On November 27th, the House of Commons voted on a resolution proclaiming that "the Quebecois are a nation within a united Canada." The vote was overwhelming --266 in favour, 16 against. Both the resolution and the vote are deeply problematic.
From the moment he entered office, Stephen Harper has displayed a breathtaking ignorance of the province of Quebec, even though he intends to solidify his and his party's future by finding enough votes in la belle province to win a parliamentary majority. To those of us who grew up in Quebec, who were there during the October Crisis and who voted in the 1980 referendum, Harper's motion ignores that history and lets loose all the centrifugal forces that have threatened this country since its inception.
Harper and his supporters claim that the resolution is essentially meaningless because Quebecers are given "nation" status "within a united Canada." They claim that the latter phrase negates the former and that the resolution is essentially a sleight of hand (or, more precisely, word.)
However, the word "nation" -- in either French or English -- has profound connotations in both the context of Quebec history and in international law. One need only recall Quebec political parties of the past -- the Union National and the Bloc National -- and their platforms, to understand what the word means. And when Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Quebecois cheerfully support the resolution that, in itself, should raise red flags. Clearly, when Duceppe and his allies read the resolution, what they read is "the Quebecois are a nation within a united Canada for now."
And that is the point. The long term consequences of the resolution are catastrophic. For, not only will an increasing majority of Quebecers demand their sovereignty as a nation, the door will be open for others to make the same demand. Canada's First Nations have already complained about being left out of the resolution -- although no one should be surprised at this oversight -- given the fact that the Harper government scuttled the agreement which Paul Martin signed with them over a year ago.
And, in some ways, perhaps no one should be surprised at this turn of events. As Jim Flaherty's recent economic blueprint makes clear, the Conservatives have a radical vision for Canada. If they get their way, theirs will be a Canada which rewards individual initiative, not group accomplishment, which downsizes government, eschewing government investment in national infrastructure in favour of private investors and which leaves social policy to the provinces or -- as they would prefer -- to individuals. In short, they are bent on breaking the ties that have bound these disparate entities north of the 49th parallel together. In truth, they are not Conservatives at all. With the same linguistic sleight they displayed in Monday night's resolution, they have camouflaged the fact that have no wish to conserve Canada. They are really radical Libertarians. The late Milton Friedman would be gratified.
What is even more disturbing is that a majority of the Liberal members of the House and all of the New Democratic members apparently cannot see through this sleight of hand. Without careful analysis, and with eyes that only see as far as the next election -- probably in the spring -- they are afraid to rock the boat, oblivious to the storm which awaits them. Apparently only sixteen members -- one of whom is Michael Chong, Harper's Intergovernmental Affairs Minister -- have the courage of their convictions.
Harper, we are told, graduated at the top of his high school class. Like Jacques Pariseau before him, he has proved that the possession of several academic accolades does not immunize one from folly. Harper is a fool. Two hundred and sixty-six members of the House of Commons followed his lead this week. Democracy may be rule of the people and rule by the people. But there is no guarantee that it is rule for the people. Sometimes it is merely a fools parade.