Canadian pride is out, pragmatic federalism is in

Spirit of Robert Bourassa lives on in his successor

Robert Bourassa - 10e anniversaire

Recently, Premier Jean Charest agreed to answer questions submitted by readers of La Presse and have the questions and answers published in the newspaper. Some of the answers to questions about sovereignty were noteworthy.
Charest said globalization made it "even more advantageous" than at the time of the previous two referendums, in 1980 and 1995, for Quebec to "participate in a large group."
Throughout the world, federalism was "a model for co-operation among peoples." And "nothing justifies our being plunged back into a third referendum quarrel that would divide and weaken us." Quebecers had "other priorities."
And he wrote about the latitude that Quebec enjoys in several areas of policy and the leadership it exerts. "Since our arrival in 2003, my government has shown clearly that Quebec had everything to gain by assuming sustained leadership within the Canadian federation."
That's how he referred to Canada - not by name, but rather by the descriptive "Canadian federation" - you know, like the European Union, among sovereign countries.
His answers were strictly pragmatic, about the advantages to Quebec of remaining in a political system - federalism- rather than in a country whose name he apparently dared not write, and the disadvantages to Quebec of holding another referendum. They made no reference or appeal to emotions such as pride in, or attachment to, Canada that most Quebecers still feel - yes, even after the sponsorship scandal.
Charest"s answers were coldly rational, so different from the passion for Canada he displayed as the leader of the now-defunct federal Progressive Conservative Party in the 1995 referendum campaign.
It was this passion that federalists, especially English-speaking ones, hoped to continue to see, a match for the Quebec nationalist passion of Lucien Bouchard, when they sent Charest into Quebec provincial politics in 1998 as a "Captain Canada" who would save the country.
But now, eight years later, Charest no longer refers to Canada as the heritage he will not allow the separatists to steal from his children. Now the Canadian passport that became identified with him as he waved it during his speeches in the 1995 referendum campaign comes out only when he needs it to travel abroad.
Instead of transforming Quebec politics, Charest has been transformed by them. Like previous provincial federalist leaders for more than 30 years, he has become the salesman of a strictly utilitarian product about which he seems defensive, even half-apologetic.
Where the sovereignists have a country to offer, Charest now has only a political system. And who cheers for a political system in the Olympics? (Well, the Communists did, but we know how that ended up.) Charest might as well adapt the slogan from that television commercial for cough syrup: "It''s nothing to get emotional about, but it works."
This, too, is part of the legacy of Robert Bourassa, to whom a statue will be unveiled on the grounds of the National Assembly today to mark the 10th anniversary of his death on Oct. 2.
The James Bay hydroelectric development, the Quebec Charter of Rights and a durable consensus on language are among the positive achievements of Bourassa's that are recalled most often.
And by refusing to abandon his post to seek treatment for the cancer that eventually killed him until the 1990 Oka crisis was peacefully resolved - sacrificing his life to the public interest--he achieved a rare greatness.
But though he was a federalist, it was during his two administrations that the sovereignists made their greatest advances, gaining ground they have mostly kept. And when he abandoned the Canadian patriotism of his predecessors in favour of crassly self-interested "profitable federalism" in 1970, he changed the discourse of provincial federalists to this day.
Last Saturday, my friend Michel David of Le Devoir wrote insightfully that Quebecers were grateful to Bourassa for "rationalizing our fears" about independence through his pragmatic emphasis on the economic ties between Quebec and Canada. "It was so much more comforting to think we were rejecting sovereignty after a thoughtful economic analysis than because of a collective lack of courage."
But the insistence on a "fiscal imbalance" between Quebec and Ottawa might undermine the rational argument on which first Bourassa and then his federalist successors have come to rely exclusively. And if that goes, then what do federalists have left?

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