It’s the same thing every time. In our benignly patriotic fantasies, we see Quebec separatism off to the churchyard, attend the lowering of the flower-spotted casket and picture the priest murmuring the lovely farewell prayers for the departed — then the reverie suddenly collapses. The bubble bursts, and this comforting tableau over a finally finished separatist movement is revealed to be all wish, no reality.
We realize that Quebec separatism is a durable entity — has a new guise every time it comes back — and that our fantasies about its vanishing are but self-comforting deceptions practised on ourselves.
Quebec separatism, like its odd twin the neverendum-referendum, has more lives than a sack of cats. This week, as if to illustrate the point, we saw yet another return of the lumbering beast, the victory of a Quebec minority government for the latest separatist avatar Pauline Marois. Naturally the victory, even though premised on a rather thin and meagre 30-plus percent of the popular vote, started the whole conversation around separatism and Quebec independence all over again. The dragon returns.
But I also sense something important and quite different from our last encounters with the beast. For the first time since Quebec separation became a real issue for all Canadians — which was, I suggest, as long ago as the turbulent ’60s, and the launch of the (then famous) Bi and Bi Commission — the threat of Quebec walking out of the federation does not send chills up the spines of people outside Quebec.
I cannot speak for the dynamics within Quebec, but outside, the feeling is more and more clear. The game of threat, campaign and referendum is worn out. The emotions stirred in so many Canadians early on in this process — the strong, reflexive urge to prevent something as horrible as the breakup of the country — have greatly decayed. Separatism is no longer seen as a legitimate yearning for recognition or respect. People believe Quebec has received both in good measure.
Separatism is more often seen now as a tactical way to lever goodies from weak federal governments, or to claim special privileges within Quebec. A tool in the political box, not a cry from the heart.
Outside Quebec, the mood on Quebec separatism is not so much indifference, as low-boil annoyance. If Ms. Marois were to reach a level of popular support within her minority that enabled her to try once more for a Yes in a referendum, I very much suspect the general citizenry outside Quebec would stifle a yawn, profess annoyance and urge them to “get on with it.” The endless ping-pong of “we’re going, no, we’re staying” has become very flat, weary and stale. No Quebec separatist politician can count on some huge rally of non-Canadians to raise a storm of “don’t go” should there be a next time.
Call it what you will. After a generation of separatist politics, after enduring the presence of a separatist party (the Bloc Québécois) in the House of Commons, after all the strains and emotions of fighting referendum campaigns, most people are quite tired of it all. And the federalist elements within Quebec — particularly those great long-sufferers, Quebec anglos — must surely by now have come to a point of utter, frustrated exhaustion.
So if Ms. Marios’ new government intends to pick up the old game of “demanding” everything from Ottawa, as she simultaneously denounces the federalism that has routinely given Quebec’s demands so high a priority, the current Prime Minister will not jump to deliver. Her game will be seen as the feeble, out-of-date act it is. Harper may even, with justice, turn the request around and ask her what Quebec is bringing to the federation in exchange.
Ms. Marois’ government might contemplate the following as an axiom: A separatist provincial government should never demand more than what is requested by the provincial governments that actually support, believe in and want to remain in Canada.
Enough with the neverendum referendum
Separatism is no longer seen as a legitimate yearning for recognition or respect. People believe Quebec has received both in good measure.