MONTREAL -Nearly 30 members of Quebec's political intelligentsia sat at a roundtable on Tuesday, discussing federalism and the future of the Canadian federation.
In five hours of presentations and table talk, no one asked, "What does Quebec want?"
And nobody talked about sovereignty, except in the past tense.
"The intelligentsia here have moved on from that," observed Mel Cappe, president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, which organized the symposium with another Montreal think-tank, the Trudeau Foundation. "They are in a much more pragmatic frame of mind."
That's certainly where Alain Dubuc and Andre Pratte were coming from. They are two of Quebec's leading political thinkers, and as columnists for La Presse, they have a podium. They also have books out that are setting the table for Quebec's political conversation. Dubuc's new book, A mes amis souverainistes, is a gentle reminder that while the dream of sovereignty may never die, it's over. Pratte has edited a book of essays by prominent francophones, entitled Ronconquirer le Canada. (Speaking of reconquering Canada, Pratte won the National Newspaper Award for editorials last week, and La Presse won five in all, an astonishing showing for a French-language daily in the notoriously Torontocentric NNAs.)
The academics around the table included Guy Laforest of Universite Laval, former president of Mario Dumont's Action democratique du Quebec, Alain Noel of Universite de Montreal, and rising stars such as Jean Herman-Guay of Universite de Sherbrooke.
There was a time, certainly after the death of Meech Lake in 1990, when such a roundtable would have discussed serious recriminations. Indeed, there was just such a time when Stephane Dion, at a UdeM roundtable in 1995, called Pierre Trudeau's campaign against Meech "the worst constitutional error in Canadian history." Had he still been a member of the professoriat, Dion would have been invited.
Around this table, there were neither recriminations nor revindications, a consensus shopping list of Quebec demands from the federation. Cappe said he sensed a "positive, outward-looking nationalism, asking not what's in the interests of Canadians, but what's in the interests of Quebecers in the federation."
For example, there was a discussion about the Council of the Federation, first proposed by Jean Charest in the 2003 election, as an institutional successor to the annual premiers' conference. No one thought the council was an effective force for asserting provincial interests, but no one was scandalized by it, either. Everyone was acutely aware of the difficulty of creating a consensus of the provinces on any issue other than blaming Ottawa and demanding more money. But even intellectually, the fiscal imbalance file has been resolved, and everyone knows it's not coming back.
Everyone also knows there is no pan-provincial consensus possible on a major issue like climate change, not with the various interests in play, not when Alberta and Saskatchewan have oil and Ontario makes cars, while Quebec is rich in green hydro-electricity which allows it to advocate the Kyoto Accord.
Here's another thought, and it pertains to the shifting political landscape in Quebec. The federal Liberal brand has been incrementally declining in Quebec since the unilateral patriation of the Constitution in 1982 and the death of Meech in 1990, and accelerated by the sponsorship scandal since 2003. The Liberals' reversal of fortune in Quebec has reached the point where, under a Quebecois leader perceived as hardliner on federalism, it has fallen to fourth place among francophones in the latest CROP poll.
And then Stephen Harper, with his open federalism speech in the last campaign, broke the polarization and symbiotic relationship between the Liberals and the Bloc. In office, Harper is going out of his way to respect the division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces in Sections 91 and 92 of the British North America Act. He is a BNA prime minister. And on his watch so far, coincidentally or not, support for sovereignty has fallen by 10 points.
This may also have something to do with Harper's November, 2006, resolution in the House, recognizing "the Quebecois nation within a united Canada."
In a way that has yet to be measured at the polls, this appears to have healed the wounds of Meech, and helped Quebecers to move on.
firstname.lastname@example.org - L. Ian MacDonald is editor of Policy Options magazine.