It would be unkind to characterize Prime Minister Stephen Harper's failure to invite the queen to Quebec City's big birthday party next summer as cowardly - unkind but not entirely inaccurate. The PM appears to have fallen victim to the same delusion that sometimes afflicted Robert Bourassa, who all too often put far too much value on "social peace" and far too little on other civic virtues and principles.
Ironically, Bourassa's successor, Premier Jean Charest, appears to have had no objection to a royal visit. In fact, his government actively solicited the queen's presence. According to a report in La Presse, some time ago provincial and city authorities both asked the federal government to extend a formal invitation to Her Majesty.
But Ottawa cravenly did nothing, preferring to listen to the usual suspects who claimed that any royal appearance would be an intolerable insult to the people of Quebec and a reminder of British colonialism, etc., etc.
Does Harper genuinely fear a repeat of the riots that attended the queen's visit to Quebec City in 1964 (when, to put this in perspective, Harper was all of 5 years old)? The less charitable interpretation is that the PM is really concerned about jeopardizing his growing popularity among "soft nationalists." Either way, Harper's failure shows a distasteful readiness to sacrifice principle to expediency.
Harper is supposed to be a conservative, an upholder of the constitution and parliamentary traditions. Queen Elizabeth II is Canada's head of state, and not inviting her is, at the least, an intolerable breach of good manners. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is coming, as is his prime minister, François Fillon. And organizers are still hoping Pope Benedict XVI will put in an appearance.
These are all fine guests. But the queen has at least as much reason to expect an invitation as they do.
The organizers, sensibly trying to make this an event of Canada-wide significance, have to their credit tried to be inclusive. Next year's events honour the city's entire history, not just the period between Samuel de Champlain's arrival and the British conquest of 1759. The contributions of First Nations will be recognized, as well as those of the English, Scots and Irish merchants and tradesmen who helped the city prosper after the fall of New France. How can it be appropriate to leave out the Crown?
Inviting the queen would no doubt have irked a grumpy minority. Unfortunately, those people appear to have tipped Harper's thinking, which is too bad. They represent no one but themselves and we do not believe their insecurities reflect the confidence of today's Quebecers.
If Harper wants a lesson in how to deal with them, he couldn't do better than to heed the words of Quebec's current minister of intergovernmental affairs:
"We know there would be controversy if the queen came to Quebec," Benôit Pelletier told Radio-Canada last month. "But this controversy would be provoked by a minority of people, and we can't be at the mercy of these minorities, these individuals, who still have their gaze turned toward 1760." Hear that, Mr. Harper?