Whatever else results from this week’s parliamentary crisis, it has already improved the status of Quebec separatism. It’s hard to think of anything in the last decade that has contributed more to separatism’s reputation than the perverse and thoughtless decision of Liberals and New Democrats to ally themselves with the Bloc Québécois in their effort to overturn the Conservative government.
As Gilles Duceppe boasted on Tuesday, the day he appeared alongside Liberal and NDP leaders in a joint press conference, “Every gain we’re making here is good for Quebec … for a sovereign Quebec.” Jacques Parizeau, a former Parti Québécois leader, agreed that the coalition promises “huge gains” for Quebec — an independent Quebec.
That press conference, unprecedented in the four-decades-long history of the struggle against separatism, treated the BQ like just another Canadian political party. Duceppe, sitting on Stéphane Dion’s left while Jack Layton sat on his right, had every reason to rejoice over this upgrade in prestige. Liberal and NDP supporters explained that the Bloc would not hold seats in the planned coalition cabinet. But in truth they would get something better, the ability to veto the proposed Dion-Layton federal government.
Dion, who was known only recently as the most articulate critic of separatism, has spent this week proposing to lead a government that would serve at the pleasure of the BQ. That strategy made a regional party nationally significant — a symbolic triumph even if the coalition falls apart without forming a government.
Since 1968 and the birth of René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois, a surprisingly large group of Canadians have done their best to minimize the threat of the separatists and ignore their core beliefs. Not long after the PQ took power in 1976 (triggering a mass migration of English speakers westward toward Toronto), their admirers began describing the PQ as essentially a sensible and honest social democratic party, unlikely to do harm. Deep down, the PQ wanted only a better deal for Quebec. Those who believed this fiction maintained their illusions despite the devious tactics the PQ used in the 1980 and 1995 plebiscites.
Brian Mulroney, normally a shrewd politician, was spectacularly misled when he embraced Lucien Bouchard, a long-time PQ member. Apparently convinced that Bouchard was developing into a federalist, Mulroney made him ambassador to Paris and then a powerful cabinet minister. But when Mulroney’s Meech Lake constitutional proposal failed in 1990, Bouchard abruptly reverted to separatism, invented the Bloc Québécois and won 54 seats in the 1993 election. He did as much as any individual to destroy Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative Party.
Canadian journalists have usually treated separatism gently. This is not a conspiracy. It’s more a result of innocence and an expression of Canada’s passion for “inclusiveness.” Why not put political parties in the same category with ethnic and religious groups? True, separatists advocate splitting Canada, a process that would be hideously complicated and financially painful — most painful of all, probably, for the people (although not the politicians) of Quebec. But still, fair’s fair: People who want to destroy our country deserve consideration like everyone else. Naturally, these sworn enemies of the federal system receive federal tax money to run their campaigns. Just one more example of Canadian tolerance and generosity.
Along the way, separatism has become the policy that dare not speak its name. The word was precise and honest but too negative. Separatist leaders switched to positive terms, “sovereignty” and “sovereignty-association.” Even now, Stephen Harper says “les souverainistes” when speaking French where he says “separatists” in English.
Journalists continue to endorse this obfuscation. This week, Don Newman of the CBC accused Harper of “demonizing” the separatists by calling them separatists. The Toronto Star ran a subhead declaring that “Attacks on ‘separatists’ risk alienating voters,” as if there was something odd about using the word “separatist.” Graeme Hamilton in the Post on Thursday called it “inflammatory.” In this way, dangerous political notions are gradually normalized.
Naturally, many Quebecers argued that this honest talk was arousing the beast in anglophone Canadians and turning Quebeckers — once more! — into victims. Daniel Lessard of Radio-Canada said on Wednesday, “I’ve never heard so much Quebec-bashing as I’ve heard in the last few days.” Jeffrey Simpson wrote in The Globe and Mail yesterday that Harper, under threat of defeat, “whipped up anti-Quebec sentiments outside the province.”
No, he didn’t. He whipped up anti-separatist sentiments, a quite different matter — though for some people, the new eminence of the Bloc has made the distinction hard to remember.