MONTREAL - For the past three decades, Quebec federalists have spent a lot of time apologizing for their cause and relatively little promoting it. The patriation of the Constitution, the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, the corrupted federal sponsorship program have all gone some way to keep them on the defensive.
Over that period, they lost the initiative in the debate, allowing their sovereignist foes to set the agenda and systematically up the ante in the province's dealings with the rest of Canada.
In time in Quebec, federalism came to be widely seen as the choice of the weak of heart. In light of the timorous federalist arguments put forward in the last referendum, it is a wonder that sovereignty did not prevail.
Meanwhile, many Canadians came to take their cue on Quebec's aspirations not on the federalists who spoke for a majority but on the more vocal sovereignists. Given the discretion of the former, it was hard not to believe that it was the latter that really spoke the mind of Quebecers.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to lead the House of Commons into recognizing Quebecers' national character last year has provided federalists with a rare opportunity to break that cycle.
Like their sovereignist competition, some Quebec federalists are currently striving to put meat on the bones of the nation concept – with strikingly different results.
Under the leadership of André Pratte, La Presse chief editorialist, 14 articulate francophone federalists hailing from all political stripes have put together a collection of essays on the issue. Titled Reconquérir le Canada, it amounts to the boldest challenge to conventional federalist wisdom in Quebec in a long time.
Here are a few highlights: Quebecers need to take stock of their own decision to stay in Canada and put their culture of federal isolationism behind them. It is high time to reverse the onus in the relationship between Quebec and the federation by acknowledging that the province has more to contribute to the federal system than it needs to wrest from it. Quebec already has the essential tools at its disposal to ensure its future as a French-language society.
Predictably, the least challenging essays come from those who have spent the most time in the conventional political arena: people like former federal minister Martin Cauchon or Benoît Pelletier, the intergovernmental affairs minister for Quebec whose texts often read like extended press releases.
Some of the more interesting offerings are the work of a new generation of federalists – one less inclined to think inside the constitutional grievance box – and from political neophytes like Liberal Marc Garneau or Conservative Daniel Fournier, who tell of their own reconciliations of nationalism and federalism.
Given the current deadlock in the National Assembly, there is no certainty that either the embattled Liberals or the insular ADQ will endorse this outward approach anytime soon. But it may be more in sync with many Quebecers than the identity politics that have become the fallback option of the PQ and the Bloc Québécois.
How else to explain that when the advent of consecutive minority governments has given the Bloc unprecedented potential influence in Parliament, Quebec voters have increasingly been opting for alternatives such as the Conservatives and the NDP, big-tent parties with larger federal aspirations but within which Quebecers will by definition be outnumbered!