It begins


It is always pleasant to learn that the Quebec-wing president of a political party believes his role is to deliver the party, bound and hog-tied, to one of several still-undeclared candidates in a leadership race whose rules and players have not yet even been determined. Say hello, not for the first time, to Robert Fragasso, Grand Poo-Bah and Lodge Master of the Liberal Party of Canada-Quebec. Let us try to decode his comments on the race to succeed — well, succeed isn’t necessarily the right word, is it? — Stéphane Dion.

The next leader must have support from one end of the country to the other. “I don’t want to personalize my remarks,” he takes pains to emphasize, “but we must have candidates whose popularity extends past Moncton or the Atlantic provinces, or on the other hand who are not known only in Quebec and nobodies once you get past Cornwall,” he says.

It takes my colleague Hélène Buzzetti about a second and a half to figure that one out: Fragasso is cheerfully kneecapping Dominic LeBlanc and Martin Cauchon, though not in a personalized way, mind you. Elsewhere in her article Hélène reports whispers among Quebec-wing federal Liberals that “the #2 victim on October 14, after Stéphane Dion, was Bob Rae,” because the economy is sputtering and Rae had a bit of a bad moment there with a large economy in the 1990s.

Well, golly. If it can’t be a nobody from Moncton and it can’t be a Quebecer who’s faceless past Cornwall and if it can’t be anyone who’s already left his fingerprints on a large economy, who could it be? And what’s the criterion that should decide it?

If you’re Robert Fragasso and an apparently not inconsiderable chunk of the party’s Quebec wing, you look at the ruins of the last election — during which the issues in Quebec were arts funding; youth criminal justice; economic management; environmental stewardship; foreign policy adventurism — and you decide the winning policy is constitutional tinkering. Because don’t you always decide the winning policy is constitutional tinkering?

The time has come to break through the Liberal party’s institutional resistance. “I’m not asking the next leader to promise to re-open the Constitution, but to show a certain openness, even if it means giving a certain constitutional dimension to the Québécois nation,” Mr. Fragasso says.

Quiz time: How do you give ideas a certain constitutional dimension without re-opening the Constitution? Hint: It’s a trick question. Prediction: There’ll be more of those before long.

Anyway. On to the who-could-it-be question. Since re-opening the constitution was not mentioned as an issue by any player in the last election, and since the Québécois nation resolution doesn’t seem to have had any effect on anything, Fragasso and Co. are all about the Certain Constitutional Dimension. And do we have any visitors from that dimension? Indeed:

Despite this functioning balance, the province of Quebec has not given its assent to the Constitution of 1982, and until it does, our federation’s architecture remains unfinished. Creating the conditions for a successful negotiation to complete our nation-building will take time. Ratification of a new constitution will require good faith and political will on all sides. When these conditions are in place, Canadians should be prepared to ratify the facts of our life as a country composed of distinct nations in a new constitutional document.

Author! Author!

You were way ahead of me, weren’t you. You knew that if the leadership couldn’t be given to

(a) a New Brunswicker

(b) a Quebecer

(c) a guy who’s ever actually run anything

(d) someone who doesn’t think it’s possible to show constitutional openness unless you open the constitution

…then we could really only be talking about one fellow, no?

Here it must be noted that Michael Ignatieff has made a strong showing of things since he got elected to Parliament. Lately I picture him walking around carrying a sign saying 320 ON-THE-JOB-DAYS WITHOUT AN ACCIDENT. This is a real achievement and must be taken into serious consideration by those of us who cast ourselves as his critics last time around. It must be assumed he has given new thought to all the issues that bedevilled him in his first run.

Still, a mother worries. The trajectory of Ignatieff’s constitutional policy last time could perhaps best be summarized thusly: (1) tambours et trompettes, as above; (2) quick backtrack, emphasizing the “will take time” part of his manifesto, and insisting that he was talking about vague wishes for someday, not a near-term policy of constitutional upheaval; (3) resolutions at Liberal party functions calling for constitutional change; (4) deciding, when Stephen Harper introduced the Québécois nation resolution to short-sheet the Bloc, that this was all he had ever called for in the first place and that he should have credit for putting the issue on the agenda.

