Christopher Sands, National Post - WASHINGTON - For many Americans, the word "Quebec" conjures up happy memories of trips to Montreal or Quebec City, great restaurants, French-speakers who don't treat you rudely when your grade-school French fails you and Quebec cultural exports such as Celine Dion and the Cirque du Soleil. Yet we also often hear Canadians grumble about the outsized influence of Quebec in national politics. On everything from high taxes to Canadian involvement in Afghanistan and even Canada's position on global warming, Americans frequently are told that Canada cannot be more helpful on a particular issue "because of Quebec."
Twenty years ago, in November, 1987, Stephen Harper spoke to the founding convention of the Reform Party of Canada in Winnipeg as one of the many Western Canadian conservatives who resented then-prime minister Brian Mulroney's doting attention to Quebec public opinion.
Now, as head of a Conservative minority government with 10 MPs from Quebec, Mr. Harper has started to see the value of Quebec support. Better still for him, he has found Quebec voters willing to support conservatives. His recent success in the province is an encouraging sign that Quebec politics may be undergoing a historic shift -- one that may change the way that Americans see Canada, and the future politics of U.S.-Canada relations.
The Quebec most Americans have seen since the 1960s has been modern, secular and French-- or French Canadian. But it was not always this way. From the British conquest in 1763 (achieved with an army recruited from the 13 colonies to the south) until the middle of the 20th century, Quebec was arguably the most conservative part of Canada; socially, economically and politically. Quebec nationalism was conservative as well, dedicated to preserving the "French fact" across Canada and especially in Quebec.
That started to change with the death of Quebec's conservative, nationalist premier, Maurice Duplessis, in 1959. A young generation of progressives subsequently emerged that hoped to modernize Quebec society -- by which they meant, among other things, to loosen the grip of the Catholic Church.
They called it La Revolution Tranquille, or the "Quiet Revolution"; Quebec's progressives were successful in peacefully and incrementally replacing the Church with the provincial state.
That success gave way to a split between those modernizers who saw the logical end of their campaign as independence for Quebec (independantistes), and those who hope to take the campaign of secular statism to Ottawa, and refashion Canada itself (federalistes). As progressives, neither side would join a conservative party. The independantistes formed the Parti Quebecois in 1968; the federalistes mainly joined either the federal or the provincial branch of the Liberal party.
This debate among the self-styled Quiet Revolutionaries was itself a quiet one until a small group of independantistes inspired by the anti-colonial movements in Algeria and elsewhere opted for terrorism: The Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) escalated quickly from bombing mailboxes to kidnapping the provincial minister of labour and the British consul-general in Montreal.
Pierre Trudeau, a left-wing federaliste who joined the Liberals in Ottawa and became prime minister in 1968, responded to the FLQ crisis by declaring martial law in Montreal, and sending in federal troops. The FLQ was crushed, but the moderate independantistes regrouped under the banner of the Parti Quebecois and won the 1976 provincial election. The new independantiste government in Quebec City scheduled a referendum on separation from Canada in 1980, which they lost. Sixty per cent of Quebec voters, showing a very conservative suspicion of radical change, chose the status quo, in part because Trudeau promised them reform if they stayed in Canada.
Trudeau launched talks with all 10 provinces on revising the British North America Act of 1867, the British legislation that served as Canada's constitution, and adopting it as Canadian legislation. The result was the 1982 Canadian Constitution, which was ratified by the federal parliament and most provincial legislatures -- but not Quebec's, which was still in the hands of the independantistes of the Parti Quebecois.
In 1984, Canadians elected a Progressive Conservative federal government led by another Quebecer, Brian Mulroney. Mulroney won the election by linking free-market conservatives in the West and conservative nationalists in Quebec -- while winning enough Ontario support to hold the two sides together.
As a conservative who was drawn to support the federalistes in the political fight that divided his home province, Mulroney had difficulty when he tried to amend the constitution to satisfy Quebec concerns. Twice Mulroney tried to fashion a package of amendments that Quebec and the rest of Canada would accept. Trudeau came out of retirement to attack Mulroney's efforts, and both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords went down to defeat.
The collapse of Mulroney's constitutional reforms fueled a conservative crack-up across Canada. Disgruntled western conservative MPs, angry about Mulroney's catering to Quebec, fuelled a parliamentary revolt and formed the Re-form party. Then disappointed conservative nationalist MPs from Quebec abandoned the Progressive Conservative caucus as well to form the Bloc Quebecois. In 1993, Canadians elected a Liberal government led by one of Trudeau's loyal allies, Jean Chretien, and reduced the Progressive Conservatives from 198 MPs and a majority government to just two seats in parliament.
Meanwhile, Quebec voters elected the independantistes to govern the province again. This time, their leader was Lucien Bouchard, a former Cabinet minister in Mulroney's federal government. Bouchard called a second referendum on separation in 1995. The "Yes" side would lose, but only narrowly.
The current Quebec Premier, Jean Charest, and his federaliste Liberals have proved unpopular in their first mandate, and barely hung on for re-election in March of this year. To the surprise of many observers, the largest opposition party in Quebec City is no longer the independentiste Parti Quebecois, but a new conservative nationalist party, Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ), whose young leader --a generation younger than the province's original modernizers -- echoes the positions of Maurice Duplessis, albeit without any desire to restore the Catholic Church to its former prominence.
Stephen Harper is Canada's prime minister today in large part because he was able to successfully reunite the freemarket conservatives of the old Reform party with the remnants of Mulroney's Progressive Conservative party. In the 2006 election, Quebec voters delivered eight new Conservative MPs from a province where the Conservative party had been virtually shut out since the days of the Mulroney governments in the 1980s.
The Quebec election in March similarly marked a resurgence of conservative nationalism in Quebec. Some voted for the ADQ, others voted for Charest's Liberals. Combined, these two parties won 80% support for freemarket economic programs, conservative social values and keeping Quebec in Canada.
By bringing conservative nationalists in Quebec into the Conservative Party of Canada, Harper could heal the split among Canadian conservatives and win the first Conservative majority government since Mulroney's. Harper would become the first prime minister from Western Canada to win a majority government since John Diefenbaker, who first managed this feat in 1957 -- with the help of Maurice Duplessis.
If that happens, Quebecers and conservatives in Canada will have come full circle. Canada may once again become a majority conservative country, with Quebec and Alberta as conservative bastions in the east and west. This would be good news for the United States, since a conservative Canada will be a more stalwart friend on everything from the war on terrorism to the future management of North American integration.
Americans benefitted tremendously from good relations with Canada during the Mulroney years. Today, with the threats of global terrorism and rising economic protectionism looming, many in Washington long for a government in Ottawa that can provide stalwart support in the years, and trials, ahead. Harper has been a good friend to Americans, but his minority position in parliament limits what he can do.
Will Harper improve his position in the next federal election? As goes Quebec, so goes Canada.
As goes Quebec …
An American writer explains how Quebec's transformation could mark the beginning of a conservative era in Canada, as well as a renaissance in U.S.-Canadian relations