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.