For several days, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has lashed out in desperate fury in an effort to save his job. He has bitterly attacked the Liberals and the “socialists,” but he has reserved particular scorn for the “separatists.” Last night, in a televised speech, he adopted a calmer tone but the message was essentially the same. He has raised the national-unity stakes by fanning anger at (and in) Quebec. Even if he succeeds in his immediate goal of undoing the opposition coalition, it does invite the question: Which of the opposition parties will help the Conservatives to govern again in this minority Parliament?
It is hard to see how Mr. Harper can lead a minority government, and given his role in inciting a parliamentary furor while a grave economic crisis threatens the savings and livelihoods of Canadians, it is also hard to see how Mr. Harper will ever win anything other than a minority. Whether he contrives an exit from his immediate travails over the confidence vote, the Harper era appears to be approaching its end. But before that happens, there is danger Canadian unity will be harmed.
Canadians are rightly concerned about the prospect of a Liberal-NDP coalition propped up by the Bloc Québécois. It is a political monstrosity. There are also legitimate questions to be raised about the price the Bloc will exact from the coalition for its support. But Mr. Harper has taken it to another level entirely, suggesting it is a betrayal of the country to sign a deal with the Bloc. Senior Conservative ministers have called it a “deal with the devil.” Mr. Harper's MPs are echoing the message. Ontario MP Bob Dechert said yesterday: “They've actually written a deal giving the separatists a veto over every decision of the Canadian government. That is as close to treason and sedition as I can imagine.”
Like it or not, Bloc MPs are the legitimate representatives of a large number of Canadians living in Quebec. No one should doubt their raison d'être, but then again, the Bloc are not Basque separatists either. They do not blow up municipal mayors. They do not blow up mailboxes. They are democrats who have contributed to debates outside matters of Quebec's status and powers, on everything from climate change and Afghanistan to efforts to repatriate Omar Khadr. In other words, they have not played an entirely malevolent role, in spite of their chief objective. Just ask Mr. Harper, whose government has survived confidence votes with the help of the Bloc, and who in 2004 co-authored with Mr. Duceppe a letter to the then governor-general declaring she should “consult the opposition leaders and consider all of [her] options before exercising [her] constitutional authority” if the Liberal government of Paul Martin was defeated.
Yesterday, it was revealed the Canadian Alliance, political antecedents of the Conservatives, also played footsie with the Bloc, even contemplating a formal coalition in 2000 to oust the Liberals. If it is “close to treason or sedition” to connive with the Bloc, then Conservatives are as guilty as anyone. Because of the overwrought rhetoric in Ottawa, there is real potential for damage to the fabric of Canadian unity. It's not the separatist Bloc Québécois that is responsible for that, although they may yet benefit from it.