The Quebec election is about one leader saying the province is a "nation" and another saying that's still not good enough. Only "country" will do.
Quebec has come a long way since the vassal days. Of all the provinces in the federation, it's the big winner again this past year, gaining - this from an Alberta-based Prime Minister - the magnificent nation-status concession.
It's galling to some. They rightly ask - for all it receives - what does Quebec ever give back? In the formal sense, the answer is not much. But in another sense, the inadvertent one, the answer is everything.
Canada is a remarkable story for the degree to which one province has been able to define it. Our status as a progressive, liberal, culturally tolerant nation - a beacon to the world - owes itself in large measure to Quebec.
The pillar of the right has been Alberta. The pillar of the left has been Quebec. In the battle of the two magnitudes, we all know which side triumphed. Benefiting from having the ship's captain so much of the time, Quebec values have most often become those of the federal government's.
We can count the ways. On the economy, it is Quebec that has nurtured the country's dirigiste, economic mindset. It is the most statist of our big provinces. And our Quebec-based prime ministers have fashioned their national economic policies with their political home base in mind.
In foreign affairs, the power of Quebec was much on display when public opinion in that province kept the country out of the Iraq war and the U.S. missile defence program. Quebec has been our most pacifist province, and the making of a mindset that has favoured multilateralism over militarism.
Our tolerance and multiculturalism have flowed chiefly from a history of cohabitation with Quebec francophones. On social values, Quebec has been in the vanguard on gay rights, freedom of choice, opposition to capital punishment, etc. The Charter of Rights, of course, was Pierre Trudeau's.
One can scarcely imagine how different a country would have emerged had it been Alberta pulling the levers of power in Ottawa over the past four decades. In the United State, the more liberal northeast has lost its foothold and the consequences have been evident. Not here. At least not yet.
For the country to change, the aging Quebec model needs be toppled. But that model, like Europe's, is a stubborn one. Anyone who thought its comeuppance would coincide with the arrival of Conservatives in power has so far been mistaken. At no time in modern history has Quebec faced the combination of a Western Conservative prime minister and a "conservative" Premier (Jean Charest being a former Tory leader in Ottawa).
Mr. Charest came to power four years ago with the intent of moving the province off its statist traditions: lower taxes, reduced labour power, fewer subsidies to industry, less deficit and debt. His mini-revolution never got off the ground. In the end, he had to buckle to public opinion and become a status quo premier.
In Ottawa, the arrival of Stephen Harper presented a historic opportunity for redress of chronic Western grievances over the surfeit of Quebec influence. Would it be the flip of the 1960s? (That was when French power began to take Ottawa by storm - and never really let up.) But Mr. Harper has not sought to overtly stack the deck with Prairie power.
With his approach to the courts and to foreign affairs, he is challenging the Quebec model, in some respects. But like Mr. Charest, he has been constrained from going too far by political considerations. For someone who once opposed special status for Quebec, he chose with his nation-gambit to give Quebec the most special status imaginable. That an Albertan could make such an enormous bow to that province without his home base up in arms is remarkable. There's been hardly a whimper.
Despite people flowing west, economic power flowing west and Conservatives at the helm, the old Quebec model holds. The province - the federal Liberals have elected yet another Quebecker as leader - continues to cast a spell. Like it or not, it has defined modern Canada.
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