"Sometimes, you just get lucky." That's what Premier Jean Charest said to a reporter when asked about Prime Minister Stephen's Harper's motion on the recognition of Quebecers as a nation.
In June 1990, Brian Mulroney rolled the dice to save the Meech Lake Accord. He lost. Harper pulled a surprise "nation" ace from his deck of cards. Charest won a hefty pre-election prize.
That's how a long-standing, existential issue was reduced to one big game, to strategies and counter-strategies. It was politics at its most cynical, devoid of any real vision. Every political analyst in Canada knows Harper has never espoused the concept of Quebec as a nation.
Last June 24, Harper refused in Quebec City to say the N-word. So this is no spontaneous conversion, just one big, multi-target strategy. First: Embarrass the Bloc Quebecois as it was about to table its own motion and play its own game of "embarrass the Liberals a week before their convention."
Second: Help out Liberal leadership contender Michael Ignatieff, whom Harper would rather have as a foe than Bob Rae. Third: Neutralize Andre Boisclair, who asked for this recognition. Fourth: Help Charest on the way to a tight election fight. Fifth: Try to gain back some of the Conservative Party's support in Quebec in view of his own future tight election battle.
Rae warned Harper he'd better make sure his motion will have no legal or constitutional implications. It's a safe bet Harper did just that.
But Harper's game included some cheating. On Wednesday, the offices of Liberal interim leader Bill Graham and NDP leader Jack Layton received the full version of what Harper was about to announce in parliament.
As for the Bloc's House leader, he got a truncated version with the first sentences on the nation taken out. So Gilles Duceppe walked into question period not knowing what Harper would say, having to land quickly on his feet. Which he did.
On the same day, the Parti Quebecois leader was nowhere to be seen. If such an event can stun Boisclair, Pequistes must wonder how he would get through a referendum campaign where Ottawa would surely play a much rougher game than it did in 1995.
In question period yesterday, Charest happily pointed out this purely symbolic recognition of Quebec had actually been requested by Boisclair last June 24, and more recently by Bernard Landry, as well as by the Bloc.
Whether in the "nation" case or that of fiscal imbalance, sovereignist leaders have invested their energies since the last referendum in fighting for issues that most political scientists would agree are more the domain of federalists.
So it was no surprise that Charest, as a strong federalist, was beaming yesterday. But, you ask, what if the Rest of Canada gets angry at Harper's move? The fact is with the three federalist parties set to support his motion, voters in English Canada will have no party to punish.
When Boisclair finally reacted yesterday, he took two contradictory positions. In the morning, on CHOI radio, he said this recognition didn't mean much, was a sign of "emotional dependence" and that there was something "very childish" about it all.
But later, at a press conference, taking part of the credit for it, he said this motion was "progress." Then he went back to playing the federalists' game. With this motion, "federalists now have an obligation to show results." Oh, really?
Talking about finding ways for Quebec to sign the 1982 constitution, instead of leaving this problem to federalists, he asked that "real meaning" be given to the motion. "What Quebecers look for" on that constitutional issue "is real progress," he said.
The last time a PQ leader said that about the 1982 constitution, it was called "le beau risque."
In 1962, Hubert Aquin, a brilliant journalist, had already criticized the "profoundly ambiguous discourse" of nationalist leaders where it's hard to distinguish their call for independence from their demand for constitutional recognition.
Plus ça change ...
PM tries to trap sovereignists into working for constitutional recognition