Sovereignty-Association becomes reality

Posted on December 29, 2010 in Governance Policy Context

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December 29, 2010.   Kelly McParland

Traditional indicators suggest that the great beast of Canadian unity — Quebec’s separatist inclinations — has reached an age in which it no longer cares for the fight, or is slumbering happily, sated perhaps by its many victories so far.

Separatism seems to be in decline, or at least deep in hibernation. The fires of resentment that emerged in the 1960s and burned for forty years are less evident,  their heat diminished by the elimination of so many of  the inequalities and grievances that provided their fuel. The near miss of the 1995 referendum, when voters came within a hair of choosing to depart,  took place in a fierce downturn that let separatist leaders claim Canada had failed. The downturn has returned, and may even be worse in Quebec than elsewhere, yet there’s no hint of the province following a similar path.

So it’s possible to argue that Quebec, as a danger to Canada, is sharply diminished. On the other hand, it’s also possible to argue the direct opposite: That Quebec no longer needs overt manifestations of separatist fervor, because  for the most part it has already quit the country. It may not have its own passport, but to a great extent it has achieved sovereignty-association, the modified version of independence devised and pursued by  Rene Levesque, the original father of a free Quebec.

That the province has its own culture, customs, institutions and communal ambitions — unique from and oblivious to whatever may be happening in the English provinces –  is taken for granted. Crucially, it has also devised a means to provide political separation at the point where the most formal representations of its place in Canada exist, at the federal government in Ottawa.

By adopting the Bloc Quebecois as the party of Quebec, it has achieved representation in national government, without actually participating. The Bloc sits on committees, takes its turn in debates, casts votes and has its say on Canadian matters, but does so solely as a delegation interested in one question: What’s in it for Quebec? If a matter has no impact on Quebec, it’s not interested. Any implications for Canada — no matter how weighty — are irrelevant. The Bloc has no seats in cabinet, no representation in the governing caucus,  no access to the ear of the Prime Minister. By making it their default party despite this, Quebec voters have made clear they no longer care. Despite evidence the Bloc will never achieve the nirvana of formal independence, it holds two-thirds of the federal seats in the province and appears in no danger of losing that dominance. It gives Quebec sovereignty-association: all the perks of Canada without political obligation.

Quebec seldom makes any pretense of abiding by the same rules as the other provinces. While Mounties in B.C. recently removed an automatic translation device from the RCMP web site, and will now spend millions providing French-language press releases to appease the smattering of French-speakers in the province, Quebec openly and ardently hunts down and eradicates the availability of English services for its much larger English minority. While French immersion classes proliferate without controversy in other provinces, if you’re a parent in Quebec and you want your child educated in English, you might as well quit kidding yourself and move elsewhere. The provincial health and safety board recently eliminated service in English after the language police caught it violating demands that business communications take place in French only.

The situation drew hardly a ripple of attention, symbolic of how accustomed the country has become to Quebec’s special status. The federal Conservatives introduced a much-needed bill to add 30 seats in the Commons to eliminate the chronic under-representation of voters in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, but have quietly sidelined it to avoid angering Quebec. Again, there’s been little outcry. The one outburst of anger over Quebec’s favoured treatment came over indications the Tories planned to finance a new arena for Quebec City while turning thumbs down on similar needs in Hamilton, Regina and Edmonton. The situation underlined the vast gap in underlying attitudes: the three Canadian cities could live with the need to find financing outside the government, as long as everyone else was treated the same way. But if Quebec City’s demand  isn’t satisfied, the Conservatives are told they could lose most, if not all, of their seats in the region.

That Stephen Harper, a Calgary Conservative, has done little to hide his continuing eagerness to give Quebec its arena — if local politicians can find a fig leaf of private participation with which the  government can shield  its embarrassment — demonstrates that Conservatives are now just as willing as Liberals to play by Quebec’s rules. It’s easier to just ignore the eruptions and work around Quebec: when the province refused to provide the means for Newfoundland to transmit power from a $6.2 billion hydro-electric project on the Lower Churchill, Premier Danny Williams simply bypassed it and struck a deal with Nova Scotia to build a more expensive alternative route. Ottawa is considering a request to help fund the alternative, and seems certain to approve.

Quebec has what it wants. It gets to pick and choose where and when it will participate in Canadian matters, while retaining its full formal standing in Parliament. It need not contribute to the difficulties of running all of Canada, but maintains a full complement of MPs charged with protecting its own interests. It has fought enough battles over its privileges that few have the energy or interest to challenge it any more. It gets to run its own provincial affairs without outside interference, but can intervene at will in Canadian issues that attract its interest.

It has sovereignty-association. Just about everything Rene Levesque demanded. Why bother with the trappings of separatism when you already have the reality? If the federal Conservatives can somehow devise a way to win a majority in the next election without substantial representation in Quebec, the divide will be completed: Canada and Quebec can both run their own affairs, neither paying much attention to the other. The ultimate Canadian compromise.

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