But already (4) appears to have been discarded and we are pretty close to being back to (1). Here our text comes from Brigitte Legault, the party’s francophone vice-president (it’s a title; there’s also an anglophone vice-president) who showed promise as a candidate against Michael Fortier and the Bloquiste who beat them both in Vaudreuil, and who says a lot of insightful things near the top of Hélène’s article. Lower down she says this:

(On whether a symbol like Harper’s 2005 Laval speech is needed) “Not a symbol, because people in Quebec realized it had no impact, that’s why the Conservative Party face-planted in Quebec in 2008,” Mme Legault estimates. “It’s time to make a real statement. We have to make a bold move to demonstrate that we’re there, in the Liberal Party, to represent Quebec.”

So nothing Harper has done on/for/to Quebec was “a real statement.” The Liberal brass in Quebec wants the party to outflank the Harper Conservatives in appealing to Quebec nationalism. And it is hinting pretty strongly that it’s found the man for the job.

This will be interesting.


It begins

  1. “The Liberal brass in Quebec wants the party to outflank the Harper Conservatives in appealing to Quebec nationalism.”
    That sound?
    Its the sound of the blood vessels in my brain exploding.

  2. I mainly wonder how far this will go before there is serious pushback in the rest of Canada. So far, Harper has been able to give away the supply managed farm to Quebec without any problems. Will that hold up when economic problems put people in too bad a mood to tolerate pandering (especially fiscal) to Quebec?

    I only say this because the most striking thing I remember from the “nation” nonsense was listenting to Prime Time Sports with Bob Mclown talk about it – and they were not happy. That kind of negative real world breakthrough isn’t something politicians usually seek.

  3. I didn’t want to put this in the main text of an already fairly speculative post, but what would be really fun would be if the Liberals climbed 10 feet out on the nationalist branch… and Harper doubled back to appeal to Quebec federalists and rest-of-Canada critics of attempts to reach out to Quebec nationalism, which was his strategic stance until 2004.

    You have to wonder — I certainly can’t guess — whether he’s trying to figure out how to do even more to appeal to francophone Quebecers, or whether he’s now assuming he needs to look elsewhere for growth. I suspect the former. But Harper responds to the strategic environment, and an Ignatieff-led party that owed big debts to a Fragasso-esque Quebec wing would be a big change for him to respond to.

  4. Hmmm…two intellectuals at the helm of North America? Iggy & Bama? What kind of kooky things might come out of that relationship?

    A better NAFTA? Foreign policy alignment?

  5. Man…the Quebec wing needs to be burned to the ground and completely rebuilt.

    It was clear that they were behind all the crap over the past ~3 years that Dion faced (the so-called high-placed Liberal sources). Too self-interested, and really about ensuring, along with Chantal Hebert, that no matter who is elected Liberal leader, they better be open to the idea of sovereignty-lite or else.

    I think Ignatieff is too much of a populist and has a yearning for celebrity which is too dangerous a trait to have as a leader. And it is a shame that the Liberals cannot use the period before the next election to build on Dion’s growth in Quebec.

    But I am curious on what more can Harper do. He’s basically given them everything he could, and they still spurned him.


  6. “I mainly wonder how far this will go before there is serious pushback in the rest of Canada.”

    I wonder the same thing, DR. I don’t think ROC has nearly the amount of goodwill they displayed in ’95 and my sense is that many non-Cons are getting sick of the constant pandering to Quebec nationalists.

    The Libs would have to be suicidal/masochist to go down this slippery slope, I realize it’s all speculation at the moment, but it will be interesting to watch. And what Orwellian world do these people live in if they think hinting at new constitutional talks to appease separatists is really the way to heal divisions within Lib party?

    “whether he’s trying to figure out how to do even more to appeal to francophone Quebecers”

    I have been wondering the same thing, Paul. There’s only so long you can go against the wishes of your base when it has only led to two minority governments. If Ignatieff/Fragasso do indeed propose to pander to nationalists, I would be amazed if Harper tried to out compete them instead of tacking back to some sort of federalist solution.

