Friday, May 23, 2003
Plus ça change, plus c'est pareil. Try as he may to throw around cute little soundbites such as "I chose Quebec" or "J'ai le Québec dans les tripes," Jean Charest looks as uncomfortable with Quebec nationalism as Jacques Parizeau would singing O Canada.
Hence the premier's no-show at Monday's celebrations of La journée nationale des Patriotes. Yesterday, my colleague Don Macpherson observed that "Charest and his advisers still need to develop nationalist reflexes" - a reminder that the premier has precious little of them to begin with.
In fact, no modern Quebec premier, with the exception of the same Daniel Johnson who is now part of Charest's inner circle, has had to actually work at acquiring nationalist reflexes. They simply had them, whether they espoused sovereignty or federalism.
But Charest is different. This is a straight federalist who holds no knife to the throat of English Canada. His priority is to keep Quebec in Canada by making the fewest constitutional waves possible. That's why the folks in Ottawa, Liberals and Conservatives alike, sent him over here in 1998. They knew that the day he would finally defeat the sovereignist dragon, all would be quiet on the Quebec front.
Nowhere was that made clearer than in a recent Canadian edition of Time magazine, whose cover he graced as the country's "boy wonder." The reporter asked: "How do you ensure that constitutional issues stay off the radar screen?" To which the boy wonder replied: "We're going to have a very different approach, based on addressing issues of common interest with the rest of the country. It's not a Quebec agenda; it's an agenda shared by other governments."
Here's a first worth writing down: a premier who will present no specific Quebec agenda. They must be singing in the streets of beautiful downtown Ottawa and Toronto: "don't worry, be happy." So it's par for the course that Jean Charest chose to stay home on La journée nationale des Patriotes, the first one in a mere 165 years.
And what were the official reasons given for his absence? First, Charest's press attaché responded that "private activities" had kept the premier at home with his family. After all, the weather was fabulous on that day, wasn't it? Still, no such private activities seemed to keep Bernard Landry from attending the unveiling of a monument to Patriote leader Louis-Joseph Papineau. Go figure.
On Tuesday, Charest said that the holiday was still "new" to him and added that he had detected a tone in the celebrations that was a bit too political, even partisan for him. "I would not have recognized myself in some of the speeches that were given." No kidding.
But someone should tell Charest that one of the perks of being premier is that he can actually order his own ceremonies while his advisers write his own speeches that express his own ideas. Of course, he didn't have to attend any event organized by sovereignists. He didn't have to go to Club Soda, where 500 to 600 people of all ages and origins attended a four-hour celebration with prominent sovereignist singers, musicians, comedians and rap artists. But as premier, his duty was to be present at an official ceremony set up by his own government where he could speak in his own words.
If Charest had any sensitivity to the struggles of the Patriotes, if he identified with them in the slightest way, that's exactly what he would have done. Staying home didn't make him a "bad Quebecer." But it did make him a premier who failed to honour those before us who fought and even died for democracy and equality for everyone in Quebec.
It also made him the leader of a government that failed miserably at informing the population of the raison d'être for this new Patriotes day. No wonder there were so few who were even aware of the change, let alone of what it was for or what activities were planned.
The premier ended the whole kerfuffle by wishing next year's celebrations would take on a more apolitical tone. In other words, it will be a neutralized, provincial version that will underline the struggles that also went on in Ontario, or Upper Canada, at the same time as the 1837-38 rebellion of the Patriotes.
But while the premier will surely be free to analyze the rebellion in his own way, which he could have done this year, no doubt there will also be a number of non-government events. And these will surely refrain from ignoring that the Patriotes' battle for democracy was also a very modern and civic nationalist one for the people of Quebec.
Charest feels weird in nationalist mode
His priority is to keep Quebec in Canada by making the fewest constitutional waves possible. That's why the folks in Ottawa sent him here in 1998.
Friday, May 23, 2003