Conrad Black, National Post · Nov. 26, 2011 | The splintering into factions of Quebec's Parti Québécois, the rejection of the Bloc Québécois in the last federal election, Quebec's declining share of federal MPs, and polls showing a collapse of separatist enthusiasm among the province's youth, all help illustrate the overwhelming and largely unsung success of Canadian federalism.
The federalist strategy, since an outright separatist party emerged in 1976 as a principal force in Quebec, has been to concede symbolic instances of autonomy; massage money over Quebec to make its socialist nostrums more affordable and the province more dependent on the federal state; and engage in endless good-faith negotiations punctuated by upward ratchetings of the technical obstacles to secession, and to asserting an effective veto in Ottawa over federal policy. In sum, Ottawa has assisted Quebec in achieving its social-democratic, post-Catholic, exclusivist French state ruled by the senior bureaucrats - even as Ottawa diluted the possibility of independence being achieved or even desired, and shrank Quebec's influence in the country as a whole.
Canada wins this exchange. It costs $8-billion a year in transfer payments, and billions more in other preferments, but the country is secure, and Quebec has ceased to be a threat to the nation's integrity, or even a serious irritation.
Quebec is a virtual state; its taxpayers file two tax returns; the legislature is called the National Assembly; Quebec has observer status at the United Nations, is a full-fledged member of the French-speaking communauté, and has six delegates-general in some of the world's greatest cities, where friends of the regime in Quebec can go and live well and pretend to conduct international business.
The post-Catholic Quebec state now goes to almost unheard of lengths to incentivize childbirth with generous maternity and paternity leave and benefits, and day-care access. Yet the birth rate has scarcely stirred from its collapsed nadir. The endless petty harassments of non French-speaking people in Quebec have driven 800,000 people out of the province in the last 50 years, and the French-speaking population has tried to sustain itself with airlifts of Haitians and North Africans, most of whom do not have the slightest interest in Quebec nationalism, and certainly not in its independence.
The French of Quebec have the same standard of living as the non-French, and they have driven a silver stake through the heart of the ancient bugbear of North American Anglo assimilation. But they are hooked, haltered and leashed to federalism. Their fiscal incontinence (the province's debt is 95% of its GDP, and it would have to assume a share of Canada's debt as well if it seceded) and gross over-indulgence of the public service would cause an independent Quebec to suffer a Hellenistic capsize on launch. The vanity of the Quebec clerisy is consummated; there is no working class left in Quebec - it is all a happy, torpid bourgeoisie.
Only Canada's money permits Quebec to lionize lethargy and combat recession with endless publicsector expansion. An independent Quebec would be under daily audit from the IMF, and would suffer imposed austerity that would generate the greatest public disorder seen in the province since the suspension of Rocket Richard in 1955 by that supreme exemplar of unilingual English-Canadian stupidity, the president of the National Hockey League, Clarence Campbell.
The price Quebec has paid for this nirvana is a constitutional Faustian bargain: It has lost all ability to frighten Canada or assert more than its natural minority influence on the federal state. Prior to this year's federal election, Canada had rarely had a majority government that was not significantly dependent on Quebec MPs. Fifty years ago, Quebec had 85% of the federal MPs of Ontario and 185% of the MPs of Alberta and British Columbia combined; the corresponding percentages will now be 64% and 100%, respectively.
The old rule of thumb was that the provincial Quebec electorate was 20% non-French federalist, 20% French federalist, 20% conservative nationalist but anti-separatist, 20% nationalists finally induced to come out of the closet as separatists by René Lévesque in the 1970s, and 20% a floating vote influenced by transitory issues and the personalities of the different contending leaders. Only incremental trick questions in 1980 and 1995 that envisioned the negotiation of sovereignty and association, i.e. one cake to eat and one to retain, got the percentage of yes votes in the referenda of those years into the 40s. The Clarity Act now requires a clear question and a substantial majority. All polls show support for Quebec separatism below a third, and failing badly with young voters.
The Canadian settlement of a happy French nanny state made prosperous by Dane geld from Alberta and British Columbia, and with declining Quebec influence in a politically more conservative Canada, appears durable and is a brilliant and typically undersung triumph of the unique, deceptively subtle, methods of Canadian federal governance. The only visible dissent of note is ex-péquiste Jean-Matin Aussant's defection to found Option Nationale, a party of one, unambiguously pursuing independence under the stirring tocsin, "Don't be afraid to lose."
More seriously, the first stirrings of profound reassessment by serious people, businessman Charles Sirois and former PQ minister Francois Legault's Coalition for the Future of Quebec, seems to seek a de-socialization of Quebec and a revival of a more prominent private sector in a nationalist but not separatist Quebec. Aussant is headed for the last (and first) round-up, but Sirois and Legault's project could have legs.
Quebec achieved and has lived the future its elites sought, except the fable of real independence, and it is a comfortable but boring cul-de-sac. Awakening Quebec from its somnolent idyll will require the courage of Dollard des Ormeaux, the eloquence of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the cunning of Maurice Duplessis. As Dr. (Samuel) Johnson would say, I would not be surprised, but I would be astonished.