In an interview with the Toronto Star, Tom Flanagan, past Conservative campaign chair and party strategist, said that for the Conservatives to become the dominant force in Canadian politics the party needs to win more seats in Quebec, and enough support in ethnic communities to win suburban seats around Vancouver and Toronto.

As Flanagan wrote in his book Harper’s Team, Canada is not yet a conservative country, and party members must be patient, and accept incremental change. Writing before the release of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, Flanagan suggests that it will take a crisis before a right wing agenda can be introduced in Canada. In the meantime the Harperites need small victories — they add up.

A Conservative breakthrough in Quebec, say 40 seats, would provide them with the majority they want, in the election they seek to provoke. The opportunity to shock us into a right wing adventure would be the natural follow-up. The current Conservative gambit in Quebec is a move to curtail the federal spending power. This is the latest expression of the Harper doctrine for Quebec of open federalism. It follows on the House of Commons recognition of Quebec (or Quebecers, depending on the audience) as a nation.

Space has opened in Quebec for the Conservatives because of the Federal Liberal legacy in that province. Though he somehow forgets to mention it in his memoirs Jean Chrétien built a career outside Quebec, by putting Quebec in its place, at the cost of allowing other political parties to take over the province.What Chrétien does say in his memoirs is that the existence of the Bloc helped split the anti-Liberal vote, and therefore elected more Liberals than would have been the case without the party founded by Lucien Bouchard.

Paul Martin had to face the Quebec electorate after he had mishandled sponsorship scandal. As a result Quebec returned more Bloc members than anyone had imagined was possible a few years earlier.

Together in the 1995 Federal budget, Chrétien and Martin had cut back on the ties that bound Quebec citizens to Canada. By abolishing the shared cost programs that had been carefully put together for social welfare, post-secondary education, and health, and gutting unemployment insurance, the Liberals managed to at once appear as centralist bullies, ripping up joint federal-provincial agreements without prior notice, and as neo-liberals, leaving citizens alone to face the costs of education, and unemployment.

Now with its proposal to limit the federal spending power, the Conservatives intend to finish what the Liberals began. In essence, limiting the federal spending power means giving Quebec tax room, and in return ending transfers of money. What this does is end Canadian social citizenship. Taking away “Canadian” makes Quebec nationalist happy; eliminating “social” will please conservatives.

Conservatives are out to win the support of soft nationalists who support Charest’s provincial Liberals, and Dumont’s ADQ. Harper also needs to neutralize the Bloc as a political force, since for the Conservatives to break through in Quebec they need to win seats from the Bloc.

Thanks to Harperâe(TM)s two provincial allies, Mario Dumont and Jean Charest, Quebec is currently engaged in one of the most fruitless debates in postwar history: how to deal with recent immigrants. Not wanting to be left out, PQ leader Pauline Marois has joined the fray with her Quebec citizenship proposal.

Since immigration is a federal power shared with Quebec but not the other provinces, Liberal leader Dion must at some point take a stand defending liberal principles, or risk losing the federalist vote. Harper is also putting pressure on Stéphane Dion — who was the architect of the 1999 social union agreement, which put limits on the federal spending power — to back away from opposing its elimination.

The Conservative strategy to embrace Quebec nationalism is what Harper expects will allow him to break through in that province, much like Brian Mulroney in 1984. This is more like a major gamble, than a small step.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...