In the old kids’ story, seven blind men touched the elephant in different places, and all seven came up with a radically different impression of what the beast is like, all of them wrong. Let’s talk about the elephant in the polling station — Quebec separatism. This old elephant is no less deceptive.
Let’s pick up the tale from a few weeks ago, even before the government fell, when Quebec ministers Jean Lapierre and Pierre Pettigrew launched an attack on the Bloc QuÃ©bÃ©cois and its “hidden agenda,” accusing it, in Lapierre’s words, of seeing the election like “a hockey game, with three periods — a Bloc victory in Ottawa, a Parti QuÃ©bÃ©cois victory, then a referendum.”
Paul Martin, who had been expected to take a more subtle line than Jean ChrÃ©tien on national unity, then came out roaring just like ChrÃ©tien about defending the nation against the evil separatists. His point: If there’s a referendum, would you want Stephen Harper, with no seats and no credibility in Quebec, speaking for Canada? That left in mid-air the other question: Would you want Paul Martin, also with no credibility and possibly no seats in French Quebec, speaking for Canada?
The scenario, then: a Bloc sweep of French Quebec and no prime minister with any credibility speaking for Canada in a coming referendum. Let’s ask another question: Is that such a bad thing? My suggestion: it might even be a good thing considering the hash that prime ministers to date have made of the issue, and considering that Canada is bigger than its divisions.
Since voting for the Bloc can’t bring about separation, giving it a sweep would be a way whereby angry Quebecers let off steam off-target, as it were, without threatening anything. As such, it might actually hurt the independence movement.
In fact, this is a sore point among separatists. I picked up this opinion on the La Presse website by one Nestor Turcotte, a long-time separatist militant, who was fairly dripping with contempt for the Bloc, accusing it of sucking all the oxygen out of the sovereignty movement — its existence “more and more incongruous, crazy and contradictory, whose continued presence in Ottawa can only be explained by an attachment to the perks of power.” A perpetual opposition party with no conceivable useful role either federally or provincially, said Turcotte, the Bloc “styles itself as the guard dog of Quebec’s interests. It will keep yapping . . . a little mutt that scares no one.”
The psychology is the same as it was in Nova Scotia when it voted massively against Confederation in September, 1867. A separatist government was elected provincially and 18 of 19 MPs were “anti-confederates.” The question arose: If you’re sitting in the parliament of an entity you reject, aren’t you in fact accepting it? The provincial and federal separatists split, fatally, on that question. The answer, of course, then as now, is yes.
And, in another intriguing twist, the young AndrÃ© Boisclair, history of cocaine-snorting and all, is head of the Parti QuÃ©becois and way ahead of Premier Jean Charest in the polls, and is threatening a referendum as soon as he sweeps into power. He’s attractive to the youth, cosmopolitan, and said to be completely different from the old guys — he has none of their hang-ups about the English, for example or, really, about Canada.
This is meant to give us a scare. But since the very reason for the sovereignty movement was English domination and intolerance, if that no longer exists, won’t this very tricky question make its way up Boisclair’s modish nostrils at referendum time, or before: What is the point of independence? Do reasons for it exist beyond general sentiment?
And that brings us back to the point about speaking for Canada. The argument for Canada is actually a potent one: the substantial reasons for separation are actually getting weaker. This is indeed one of the world’s great countries. Is it too much to have a “vision” of merely getting along — which we actually do anyway, except when this question pops up. Is there really a compelling reason to break up?
What if prime ministers stop trying to either scare or buy off Quebec and the argument for Canada is made, shockingly, on its merits — putting the sovereignty movement on the defensive, and having to explain itself? There’s some daylight here after all, if we could only see it.