake. Despite its mandate to promote sovereignty and defend the interests of Quebec in Ottawa, the Bloc is actually having the exact opposite effect. Today, there is not a bigger threat to Quebec’s most vital interests than the 48 MPs from Quebec sitting to the left of the opposition Liberals in the House of Commons.

Quebec nationalism didn’t arrive in Ottawa with the Bloc. That is because virtually all French-speaking Quebecers (outside the Gatineau region, anyway) are nationalists of a stripe, and what distinguishes them is not their degree of loyalty to Canada, but their judgment of whether Quebec’s interests are best served inside or outside Confederation.

But before the Bloc these nationalists worked within one of the two major federalist parties, which meant that regardless of who was in power in Ottawa, the government benches were full of representatives whose overriding motivation was to look out for Quebec. The province was well-served precisely because its members of Parliament were fully integrated into the federal party system. And while the government of the day had an abiding interest in keeping Quebecers happy, Canada benefitted too, and many of the most important strands of the country’s social safety net were first introduced in Quebec. Overall, it was a healthy symbiosis that did a good job of representing Canada to Quebec, and Quebec to the rest of Canada.

But for two decades now, Quebecers have been basically abstaining from federal politics.
Instead of playing the vital role of advancing the province’s interests within the system, the chief function of the Bloc Québécois is to introduce motions into the House that are basically restatements of consensus motions already passed by the National Assembly in Quebec City.

The enduring presence of the Bloc Québécois has launched Canadian politics into a vicious loop. The absence of a critical mass of Quebec MPs in the governing caucus means that the province’s demands don’t get anything resembling a fair hearing. The more they are ignored, the more alienated from Ottawa Quebecers feel, and the more inclined they are to tune out of the federal system. Meanwhile, federal politics suffers from the absence of a constructive Quebecois caucus, with our climate-change commitments serving as one of the most notable casualties.

The principal effect of the Bloc has not been to defend Quebec’s interests or to advance the cause of separatism. Rather, it has been to entrench ineffective minority governments at the federal level. The recent coalition dance between the NDP and the Liberals is a sign that Ottawa is learning to live with the Bloc as a permanent resident, which is another way of saying that the rest of Canada is learning to live without Quebec.


Still here, and more alienated than ever

  1. Right on target, Andrew. If Meech Lake have been the act of birth of the Bloc, we should not forget that events like the Sponsorship scandal, the Clarity Act and the implosion of the Progressives-Conservatives option have allowed the Bloc to sustained the right level of support to stay on top major federal parties. This new generation of Canadian nationalism – the one we enjoyed so much recently on Canada Day and at the Olympics – will not help to get Quebecer closer to federal politics. Cynicals like me might predict Quebec might one day be separate not with the actual separatism movement but only by the natural devolvement. It seems we are like an old couple that is too old to divorce.

    • Except that we're not "a couple". And that's (in part) the lesson in Meech that Hebert completely overlooked in her recent writings on the anniversary of the Accord's demise. The notion that there is a voice (in Parliament, at Queen's Park, or elsewhere) that speaks for "English Canada" is a complete myth, because the notion of "English Canada", held by Quebec's political class, doesn't actually exist.

      Meech Lake was rejected, at least in part, because it sought to redefine Canada along its binary arrangement of the 1840s, as opposed to the federation that was formed in 1867, and which has subsequently evolved to include ten provinces. The failure of Meech may have led to the Bloc's formation, but it was also instrumental in feeding the Reform movement in Western Canada.

  2. We have to face facts, Quebecers are not interested. They elect separatists and that is how it is. Learning to live without Quebec is best I think. We can be comfortable in our own skins, enact policies in our own interest without chewing our nails bloody over What Quebec Wants. Minority govts are not the worst thing. We can make do. Christian is not being a cynic, rather I think he is being practical. Edging Quebec gradually out the door might be the best, least disruptive approach.

  3. I've posted about this in the past, I'll do it again… As much as I hate to say it, concerning the Bloc Québecois, some years ago, it was Stephen Harper who (partially) hit the nail on the head.

