Maybe Harper has slain the separatists

Paul Wells on Stephen Harper’s counterintuitive success in Quebec

REUTERS/Todd Korol

REUTERS/Todd Korol

There was Stephen Harper the other day, delivering his annual speech to the Calgary Southwest Stampede barbecue. What made headlines was Harper’s decision to criticize Justin Trudeau, at length and by name, for the first time at one of these barbecues. This was indeed new. In his 2012 speech to the same event he mentioned “the opposition” three times, the Liberals once and Trudeau (who wasn’t the leader of anything yet) not at all. In 2013, he mentioned the opposition nine times, the Liberals three times and Trudeau not at all. This year he mentioned the opposition six times, the Liberals 12 and Justin Trudeau, by name, 11 times. Tom Mulcair, who actually is the Opposition leader, has never rated a mention.

Nobody should be surprised that it makes headlines when the Prime Minister uses a speech to a friendly audience in his riding to assert, in almost a dozen different ways, that the leader of the third party has “nothing—absolutely nothing—of substance to offer.” We are essentially already in the 2015 election campaign, and it’s Trudeau’s party that leads the polls, and you bet that makes Stephen Harper angry.

But blanket coverage of one part of a speech can obscure discussion of the rest. I’m struck, for instance, by Harper’s decision to take credit for the decline of the Quebec sovereignty movement.

Perhaps you are saying, “He did what?” And yet it is so.

This year marks the 2ooth anniversary of Sir George-Etienne Cartier’s birth, Harper said. Cartier was one of the key fathers of Confederation, the right-hand man to Sir John A. Macdonald. “How very encouraging it is that as we commemorate Cartier’s vision—his Conservative vision of a strong Quebec in a united Canada—we do so soon after an election in which the people of Quebec rendered the most decisive verdict for federalism in four decades!” Harper said.

“Friends, the gradual decline in Quebec separatist sentiment throughout the stewardship of our government—a government which has honoured Cartier’s principles—is something we should take pride in!”

Take pride? Sure. Perceive a causal link? That one’s harder. How can a party that rarely scores as high as 15 per cent in public opinion polls in Quebec take credit for the routs of the Bloc Québécois in 2011 and the Parti Québécois in 2014? A party that holds five seats out of Quebec’s 75, with no guarantee of hanging onto them after the next election?

And yet I think Harper has a point. If the Parti Québécois had won a record-high vote in the spring election and the Bloc had moved from four seats in 2004 to 54 today, Harper would come in for his share of the blame. The opposite has happened; should he get no credit?

He has certainly followed his own counsel on Quebec. One of his first moves, in 2006, was to eliminate federal funding for the Canadian Unity Council, which for 40 years had served as a Montreal club for well-meaning apparatchiks of the Laurentian elite (its last board chairman was Bob Rae). He introduced a motion recognizing “the Québécois” as a nation in the House of Commons. He gave Quebec a representative in the Canadian delegation to UNESCO. He travelled to Quebec City to meet the Quebec premier, becoming, amazingly, the first modern prime minister to bother to do so.

All this got Harper noticed in Quebec, and it won him some early support. Since 2008 that support for his party has almost all slipped away. Almost any Quebecer can list irritants in Harper’s relationship with the province: his insistence on handing senior appointments to unilingual applicants; his policies on the environment and criminal justice. Yet disdain for his government is not matched with disdain for Canada.

That’s because he’s also done big things differently from his Liberal predecessors. Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin cut transfers to the provinces, then restored them only in part, and only in return for substantial federal involvement in provincial decision-making. Under Harper, federal cash transfers to provinces continued to grow, while conditions on those transfers nearly vanished. A generation ago, the failed Meech Lake accord was designed to limit new national shared-cost programs. Under Harper there have been no new national shared-cost programs. The intense executive federalism that had become characteristic since the 1960s, with high-stakes federal-provincial meetings almost every year, has been replaced with mutual federal-provincial indifference.

