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Reality Check

Quebec – still By John Gray, CBC.ca Reality Check Team | January 24, 2006 | More Reality Check

Long before the ballots were counted, or even cast, it was clear that Quebec would be returning as the unresolved, gnawing conflict of Canadian federalism. After several years of relative peace, the Quebec problem is with us again.

And – what nobody had quite counted on – the election results are making the problem worse than already feared.

Paul Martin during his speech in Montreal, Jan. 23, 2006. (CP photo)  

From the start, Paul Martin had an uneasy relationship with Quebec. He likes to say that he is a Quebecer, but Quebec and its arcane politics were never his strong suit. Certainly it became obvious during the sponsorship scandal that he had been excluded from the heart of Liberal politics in Quebec by a suspicious Jean Chrétien.

By the time Martin became prime minister in late 2003, he had the distinct advantage that he was not Chrétien, of whom Canada and Quebec had then had enough. All Martin had to do was keep his head down and his nose clean.

But then came sponsorship. True, Justice John Gomery eventually exculpated Martin, but by then it was too late. It was not unreasonable for Quebecers to see sponsorship as a scheme in which they were played for knaves and fools. And it was not surprising that Martin and every other Liberal got spattered as a result.

The significance is that it was not just a political party that got spattered. At that stage, the Liberals were the only visible national standard bearer of federalism in Quebec.

When the Liberals got 34 per cent of the vote in Quebec during the 2004 federal election, the result was generally seen as fairly pathetic. But consider that the only other federal parties were the Conservatives, who got nine per cent, and the New Democrats, who were just short of five per cent. The forces of federalism were pretty puny.

For a time, federalists nourished great hopes for Jean Charest's provincial Liberal government, but he has dropped to historic lows in the polls and the opposition Parti Québécois has taken on new life.

With the Charest government floundering and apparently unable to help itself, and with Martin's Liberals in freefall, it was not surprising that Martin would play the national unity card. The surprise was that he played it so early in the campaign, warning that the election would be a referendum on Canada and federalism.

Another surprise was that Gilles Duceppe was so unwise as to wonder aloud whether he might actually get more than half the vote – that magic and symbolic 50 per cent. That probably delighted his hardcore separatist support, but it may have alarmed some of the softer nationalists whose desire was not sovereignty but to punish the Liberals.

One of the surprises of last night's results was the discovery that there is life in the old bleu regions of Quebec – the blue areas that over the years were controlled variously by Conservatives, Union Nationale and Creditistes. In the absence of a conservative party in recent years, both the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois moved in temporarily but never really took over.

Certainly there is little remaining of the once spectacularly efficient Conservative machine in Quebec. That said, when Belinda Stronach was running for the leadership of the Conservatives against Stephen Harper, some of her new Conservative friends found a surprising number of delegate votes for her. But her relative success was probably to be seen less as revival of the machine than an indication that at least some of the old bleus are still around, albeit without much conviction about party membership.

Those old blue roots were mainly seen in the results from the Eastern Townships, the Beauce and other ridings along the south shore, and in the Pontiac area upriver from Ottawa. But as Liberals and the Bloc discovered, there were Conservatives everywhere.

In the coming months, Stephen Harper may be able to revive some of the elements of that old network. As Brian Mulroney demonstrated in 1984, there is nothing like a whiff of power to revive flagging political interests. In 1980 the Conservatives had managed just one seat in Quebec; in 1984, with Sussex Drive in sight, they jumped to 58 seats. Four years later, they edged up even higher to 63 seats. The reminder of mortality is that, in 1993, they were way back to just one seat.

It was an election that wreaked havoc. With or without Martin, the Liberals are severely wounded. The Bloc, with its fantasy about 50 per cent of the vote, was smacked for its vanity. At the same time, the Conservatives have the consolation of office in Ottawa, but with severely limited legitimacy in Quebec.

The result is an uncertain future in which there is no strong voice of federalism in Quebec. Against that weakness is the Parti Québécois, which seems to have been rejuvenated by its recent leadership convention.

The PQ's new leader, Andre Boisclair, has proven to be an attractive addition to the political landscape, and from the day of his election to the leadership he promised that "in the next election campaign the Parti Québécois will seek a mandate to hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty as soon as possible."

As they contemplate their place in Quebec, both Conservatives and Liberals would be wise to retrieve the tape of a press conference that Gilles Duceppe gave on the eve of the election.

Duceppe's warning was specifically to Harper but it could serve well as a cautionary reminder to both Liberals and Conservatives as they seek to re-establish themselves in Quebec.

The Bloc leader ran down a succession of issues that have preoccupied politics and politicians in Canada in recent months. On all of those issues the Bloc and mainstream Quebec have come to quite different conclusions from Harper and his Conservatives.

It is an impressive list: the Kyoto agreement, support for the American war in Iraq, participation with the U.S. in missile defence, federal support for child care, lowering the age at which young people can be sent to prison. And, of course, same sex marriage and abortion.

Of Harper, Duceppe warned: "The interests he is defending are not those of Quebec."

Duceppe's words were a timely reminder that Quebec is no longer the conservative backwater of the history books. Quebec has moved on, and in many, many ways it has moved away from the rest of Canada.

The stages of change are easy to recollect: the election of the first PQ government in 1976; the first referendum on independence in 1980; the second referendum in 1995.

After last night's vote, it is clear that the next stage in that process of change is already on the horizon.

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