  7. Fragasso, first acclaimed as President of the LPC(Q) in October 2005, is now entering the fourth year of his two-year mandate. With a national convention expected, and the cost of registration included in the annual contribution limits to political parties, it is unlikely Quebec will be able to have it’s already overdue “biennial” convention in 2009. Maybe they should change the title to President-for-life.

    The Quebec wing seems to be trying to energize the base at the expense of the people who actually vote for them (or used to, anyway). Jack Jedwab pointed out in one of his studies that Anglophone voters in Quebec have stopped voting at a rate higher than any other minority in Canada.

  8. Imagine the fratricide within the Liberal Party if they go out on that branch….the Chretien wing of the party will poo themselves in fright, and then satrt throwing it like deranged Chimps.

    Iggy will run, Iggy may win, but I dont think the Liberals will unite under Iggy, it will be the next leader.

    I am no Liberal, but for party machinery stuff and rebuilding the party then I think Rae is probably their best bet. Best bet to hold Harper to a third minority or make it a minority himself.

    Rae has strategic manouvering room around the Quebec question, the economics are an issue but honestly, he was the one who saw the light and can speak to it. Rae can speak honestly to the delusion that is the New Democratic Party.

    I am no fan, and I am not trying to be a s**t disturber, but that is probably the right choice for Libs in med term. Iggy will either be a glorious success or a Hindenberg…high risk choice, and is that what the Liberal Party needs? They havent got beyond the Natural Governing Party mentality. Iggy should be the Canadian Ambassador to the UN.

  9. Oh wonderful. Six more months of listening to Michael Ignatieff tell me what I mustn’t do.

  10. Plus ça change. I really do think it’ll end up being Iggy. But if he and others lead the party into being even more decentralist and nationalist than the Conservatives… whatever happened to the centre?

    On the other hand, I suppose we do need a proper debate over extreme decentralization. But if the Conservatives ended up, in that situation, making a strong case for a “strong Canada”, Trudeau-style, the Liberals would disappear faster than you can say “Diefenbaker”.

  11. Mike G.
    And rightly so.

  12. “whether he’s trying to figure out how to do even more to appeal to francophone Quebecers”

    If Harper hadn’t made the communication errors on the arts funding and had sold his violent youth crime bill better, he might have won the extra 15 seats or so and the whole debate about what the Conservatives need to do to placate the nationalists might never have needed to arise.

    One phone call to Brian Mulroney for advice may have been all that was necessary.

  13. “One phone call to Brian Mulroney for advice may have been all that was necessary.”

    Sarcasm…right? I hope….

  14. Re serious pushback from the rest of Canada. You can only stretch people’s patience so far. We’ve brought in bilingualism, turfed our old Red Ensign for our present day flag, voted in Prime Ministers from Quebec for most of the past 40 years, patriated our Constitution and brought in a Charter of Rights through the initiative of a Prime Minister from Quebec, expended torrents of time and energy on constitutional changes to satisfy Quebecers because they were unhappy about the patriation, declared the Quebecois a “nation” and what did we get? Two referendums on independence and the Bloc. Plus I remember the Quebec intergovernmental affairs minister saying on TV many years ago that Meech Lake was “just the beginning”. Maybe the next push for Quebec independence should come from English Canada.

  15. Actually, I meant it.

  16. What does it say about the big picture of Canadian politics if the Liberals found themselves trying to out-pander another party on the Quebec front?

  17. The quickest way to remove the ragged remains of the present day LPC would be to suggest re-opening the constitution … Layton is having a wet dream right now hoping they would actualy do it.

  18. Two Cents: I think you’re on to something. A couple of campaign miscues (and for what? Who was going to change their vote based on the youth-justice act changes?) and suddenly we’re back to talking about what-Quebec-wants.

    The whole thing kind of reminds me of what happens every time the national hockey team loses a game. A couple of bad bounces, and suddenly everybody’s running off to ride their favorite “what’s wrong with Canadian hockey” hobby horse. Two days later they win, and nobody cares anymore.