I kind of liked it the old way, when “strong federal leaders” were forever “standing up for Canada” in near-constant confrontations with Quebec premiers, both Péquiste and Liberal. Those were the days when a letter from Stéphane Dion to some PQ personality could brighten the entire press gallery’s day. Harper’s way is more boring. But there is all kinds of evidence that he’s robbed the separatist fire of oxygen.

“Every prime minister of modern times has had to come to terms with the fact that the unity of the country can never be taken for granted,” Bob Rae wrote five months ago. “The case for Canada has to be made every day, every week, every month.” By Rae’s lights, Harper has consistently failed to make the case for Canada. And yet the rout of Quebec separatism is nearly complete. Isn’t that one of the most surprising things that could possibly have happened on Harper’s watch? Is it not at least worth acknowledging?


Maybe Harper has slain the separatists

  1. We have a PM that lacks the character to bring a country and its people together. The author has forgot to mention that Steve Harper didn’t hold back on calling Quebecers a bunch of separatists just a few years ago. Quebec should never forget that, because Harper would say the same thing again if the Quebec cons were wiped off the map. I guess only having 5 seats, Harpers specialty in elections is, demonization of Canadian citizens whenever it suits his political aspirations. This author seems to have a little in common with Tom Flanagan, if not the truth, make it plausible, at least make the waters a little muddier by making some half cocked plausible argument or diatribe. Theirs something about conservative writers that very similar to harpers cons, its about having to explain truth, just look at DDM as an example, if not the truth, use ignorance.

    • This article should be printed and framed for future generations as the embodiment of Harper Derangement Syndrome, circa 2014

      So much anger, so little sense.

  2. Well I actually think there is something to this. By recognizing some elements of sovereignty, the separatists have been mollified. Of course, it could also be exhaustion.

    Either way, it remains to be seen whether this is sustained.

  3. “Maybe Harper has slain the separatists”; “the rout of Quebec separatism is nearly complete.”


    (1) Never assume the separatists are well and truly slain

    (2) All the stuff Paul mentions (transfers, shared cost programs, etc.) are highly unlikely to have been noticed by the Quebec electorate in general, to the point where voters factored those into a decision to vote NDP in 2011 or provincially for the Liberals or CAQ in 2014. (or, for that matter, massively reject the Conservatives in 2011).

    (3) Past history has repeatedly shown that the more is provided in terms of transfers of power or tax points to the Quebec government, the more that government (of any stripe) will demand. Only now Quebecers have other preoccupations besides Fed/Prov confrontations, so they punished the PQ; that is not to same as an endorsement of the Harper government.

    “Yet disdain for his government is not matched with disdain for Canada.

    That’s because he’s also done big things differently . . .”

    THAT is an enormous leap in logic that is unsupported by any facts or objective analysis.

    • 1- They’ll never be slain. However, will they be numerous enough for their threats to have any weight?
      2- I also had that thought: How much of the discussions over such (relative) minutiae have impacted voters’ decisions? But I think it could also be put another way: the fact that there have been very little butting of heads between Ottawa and Quebec City lately (and shockingly during an 18-month PQ government reign) have (perhaps subconsciously?) nudged voters towards less-sovereignist options.
      3- Not sure if that’s supported by any facts or objective analysis. What “other preoccupations” did Quebecers have in the elections of 2011 (federal) or 2014 (provincial)? Also, I don’t believe Paul equates voting against the PQ as an endorsement of the Harper government. That direct association might not be made in voters’ minds (“I support Harper, therefore I won’t vote PQ”), but I believe he’s saying that Harper’s actions have helped make the PQ less attractive/more irrelevant.

  4. A sustained program of stretching can be an aid to future
    flexibility. Good on ya, Mr. Wells.

  5. He travelled to Quebec City to meet the Quebec premier, becoming, amazingly, the first modern prime minister to bother to do so.

    That really is kind of shocking. Especially considering the last 3 PM’s were from Quebec!

  6. If Mr. Harper thinks he can win back seats in Quebec while:
    – Obsessing about the Monarchy,
    – Obsessing over the military, with military parades, anniversaries and monuments,
    – Having no respect for arts and culture.
    I wish him luck
    His fascination with the Monarchy, for one thing, is the object of great ridicule in Quebec.

