Quebec again the front line in potentially critical election

Oct. 14 vote could be one of those seminal moments that transform Canadian politics
Sep 27, 2008 04:30 AM

Elections often are referred to as horse races, with media attention lavished on the jockeys, the track record of the horses and the tactics of the race itself – who is inching ahead, who is cruising and who needs to apply the whip?

But every so often the nature of the race itself is changed – one horse clearly becomes dominant, a new technology like television transforms communications, or the track itself is changed, as in 1974 when election expenses legislation was introduced.

These once-in-a-generation, mould-breaking elections were described by the American social scientist V.O. Key as "critical." Critical or pattern-changing elections in Canadian history include 1896, when Laurier's Liberals replaced the Conservatives in Quebec; or 1993, when the Bloc Québécois emerged as the dominant party in Quebec and Preston Manning's Reformers swept the Prairies. The traditional party system splintered in 1993; in 2004, the Conservatives united the right. The question in 2008 is whether the Bloc will disappear like the Reformers.

Beyond who forms a government after Oct. 14, therefore, is the larger question: Will Quebec return to the pan-Canadian party system? Will this election be a critical one, closing the fissures opened in 1993?

Quebec has been the fulcrum of Canadian politics since the 1840s. This is because French-speaking Canadians are seized by an ultimate objective that supersedes the normal give-and-take of politics: As a minority, they want to live the good life in North America – in French. From a handful of settlers in 1608, to the 60,000 Canadiens at the time of the conquest in 1760, to the nearly 6 million French-speaking Québécois today, there is a fierce determination to preserve and promote their language and culture. When threats are perceived to this ultimate goal, this becomes the prism through which all other issues are refracted.

In 1841, for example, the avowed goal of the British Empire was assimilation of the French fact. French Canadians were as one in resisting but they differed over how best to do so. Out of this difference, the modern Canadian party system was born. One school of Quebecers dreamed about independence; the other, led by Louis LaFontaine, argued that in partnership with sympathetic reformers like Robert Baldwin, Canada could persuade Britain to grant responsible government. Once Canadian politicians were in charge, LaFontaine reasoned, they would be dependent on French Canadian voters and, with this safeguard, French-speaking Canada would forever be preserved.

This debate on how best to preserve the French presence in North America has never really ceased. Federalists in Quebec today still believe that a partnership with English-speaking Canadians is the best way to promote Quebec's interests while sovereignists like the Bloc Québécois are heirs of the Patriotes of 1837.

Skilled politicians of the day like Sir John A. Macdonald realized that if Quebec was looking for a political partner, whoever assumed this role would have a head start in winning elections in Canada. George-Étienne Cartier's Bleus gave Macdonald his majorities for a generation. When Cartier died, Macdonald knew he needed a new Quebec partner. A month before Macdonald passed away in 1891, Wilfrid Laurier, the new Liberal leader, came to see the prime minister. "Nice chap, that" Macdonald told his secretary. "If I were 20 years younger, he'd be my colleague." Instead, Laurier adopted Macdonald's strategy and made Quebec the bulwark of the Liberal party.

As in the 1890s, the electoral ice in Quebec may again be cracking. In 2006, the Bloc won 51 seats with 42 per cent of the vote, with the Conservatives and Liberals trailed at 25 per cent and 21 per cent, respectively. But a lot has happened since 2006. Support for separatism is down, and the Bloc is finding fewer takers for its thesis of humiliation. Stephen Harper, meanwhile, has given Quebec billions of dollars in increased equalization payments and sponsored the symbolic "Québécois as a nation" motion in the House of Commons. The Liberal party has tried to stay competitive by choosing a francophone, Stéphane Dion, as leader. In the French-language leaders debate Oct. 1, Dion might do better than forecast because he will be able to speak to Quebecers directly without the filter of the hostile francophone media.

In appealing to Quebecers, there have been two traditional strategies for federalist parties. The first is to grant ever wider powers to the provinces. Since the province of Quebec is the one jurisdiction the French-language majority controls, Quebec is instinctively autonomist. This is the card Harper has played. If he wins again, we can expect a prohibition against the federal government using its spending power to create new programs for Canadians. Harper is a philosophical decentralist. There is a natural political logic behind an Alberta-Quebec alliance to weaken the federal government.

Dion has a much harder row to hoe but some of his predecessors have been successful in doing so. Leaders like Macdonald or Pierre Trudeau leapfrogged the centralist-autonomist debate by finding national projects that could excite English- and French-speaking Canadians equally. Railways and nation-building animated Macdonald and Cartier, and Trudeau's Charter of Rights had support across the country. In next week's French-language debate, Dion has the chance to promote a new national partnership for environmental sustainability. Not only this election but the future of his party in Quebec may depend on how well he performs.

Thomas Axworthy is chair of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University.

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