Quebec’s ticket back to Canada

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
March 1, 2014.   Conrad Black

Justin Trudeau, who is leading by approximately 10 points in the polls, looms as a very plausible winner of next year’s election in the aftermath of the generally successful Liberal meeting in Montreal last week. Concerns about his depth and gravitas persist, but the allure of his personality is undeniable.

It is clear already that his staff is capable and they must all be aware that his opponents are counting on his being vulnerable when familiarity with the principal issues becomes critically important. There is no evidence that Trudeau lacks the intelligence necessary to get, as his father used to say, “on top of the dossiers,” and any strategy based on assuming that he will disintegrate in direct competition with his analogues would be hazardous.

After two terms, the public is apt to be tired of almost any government, unless there is an overwhelming issue where it retains an advantage, as was the case with Pierre Trudeau and the threat of Quebec secessionism, or unless the incumbent leader can fire the voters’ imagination with a new issue every four years. This was in part the secret of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unheard of victories in four consecutive U.S. presidential elections.

The Harper government is not long on inspiration; it has put all its presentational eggs in the basket of prudent government. There is no flair, no panache, no humour, no vision, and not much charm or empathy. There have been no interesting initiatives, apart from the prime minister’s brilliant visit to Israel, for many months, and the government now looks merely like placemen, throwing raw meat to their more reactionary supporters with floggings of the dead horse of harsher sentencing and humbug about marijuana. The whole regime is starting to look like it is simply waiting to be defeated, manoeuvring to ensure that Nigel Wright doesn’t have to give evidence under oath, though its record in office has been adequate to avoid the creation of an unstoppable public desire to turn them all out of office.

As I have written here before, more than any other modern prime minister, Harper resembles W. L. Mackenzie King. But King always tried to strengthen his government, both in talent and in political support. And he always had the mighty tribal vote from Quebec that Sir Wilfrid Laurier had secured by opposing conscription in 1917, keeping Quebec out of the hands of the semi-separatist Henri Bourassa, accepting that his party would be defeated in the election that year but would thereafter have a huge electoral advantage, and governed for 52 years between 1921 and 1984.

This raises two interesting questions about what a Trudeau government might try to do. From the time of the establishment of responsible government, (i.e. all internal affairs determined by the provincial legislatures and not decreed by the colonial governors), and the installation of the Great Ministry of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine in 1848, through to the patriation of the Constitution and the proclamation of the Charter of Rights under Trudeau, there was always a double majority for every major initiative of public policy — a majority in French and English Canada, and not just an English party imposing a majority on the country. Conscription in 1917 was the only exception, and Laurier saved federalism through his deft handling of it.

For most of that time, the political and cultural leaders of French Quebec called for real biculturalism, and not just a small group of bilingual French-Canadians to mediate Quebec’s participation in the whole country. The nationalist Quebec leader in the 1930s, Dr. Philippe Hamel said: “Conquer us with goodwill, my English friends. You will be astonished at the easy victory which awaits you.” Yet when this was put to the test, 30 years later, by the Pearson and Trudeau governments, the same elites and often even the same individuals rejected biculturalism as an assimilationist trick, a Trojan Horse.

It was never generally expressed in quite these terms, but the federalists felt betrayed and Trudeau patriated the Constitution without the Quebec government, though he seemed to have the support of most Quebeckers. Brian Mulroney tried valiantly to square the official equality of the French and English with the spuriously over-applied notion that all the provinces are equal, and the Meech Lake accord was rent by the premier of Newfoundland and a single native person in the Manitoba Legislature. The Charlottetown Accord, put to a national referendum, was rejected by the French of Quebec, offended at the desertion of English Canada over Meech Lake, and by most English Canadians, unwilling to make cultural concessions to a Quebec that was oppressing the English language despite liberality toward French outside Quebec.

Instead of the French and English-speaking populations of Canada having a reciprocal veto over major pan-Canadian policy initiatives, the Quebec nationalists have barricaded themselves into Quebec, abandoning the French outside that province. They are now trying to replace the unborn who result from their post-Catholic collapsed birthrate with Haitians and North Africans who, though French speaking, don’t care about the independence of Quebec, leaving the separatists to attempt to achieve independence in increments through trick referendary questions. Quebec was seduced by the Trudeau-Mulroney bribe of transfer payments to accept a white collar debtor economy and is now practically unable to secede, or even credibly to threaten to separate. The Quebec nationalists only represent about half the French Quebeckers, 40% of that province, 10% of all Canadians, and simply can’t frighten the whole country as they once did. Harper is the first person to govern effectively without significant support in Quebec since Borden. Canada is waiting for Quebec to come back to the party.

Whether Trudeau or the French Canadians realize it, he is their last ticket to resume the great role they played in the whole country from Lafontaine to Jean Chrétien

Justin Trudeau is the last train leaving the station for the double majority of French and English in the whole country, and the alternating French and English Liberal leaders and governors-general (a completely anachronistic position that has become a semi-animated fig-leaf for ceremonious multi-culturalism). Whether Trudeau or the French Canadians realize it, he is their last ticket to resume the great role they played in the whole country from Lafontaine to Jean Chrétien, including 37 out of 38 years with prime ministers from Quebec between 1968 and 2006. If he fails, the French Canadians will be just another group of hyphenated Canadians, semi-autonomously festering and playing house in their capacious and over-lyricized ghetto of Quebec.

The second intriguing aspect of a Trudeau government arises from the endless prattling at the Liberal convention about a “national strategy” for almost everything. Tiresome, evasive and vacuous as much of this undoubtedly was, it does reopen the possibility of public sector-private sector co-operation that has been responsible for most of the grand projects that have built the country, including the railways, the great hydro-electric projects, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, Air Canada, atomic power, the Trans-Canada Highway and pipelines, and most large cultural initiatives. As I have written here before, this will be what is needed to make Canada a proprietary, as opposed to merely a branch-plant, country in the automobile business and to take our defence and aero-space industries to a level appropriate to a G7 country. The Conservatives have cloth ears on the subject.

The government has a year to show that it still has some ideas and deserves a renewed mandate. In all of Canadian history, only Macdonald, Laurier and King have served over 10 years consecutively, and they did great things to do it. Harper will have to raise his game radically to join that eminent fraternity.

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