Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The sudden demise of Quebecois separatism

According to a new poll, support for independence in Quebec has plummeted to 34 percent since last week's federal election. Support stood at 43 percent before the election.

What's the truth? Somewhere in between.

If I may put it simply, there are (and have been for some time) two dominant visions of Canadian federalism, one Liberal and one Conservative. The Liberal vision is the vision of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a vision of Canada as a centralized social democracy with official bilingualism and multiculturalism, with a strong sense of unitary Canadian nationalism. The Conservative vision is the vision of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a vision of Canada as a decentralized federation with expansive provincial powers and strong regional identification. The Liberal vision incorporates Quebec into an overarching definition of Canadian nationhood. The Conservative vision holds that Quebec has a distinct identity and deserves a distinct Constitutional status within the structure of Canadian federalism.

Both visions have their admirers and proponents both in Quebec and throughout the rest of Canada. The Liberal vision, after all, was expounded by Trudeau and former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, both from Quebec. However, federalism in Quebec is different than federalism in the rest of Canada. Although there are hardcore federalists in the Liberal tradition, perhaps most of Quebec's federalists are, in a way, soft nationalists. That is, federalists who want Quebec to remain in Canada but who promote the idea of Quebecois distinctness. Even Quebec's ruling Liberal Party is more like the federal Conservative Party than the federal Liberal Party -- Premier Jean Charest is a former leader of the federal Conservative Party.

What this means is that many Quebecois federalists are attracted more to the Conservative vision than to the Liberal vision. And, with the resurgence of the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper, these federalists finally had an alternative to the Liberal Party other than the separatist Bloc Quebecois. They may have voted for the Bloc in protest to Liberal hegemony, but now they see the viability of the alternative federalist vision of the Conservatives.

And, last week, the Conservative Party broke through in Quebec and won 10 of its 75 seats, up from no seats in 2004. Paul Martin's Liberal Party was reduced to 13 seats from 21 in 2004.

So why has support for separatism fallen? Many in Quebec were frustrated both with Charest's provincial government and the scandal-ridden Chretien-Martin regime in Ottawa. In frustration, they turned to the Bloc and began to ponder independence from a Canada that didn't seem, to them, to respect Quebec's distinctness (even though both Chretien and Martin are from Quebec, even though their governments were disproportionately Quebecois).

Now, ironically enough, the alternative has been re-presented to them by a new prime minister from, of all places, Calgary. With Harper's victory and the Conservative breakthrough in Quebec, Western alienation meets Quebecois nationalism -- and, for now, many in Quebec seem to be willing to give those two oddly similar movements a chance to co-exist.

I am generally a Liberal and my vision for Canada is generally the Liberal one (although I was born and raised in Montreal and do not reject outright the Conservative vision). But if one good can come of Harper's victory and his new Conservative government, let it be the demise of Quebecois separatism and the rise of federalism, any federalism, in Quebec.

More than anything else, I am, after all, a Canadian.

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