    In his arguments for courting the 3 sisters (red toryism and both Western and Québecois autonomist populism) Stephen Harper said: ''If Quebec stays in Confederation, the Bloc will either disintegrate or become an autonomist party, participating in federal politics as a representative of Quebec's specific interests.'' He then acknowledged that representation, in cahoots with the other sisters, would ''reflect the regional and cultural character of Canadian society, and it would give that character an institutional expression''

    And as a beautiful tribute to the voters of the BQ, Harper said:

    ''The Bloc Québecois is strongest in rural Quebec, among voters who would not be out of place in Red Deer, except that they speak French rather than English. They are nationalist for much the same reason that Albertans are populist — they care about their local identity and the culture that nourishes it…''

    Harper's mistake on this was to assume the BQ and supporters would be enamored by Harper's brand of neoconservatism… Now there's where he was dead wrong! However, in my opinion, to the Québecois, the BQ is as relevant to them, if not more than it ever was.

    – to read Stephen Harper's ''Our benign dictatorship'' – 1996 –

    • Strange as it is, I agree with Harper (at least 1996 Harper) that the Bloc is likely to eventually morph into an autonomist/provincial party that strongly espouses the role of province in federalism. But while it's taken amazing steps in this direction (including the coalition discussions a couple of years ago), it's not quite there yet. I'm not sure what it will take to make the change definitive – a leader from the next generation who backs away from (if not renounces) the demand for sovereignty, increased competition from a revived Liberal Party, a shift of the Bloc to the centre instead of the far left, etc. – but I still think this is more likely than the complete disappearance of the Bloc. I can definitely envision a more centrist Bloc that is willing to make deals with either the Liberals or the Conservatives based on what it sees as being the best interest of Quebec, without the perpetual threat that they will jump ship if the rest of Canada doesn't go along.

      • I agree with your comments…

        ''I can definitely envision a more centrist Bloc that is willing to make deals with either the Liberals or the Conservatives''
        – It has, twice so far! Once with the CPC and NDP and, once with the Libs and the NDP.

        Here's where I might disagree somewhat:

        ''a shift of the Bloc to the centre instead of the far left''

        Though I categorically deny the existence of a left-right paradigm, for practical purposes, I do understand what you mean to say by ''far-left''. I think it is mislabeling to call the BQ ''far left''. If anything, Québec, as a whole, is more socialist leaning of all the provinces. The BQ in itself, is not. It is 100% populist. Oddly enough, so is this brand of Conservatives (ie. CPC). Though the CPC has some roots in neo-conservatism, its main shoot is in populism (of the Western provinces' kind). In fact, some of it's ''right wing'' ideology is born from the populist ideologies of its base (ex. so-con/religious positions). The fundamental difference in the CPC and BQ is not in party ideology/mechanics, it lies in its supporters.

        What I can't stand, even as a staunch federalist (who might be francophone and live in Gatineau – though not at all Québecois), is the constant insults and belittling of the BQ supporters (who clearly are not uniquely separatists). To treat them (and that Party) with such contempt and disdain is the greatest argument to sway these supporters towards staunch separatism. Those who vote BQ exercise their democratic right for a whole host of reasons, none is deserving of exclusion or dismissal. Seldom do you hear such disparagement towards the autonomist parties in the UK from the British people or their politicians (ex. Plaid Cymru or the SNP – where CPC's Big Daddy Finley cut his teeth).

  4. The Conservative party was doing well in the polls in Quebec prior to the last election however Gilles Deception and the BLOC managed to literally scare the vote their direction. Stephen Harper was the 'George W. Bush' boogey man of Canada, vote anything but Conservative we must not let them get a majority, etc. The fact is the BLOC was dragging in the polls and getting little financial support from their members and if it were not for the $1.95 per vote from the federal government they would have been bankrupt. They could see that they were in big trouble and thus desperate. They preached that they were the Quebec party rather than the separatist party and that the sky would fall in if the Conservatives got a majority and thus they conned the Quebec electorate. Unfortunately the Conservatives have not been courting the Quebecers as much as they aught to since the last election or they would be sitting in majority territory. Quebecers do like to vote with the winner.

  5. '…before the Bloc these nationalists worked within one of the two major federalist…'

    In 1982, 74 out of 75 Quebec MPs voted in favor of the new constitutional deal, despite the opposition of the Quebec National Assembly to it. I do not see much Quebec nationalist MPs in the 1982 bunch, do you ?

    Following that, we voted for Mulroney because he campaigned on bringing Quebec in the Constitution fold with honour and enthousiam. He did try, but that failed.

    Not having signed on the new constitutional deal of 1982 is one good reason to prefer being in opposition at the federal level than being part of the government.

  6. As for me, I care less than ever about Quebec, French and whining separatists who don't have the balls to leave Canada but never shut up about it.
    Go. Now.