    • Harper and especially Layton combined to destroy the Bloc. Pauline had lots of help.

  7. Oh come on already.

    The only take away from this is that Harper has done squat.

    If things went to hell he’d get lambasted because he did nothing.
    He gets no credit when it goes well, because again, he did nothing.

    It’s like a hotdog salesman taking credit for broccoli sales because hotdogs aren’t selling well! lol

    • And yet broccoli is booming, no sponsorship required.

  8. Paul Wells does seem pro-Harper in his writings, and while I don’t like to assume a political journalist is biased, it’s hard not to notice how close the arguments of Wells are to those of Harper’s own. Harper is the most unpopular Prime Minister in modern Québec history. As Chantal Hébert has said, Harper has less support in Québec than any Majority PM in Canadian history. He certainly has not helped killed off Québec separatism, although both Harper & Wells seem to be arguing that. You can track the decline of Québec separatism from 1995 to the present day. It started a decade before Harper even came to power. The referendum loss, the increasing support in QC for Chrétien during his time as PM, the provincial defeat of the PQ while Chrétien was in power, etc. And it was Jack Layton that beat the BQ federally, not Harper. What has happened is that fortunately for Harper & for Canada itself, his enormous unpopularity as PM (which in the past would have led to an increase in separatism) occurred at a time in which the movement itself has been dying off, and so it didn’t lead to more support for Québec independence. It happened not because of Harper, but in spite of Harper.

  9. You could say that…

    But it would be patently wrong.

    Harper is irrelevant…that is the story.

    …and when one becomes irrelevant…Kim Campbell comes to mind.

    • While Pauline and her foaming-at-the-mouth cabinet ministers were running about the province trying to stir up linguistic and cultural warfare Harper and Mulclair (together, to their credit) laid low. When your opponents are thrashing madly about on the precipice it is best to just get out of their way. Add in Jack Layton’s dismemberment of the Bloc and you have seperatist peace, at least for a few years. I think Paul Wells is mostly correct.

  10. First let’s be clear – it is Paul wells who is claiming that PMSH and the cpc may have slain the separatists – not PMSH. He and the party are only taking Credit for governing in a way that much of the grist for the separatist’s mills has been taken away.

    PMSH has long said on the record that most of the tensions between Quebec and the ROC could be removed if the federal government adhered to its juristictions and stayed out of the provincial ones as they are laid out in the constitution.

    What is remarkable is that he and the cpc are the first party in living memory that has taken its duty to uphold it responsibilities under the constitution/bna seriously.

    Nice to see that at least one big government anti-constitutionalist – Paul wells seems to have seen the light.

  11. The present situation in Quebec has nothing to do with Harper. It has more to do with Mulcair and Trudeau. Quebecers dislike these hate-filled Albertan reformers and their views on justice, women and the oil industry.

  12. Do you actually begin every correspondence to Harpo, with “Dear Leader”?:

    It’s the fact that Harp, thankfully, has done “nothing” in regards to Que soveriegnty issues, which is why it’s resolved itself, for now.
    Quebec, has had, and still has, many other pressing issues on it’s plate roght now, like huge unemployment , like the decaying of streets/roads/highways in Quebec that make the Detroit’s million-pot-holes look like the yellow-brick-road. Quebec has students rioting becuase they can’t even afford to go to school, …
    Quebec’s corruption-based politicians, both municipally, and provinicially, even make Harpo look somewhat caring.

    Harp wouldn’t know what to do with a soverign-leaning Quebec anyway.
    If Harpo had tried to meddle in Quebec sovereignty issues today, the Ottawa River would be a new international border.
    Just picture a 1995, with Harper at the helm? -yep, Quebec would be gone.
    I mean pleeeze, let’s face it, Harper, and his cronies, have one agenda, and Quebec isn’t in it, let alone any other Provinces. Even Alberta is starting to question Harp’s “agenda”.
    Harper was secretly hoping JT would go against him, in regards to alberta/Oil/XL/…. ?, but instead, the exact opposite has happened, which has warmed Alberta up to JT !
    Harp got a little of of his own “Medicine” right back at him. -good !

