Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Three Men on a Horse

The results of this week's election in Quebec leave the residents of that province -- and, indeed, the whole country -- in an intriguing connundrum: What happens when three men are riding the same horse and one man wants to turn right, another wants to turn left and the third -- presumably -- wants to go straight ahead? The theory of minority government says that all three will have to meet, compromise and find a way forward. However, because Quebec has not had a minority government in over a hundred and twenty-five years, putting the theory into practice -- something which is always hard to do -- may be particularly difficult.

There are those who rejoice in the rise of Mario Dumont and the Action democratique party. And it is finally encouraging to see that the official debate is no longer between two mutually exclusive alternatives -- federalism and separatism, or as the Parti Quebecois would prefer, sovereignty. However, the political landscape defies such simplistic analysis. After all, M. Dumont says that he is in favour of an "autonomous" Quebec; and nobody, including M. Dumont, seems to be quite sure what that means. A more realistic assessment of Monday's election results is that Quebecers looked at at the Parti Liberal and the Parti Quebecois and said, "a pox on both your houses." And, because they had a third alternative, they decided to park their votes with M. Dumont -- for now.

All political choices are "for now." But it is worth remembering that axiom, particularly when dealing with la belle province. One should not, for instance, come to the conclusion that separatism is dead. It may lie dormant; but it never dies. Sovereignty can be revived from anywhere on the political continuum. Rene Leveque espoused it after spending many years on the political left. Lucien Bouchard came at sovereignty from the political right. What is required to ignite the fires of sovereignty is not a liberal or a conservative bias. What fans its flames is a heightened sense of injury, articulated by a man or woman of common origins, who can remind French speaking Quebecers (we sometimes forget that there has always been a significant minority of English speaking Quebecers) of many wrong headed decisions, from the hanging of Louis Riel, through the Conscription Crisis of World War I, to the economic divide which resulted in the Two Solitudes.

And, while such common folk can rise to positions of influence among Quebec's elite, someone who has been born into that elite cannot hope to argue successfully for separatism. Jacques Pariseau was a committed separatist. But he always looked and sounded -- even in French -- like a British banker, bemoaning his lost privilege. Quebecers looked at Rene Leveque and saw the kid who fought with les anglais in the streets of small town Gaspe; and when they heard Lucien Bouchard, they heard the outsider from the Saguenay.

Even more importantly, separatism needs a perceived slight to nous autres to gather steam. After all, for Quebecers, it was the bigoted English who hanged Riel; it was the English Imperialists who forced young Quebecers into a war which they did not think of as their own; and it was the rich English captains of industry who kept French Canadians working in the factories of St. Henri or on the farms of les habitants.

And that brings us to the three billion dollars which Stephen Harper pitched into the Quebec stable to feed the horse which now has three jockeys. Harper bet on M. Charest to win; but he wound up with no real winner -- just two places and one show. Because the ADQ articulates essentially conservative -- with a small c -- policies, and because M. Charest is a committed federalist, there are some who claim that Mr. Harper is sitting in the cat bird seat and should call an election.

However, Mr. Harper's transparent support of M. Charest (who immediately promised Quebecers that he would use a significant proportion of that money -- $700 million -- for tax breaks) may, indeed, cause a backlash in English Canada. Couple that with Mr. Harper's support for the idea that "Quebec is a nation within Canada" and his determination to shrink the influence of the federal government, yielding more control to the provinces, and you have the makings of a potential crisis.

Pierre Trudeau, who came from the same background as Jacques Pariseau, knew that it was a mistake for the Prime Minister to serve as "headwaiter to the provinces." And, even though he could be guilty of the same Olympian hauteur as Pariseau, he knew how to adopt the patois of the common man, in both French and English. Clearly, Harper lacks Trudeau's vision and his ability to talk to a wide spectrum of Canadians.

We can all hope that there is no October Crisis in our future and that the three men on the horse arrive at some accommodation with each other. For through it all -- the death of Riel, the Conscription Crisis and the October Crisis -- we have, so far, found a path to the future and, in Abraham Lincoln's words, "the better angels of our nature." The next few years will require that, when we make political decisions, we insist that our leaders -- and we -- consult our better angels.

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