  7. I agree we should learn to live without Quebec as part of Canadain politics, but we need Quebec and Quebecers, they are interesting people with an interesting culture; A lot less drab than boring old English canadians, we need their influence, we need their input. Without Quebec we fall fom being a G8 country to about G30 or so, and so do they, we also go from the 2nd largest landmass in the world to about 10th or so. No one wins if Quebec leaves confederation, other than the lawyers and the politicians whos faces will appear on statues and on the Quebec Franc (which would become valueless over time).

    I find the Bloc Quebecois to be a silly powerless excersize. What I would like to see is a Bloc Ontario and a Bloc Atalantic Canada and a Bloc Western Canada.

    • I don't think that English Canadians are boring or drab. My parents came from a country that is gang infested and totally corrupt. They were impoverished and half starved. In Canada they became middle class home owners and I became a highly paid university educated professional. There is no way on god's green earth that would have been possible in the old country. You apparently don't appreciate Canada's long Anglo Saxon/Celtic and home grown civilization, literature, music, customs and history. There is a lot of really great stuff there. There's no reason it can't stand on its own. We don't need Quebec.

    • Without Quebec we fall fom being a G8 country to about G30 or so

      Wrong. Our GDP ranking would fall at most 2 spots, and we'd be about 12th in the world in terms of GDP.

      we also go from the 2nd largest landmass in the world to about 10th or so

      Wrong, we go to 5th

      Any other misconceptions you'd like to clear up?

  8. The bloc is still strong in Quebec because in Quebec, its politics 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. Does not matter which channel you watch, but it is specially bad on Radio-Canada, you will never hear a positive comment on Canada. Never. If one news person forget the rule and does say something positive, he will get killed in the medias as a sold out, and he may even lose his desk. I have seen 5 minutes interviews about concerts turn into a 4 minutes rant against the federal. As long as the bloc can keep as many people as possible believe that ROC meets every Tuesday and Thursday at the local bingo hall in order to find ways to screw Quebec, their number will float around 40%. For the bloc, ignorance is bliss. I have family in the Chicoutimi area. Some of these people are convinced that Quebec sends more money to Ottawa than it receives. Keeping as much English language out of the province as possible is not only a way to keep the french language alive, it is also a way to control the message.

    • Then separation will give them a big jolt of a wake up call. After separation, how long do you think they can protect their language and culture? The rest of Canada should have a referendum on whether to let Quebec go or not, before even Quebec will have their next referendum.


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  10. Andre 1958
    You are so right. The ROC will never understand that the entire Quebec politcal arena and the media are completely controled by this collective tribalist disease we call quebec nationalism.
    It is a sectarianist, ethnocentric exclusionist mind set that no one dares to expose and denounce. The majority of so called influential people do not even recognize this nationalism for what it really represents. At least not at any influential level such as the political class or the media.
    Quebecs politicians and this damn media are turning ALL quebecers into the most hated people I have ever heard of since the nazis.
    And to comment on a statement Mr. Andrew Potter made in his column, not all french quebecers are nationalist. We are just so marginalized that no body knows or seems to care that we even exist. We have absolutley no voice whatever.
    Quebec has been turned into a very ugly place indeed.

  11. As an American of French-Canadian descent, I'm fascinated by your francophone vs. anglophone disputes. Too much emotion. Too much hatred. Let reason/rationality prevail.
    PAUL VEILLETTE, East Chatham, New York

  12. "for two decades now, Quebecers have been basically abstaining from federal politics." Not true: the majority have still voted for federalist parties. In six elections the Bloc has never won the majority of Quebec votes, yet Bloc voters always elect a majority of Quebec MPs.

    "The absence of a critical mass of Quebec MPs in the governing caucus means that the province's demands don't get anything resembling a fair hearing." True, but don't blame the Bloc. In Quebec, Jean Charest's government started to introduce proportional representation right after they were elected in 2003. They then tripped over their own feet, but are still trying to get it right. Unlike the federal Liberals since 2005. In 2005 the Bloc's position was "While the Bloc Québécois Members of Parliament are not in Ottawa to defend the federal system, or to reform Canada's electoral system, we accept that such reform is necessary." Does Ignatieff?

  13. What is wrong with the Canadian political system is that the country is not ruled by the majority of the people. The solution is not, as the proportionalists would like, to the change the electoral system so that the country is ruled by a majority of the political parties.