Charest comments pose tricky problem for Harper

Nous avons les moyens de faire l'indépendance

A minor flap is going on about the fact that Quebec Premier Jean Charest has said that Quebec has "the means" to become an independent state.
The pro-separatist Parti Québécois has jumped on the comment to say that Charest has confirmed their cardinal policy, namely that Quebec has the right to choose to separate and has the ability to function once it separates from Canada.
The phrase, "We have the means" has become a new slogan for the PQ. Party members chanted it at the meeting where their leader, André Boisclair, was nominated as a candidate in a coming by-election in an east-end Montreal riding.
The PQ's leader in the National Assembly, Louise Harel, has commented gleefully that Quebec federalists have "lost the fear-related argument," this being their long-standing claim that Quebec couldn't survive by itself.
At the same time, columnist William Johnson, (who is also the author of a biography of Prime Minister Stephen Harper), has written that Charest is in effect saying that Quebec is "bound to the federation and to Canada by nothing more than its self-interest."
There is a certain summer silliness about all of this. It's only words. The truth is and always has been that no matter the legalities - including the ground rules for negotiating separation as laid down by the Supreme Court - if Quebec really wanted to go, it would go.
It's also always been pretty clear that while Quebec would experience some considerable difficulties if it ever did separate, in the end it could make a go of things on its own.
Once, to have written words like those would have made a columnist feel vaguely traitorous. Now, they seem almost trite. The fact is that separation is no longer the big deal that it was back in the days of Pierre Trudeau and of Meech Lake and of that prolonged and agonized national debate about special status, distinct society and the rest.
Lots of nations are now striking out on their own, including tiny micro-states like Montenegro, Kosovo and East Timor. It will be no great surprise if Catalonia - about the same size as Quebec - eventually detaches itself from Spain.
This doesn't make separation a good thing. It always causes pain, to both sides. Often, its only real benefits are enjoyed by those members of the local political elite who get to become ambassadors.
So we should all stay cool and recognize that Charest has said nothing that is new, or that is threatening to other Canadians.
Except in one respect. Johnson has a point when he complains that Charest is limiting Quebec's involvement in Canada to that of "self-interest."
Charest confirmed this in a letter he wrote to La Presse to explain the "means" comment that he'd made in a press interview during a visit to Paris.
In this letter, Charest said "it is not in the interest of Quebec to turn its back on Canada."
He went on to observe that he and Robert Bourassa, his Liberal predecessor as premier, "have never recognized the pertinence of separation from an economic or political point of view."
That's all pretty tepid stuff. Charest, even though he was once a federal minister in Ottawa and was leader of the national Conservative party, apparently cannot work up any excitement or emotion about the country as a whole.
Staying cool under these circumstances will not be quite so easy. As a practical example, it's going to be a lot harder now for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to implement his "fiscal imbalance" policy. The principal consequence of this policy would be a considerable increase in equalization payments to Quebec, for which the money, of course, will come from the rest of the country.
We all like to think that equalization is a very Canadian way of doing things. To ask in return a certain expression of caring about and of a commitment to Canada doesn't seem to be a very heavy demand - even if it actually isn't felt.
But if that kind of demand really is too much to ask for, then we really do have a very light country, indeed.
_ Richard Gwyn's column appears Tuesdays and Fridays.

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