Garneau urges Liberals to deal with Quebec

La nation québécoise vue par les fédéralistes québécois

When it comes to patriotism, one would think that former astronaut Marc Garneau is the last person who needs lessons.

The first Canadian to fly in space in 1984, Garneau took part in two more missions before he went on to head the Canadian Space Agency. Along the way, he pioneered the shuttle arm, this country's main contribution to the space adventure.

A member of the Order of Canada, Garneau has been honoured by no less than seven Canadian universities. He has served as chancellor of Ottawa's Carleton University. There are schools in various provinces that bear his name. He is familiar with every region of Canada and is comfortable in all of them.
When he decided to throw his hat in the political ring last year, the former astronaut instantly became the star on Paul Martin's Quebec lineup. In contrast with previous high-profile recruits such as Stéphane Dion and Jean Lapierre though, Garneau was not offered a soft landing in one of the dozen or so safe seats that the federal Liberals own in the province.

Instead, it was his mission to try to win back Vaudreuil-Soulanges, a Montreal area riding that had gone to the Bloc Québécois in 2004 in spite of its strong federalist constituency.

After he lost, Garneau could have joined the chorus of Liberal strategists who wrote off last year's bruising results in Quebec as a by-product of the sponsorship scandal. On the basis of what he had heard on the doorsteps of his suburban riding, he came to a different conclusion.

His experience convinced him that the post-referendum omertà on those who argue that there is unfinished constitutional business between Canada and Quebec had become a threat to the well-being of the federation.

Last April, Garneau took the lead in the promotion of the idea of recognizing Quebec as a nation. Back then, the leadership campaign was barely getting underway. None of the candidates - including Michael Ignatieff - had articulated a detailed position on the Quebec-Canada issue. But Garneau was already hard at work, in search of a consensus around his prescription for action.

In an open letter to two newspapers in September, Garneau took his case to a wider national audience.

He urged Canadians to support the recognition of Quebec as a nation, arguing that letting sleeping dogs lie had become more damaging than the alternative. The issue, he warned, would not simply go away. Instead, it would remain an open sore that would continue to alienate Quebecers from federal politics in general and the Liberal party in particular.

In the letter, Garneau described himself as a recent convert to the cause he was spearheading. For a long time, he too had seen the lingering debate about Quebec's place in the federation as a dangerous distraction.

That was because he had always based his impressions of the political climate of the province on the non-Quebec media coverage, he wrote, adding that his confidence in the national English-language media had been shaken by his campaign experience. When it comes to Quebec, Garneau concluded, the coverage largely amounts to keeping Canadians in a bubble.

Over the past few weeks, he has discovered that one ventures outside that bubble at one's own peril.

Garneau is typical of the Quebec Liberals who are calling on their party to do something about recognizing Quebec as a nation at the party's upcoming convention. They make up the staunchest federalist group on offer in the province. Many of them, like the former astronaut, know the rest of Canada better than most other Canadians know Quebec.

Yet, in many quarters, they have routinely been dismissed as lost souls who have strayed from the righteous path of federalism.

Garneau's rationale for pursuing the Quebec debate has largely fallen flat in the rest of Canada. In September, most commentators simply ignored his open letter.

But when Justin Trudeau - who has yet to see electoral political action - chimed in recently to say that his late father would have rejected the Quebec resolution, that view was afforded front-page billing in many media quarters, including the Star.

A party that takes its instructions from the grave on Quebec rather than seek inspiration in the collective experience of the living should not be surprised to find itself dead in the water in that province.

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