  19. It’s amazing that this Fragasso fellow wants to do the one thing that actually nobody wants, whether federalist/soverignist, Quebec/rest-of-Canada.
    In the end, what does he actually intend to accomplish? Is there anything in particular in the constitution that he wishes to change? No, that would be too pedantic.
    This guy is worse than Dion, he doesn’t want to deliver what people want, he wants to convince people that what they want is what he intends to deliver. This is a recipe for failure.
    PW, I’ve enjoyed the way you have skewered this fellow.

    I wonder if the Liberals will ever try to capture any votes west of Ontario anymore. It seems to me that they should at least be thinking about it a little bit.

  20. Ti-Guy, I’ll grant you that the LPC is far from dead, but they shouldn’t be taking comfort from the 22% number. By that measure, only 15% of the eligible electorate voted Liberal. And 22% is not far off from 25%, which scored Chretien a majority in 1997, in the early stages of the Right’s 13-year drought.

  21. Two Cents- “Actually, I meant it.”

    Ummmm…wow….arguments about whether we like BM or not aside…his dealings with Quebec (even if you supported his intent) were a collosal failure for both the country and his party. What advice would one ask him for? I guess he might be able to give some good hindsight based advice about what not to do….

  22. This is the best blog post on Canadian politics that I have read in a long, long time. That is all.

  23. Whatever one thinks about Brian Mulroney, it is hard to dispute that he does know something about how to win seats in Quebec.

    My guess is that he could have provided the type of advice to PM Harper that would have helped the PM avoid the miscues that happened during the election campaign. Do not forget that going into the campaign, many myself included) that the Conservatives would win up to 20 seats in the province.

  24. With perfect 20/20 hindsight, it seems to me now that Harper should have devoted some resources to driving down perceptions of Duceppe in Quebec while he was driving down perceptions of Dion everywhere. Why the hell did he buy so many French-language ads about a guy who wound up getting just over half of the Bloc’s support in Quebec, much of it among non-francophones?

    This is obvious to me now even though it never occurred to me when it could have helped anyone.

  25. Totally off topic, but love him or hate him Brian Mulroney’s opinion of Quebec politics and Canadian politics should always be listened to.

    He has a good ear for Quebec politics, especially through the federal prism.

    Iggy is being advised by someone on Quebec, one suspects it is the individual mentioned in Mr Wells’ article. Iggy was the guy the martinetes attached themselves to wasnt it? Pandering will come naturally to them….he lets propose to scrap the Nothwithstanding clause 10 days before an election….just to shake things up a bit. Gives ne the willies just considering what kind of group plays around with that kind of stuff as a “hail mary”, regardless of the merits by the way.

  26. Most of the points and the article still miss the point. Whoever wishes to be leader with aspirations to become Prime Minister better have appeal to “all” of Canada. That’s right, coast to coast or vote splitting will make them toast. I really don’t care where “Joe Blow” comes from as long as he has good ideas that fly. Just enough with this Quebec is the key to the country horse radish.

  27. Ignatieff will get slaughtered worse than Dion nationally. I’ll bet money on it.

    I wish there was a moderate left of centre party that had a chance. I really do.

  28. Brian Mulroney has a lot to teach us about Quebec politically, mostly from a ‘what not to do’ perspective.

  29. It’s just staggering to me that any Liberal could be talking this way right now. A platform of “We will open up the Constitution” might conceivably win one or even two QC seats for them, but in the ROC it would make the Green Shift look like an act of Machiavellian political cunning.

    My God, if Ignatieff wins the Liberal leadership on that note it will really, truly spell Chapter 6 in the End of the Country As We Know It.

    Is it just me or is Canadian federalism literally unravelling?

  30. Ti-guy> Yep, the “wrong kind of white people”.

    You realize you have kooks, bigots, pseudo-scientists, anti-intellectuals etc. in the various left-leaning parties too right?

    Oh well, I’m sure these trolling posts of yours are an important symbolic blow in the eternal struggle against your demonic enemies. You can take comfort in that.