Throughout the week, Harper was campaigning in central Quebec courting the "soft" nationalist vote. He hopes to gain substantially at the expense of the Bloc Québécois, weakened by the internal divisions of the nationalist movement.

Back in the middle 1980s, the PQ was coming out of the crushing defeat of the 1980 referendum. René Lévesque, the eternal magician, was very much confused. The popular movements were angry with the PQ because it had turned against the public sector. A few years later it lost the provincial election (to the Liberals), but not before having accepted Brian Mulroney as a sort of ally. Brian won the following federal election with a big chunk of his vote coming from Quebec.

Brian was well-spoken, with a thick Québécois accent, "soft conservative" so to speak, but with a strong agenda. Brian’s priorities were to push forward the integration process with the U.S., at the centre of the bourgeois agenda. Indeed for Bay Street and other capitalist power brokers, the rest was almost secondary. Brian brought other neo-liberal measures, but with restraints, as he was afraid that it could bounce back against the "main" battle. Since he got in because of the Quebec vote, he gave in to some of the nationalist demands and tried to package that in the Meech Lake agreement, which was decentralizing federal powers towards the provinces, a sort of downloading of responsibilities, mostly in the cultural and social field. The mainstream bourgeois thought it was a fine deal, but then it was opposed by a mix of Trudeauist schemes and colonial legacy.

During the 1990s, there was a backlash against Brian’s grand designs and the Conservative were badly defeated. Partly because the "soft nationalist" came out of it, led by the somber Lucien Bouchard. However, the (mostly) Toronto establishment of the Liberal Party made sure that Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin would stay on line. They did even more than that, accelerating the NAFTA process (through the proposed FTAA and the PSP), making the poor pay for the so-called macroeconomic stability and broadly speaking siding with the U.S. on major issues. The bourgeoisie did not mind on the other hand that the Liberals went back to the bully tactics of Trudeau against Quebec, until it realized that it was dangerous (the 50-50 result of the 1995 referendum made them afraid).

In the meantime, Brian was gone and since then, it was revealed how crooked his regime was with huge back-payments, cronyism and shadowy deals. For almost 10 years, the Liberals were able to rule by default, since there was hardly no opposition.

It had to end at some point. Harper took over and revolutionarized the Conservatives by reducing (but not eliminating) the "crazy lot" (most of the Alliance crowd), but more importantly kicking out the "progressive" wing like Joe Clark. He designed a "modern" right-wing party with an appearance of governability. I am saying an "appearance" because frankly after 34 months of minority government, there is not much to show. My guess is that he was waiting for his moment to engage the conservative "revolution" that he aspires for. He now thinks it’s on the horizon.

But for that he has to make another spin. He has to follow Brian’s footsteps and make deals with the "soft" and conservative wing of the Quebec nationalists. They are not totally stupid and they want real guarantees that they will get a share of the cake. That is difficult for Stephen to give, apart from tokens here and there. Stephen wants to create another political and economic landscape in which the weight of Quebec is bound to be reduced in a big time.

So this is the game right now. How far the "soft" wing of the nationalist will roll over? Many of them think that it’s better to join rather than to stay outside, which is what the Bloc will bring. Their conservative ideology brings them very close to Stephen on so-called moral issues. They hate the public sector, trade unions, artists and universities. They are small and medium size "entrepreneurs," if not shop keepers. They don’t mind at all destroying what remains of Keynesianism and integrating with the declining empire of the U.S. even more.

For them the Quebec concept has always been about protecting their ethnic/class interests threatened by Trudeausim. They are tempted and at the same time very scare to get into the bandwagon of the Harper "revolution."

This is the dual nature of Quebec nationalism and depending where the wind blows, it can either reinforce the neo-liberal agenda or weaken it. Only fools think that politics are a one-way highway


Pierre Beaudet

Pierre Beaudet, active in international solidarity and social movements in Quebec, is founder of Quebec NGO Alternatives, and Editor of the Nouveaux cahiers du socialisme. He blogs on in English...