    Hopefully, this entire roller-coaster-shell-game of Harper’s doing, will end, come Oct/2015.

  13. Unless Harper actually wrote the text (in French, no less) of the PQ’s proposed Charter of Values and convinced the Marois government to try to enact, I don’t really think he had any impact on the decline of the Quebec sovereignty movement.

  14. Well, now the Calgary Stampede is just a wing of the Con party, not a tourist attraction….and the PM of an advanced technological western nation is standing there in a plaid shirt, his big belt buckle almost hidden by the big belly….and there are bales of straw…..bales. of. straw. ……as props on the stage….Harp as farmer.

    • yes, LoL, the only thing missing was his 10-gallon hat.

  15. The PC lack of consideration for Alberta has instead weakened the federal appeal in Alberta. Why should Alberta stay in confederation when they are refused access to tidewater for their products and now are being forced into allowing Ontario the financial benefits of their resources. Time for an Alberta Sovereign Association party to work in concert with a similar Quebec party. Even a small drain of votes from the PC party in 2015 could deliver a number of Alberta seats to the Liberals and serve notice to Ottawa that indeed separatism is alive and growing.

    • “Whether Canada ends up as o­ne national government or two national governments or several national governments, or some other kind of arrangement is, quite frankly, secondary in my opinion…”

      Harper 1994

      • Exactly, Harp and MulDummy, both of whom are what you would call as “fenians”, by nature.

    • Agreed. As Conservative-statism has alienated Conservative-liberty types pretty good.

      We are well conditioned to think myopically as left-right, but there is also liberty-statism. Our person economic liberty is decimated with statism tax greed, which means we need uncompetitive wages to support the government bloat and wastes. But this causes job loses or US and Mexico.

      We screw ourselves with too much blind faith in govmint, and as a collective, Canada is loaded with economic ignorances and greeds. Too many freeloaders and low value parasites on the taxpayers wallets.

  16. But at what cost? More debt? More provincial welfare from a welfare province living on other peoples money for nothing but more dependency?

    Hey, I am all for helping out but it turns to abuse when Quebec hasn’t pulled its weight in over 57 years.

    Its why I support separation and formation of the Republic of Western Canada. Time we stop being collisional salves to center and east. Louis Riel was right, we needed independence then and still would benefit from it today. Its the real reason former MP Louis Riel was hung by Ottawa.

    • Dave, this is exactly what the (superpower)yank’s have wanted sine 1812.
      Your so-called “Republic of Western Canada” would be nothing but a footnote, for those American (fenians), it would be another puppet-state, it would simply be a gas/oil fill-up stop, not that it isn’t now -LoL.
      Corporations, just like the political poisons of the Harpo’s and Muldummy’s, are just mindless, borderless, predatory entities, …, yes fine, we all know that.
      But don’t kid yourself here, after the “seperation” of Canada, there will be no seperate countries/republic’s within, -they simply would never get the chance to exist, they’d be just vassal-states of superpowerhungry-America, then just wait ’till the next future 08/09 Financial meltdown, there’ll be nothing to even eat, nevermind no jobs,…- LoL.
      Is it better the family we have now and stay, or none at all ?

  17. While Stephen Harper has been “speechifying” constantly about both Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair, Paul Wells seems to have forgotten about them. Perhaps the decline of separatist sentiment in Quebec just might have SOMETHING to do with the fact that both Trudeau and Mulcair have been very active in Quebec, both selling a much more positive message than Harper’s and certainly one that resonates with voters in Quebec.

  18. So, if you don’t mention Canada, don’t actually ask them to do anything they don’t want to do….that’s a success! One of your oddest, most reachiest opinion pieces that’s for sure.
    Amounts to not speaking or meeting ever and sleeping on separate floors, much less separate rooms. That isn’t a country…it’s a way of pretending we’re a country. Real countries like real families occasionally fight. It’s a sign both parties still care.

  19. Harper has raised indifference within QC to high art.

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