Quebecers have become more detached than ever

Sondages 2011

Over his five years in office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been graced with an uncommonly quiet unity front. But, on his watch, francophone Quebecers have become more disengaged from federal affairs and more detached than ever from Canada.
On that score, a survey published by the Association of Canadian Studies late last month contained data that many Quebec watchers would find disquieting.
It documented an ongoing decline of Canadian identity among francophone Quebecers so pronounced that the association’s executive director Jack Jedwab described it in an interview with the Gazette as virtually irreversible.
For the purpose of the study, respondents did not have to make an either/or choice between Quebec and Canada. Still, two-thirds of francophone Quebecers reported a strong level of attachment to Quebec but only 24 per cent boasted similar feelings toward Canada. For comparison purposes, the study notes that latter percentage is roughly similar to the percentage of the Spanish population that feel an attachment to the European Union.
Indifference toward Canada is particularly pronounced among younger francophones. Among those aged 18 to 24, less than one in five (18 per cent) has a strong attachment to Canada. On that score, the survey found a 31-point gap between the level of attachment to Canada of Quebec’s oldest and youngest voting cohorts.
The latest generation of Quebec voters grew up in the relatively quiet post-referendum period. Most of its members were not even born at the time of the last constitutional wars. They were too young to be engaged in the 1995 referendum.
But they have also never known a time when the Bloc Québécois was not the dominant federal presence in Quebec and, over their lifetimes, the province’s constitutional estrangement from Canada has morphed into a de facto feature of the federation.
While there are those who welcome the ongoing decline in Quebec’s engagement in the running of federal affairs and in its influence on Parliament Hill, it is not happening in a political vacuum.
Harper’s tenure to date has been free of big Quebec-Canada flare-ups.
While Ottawa and a number of provinces including Quebec are about to face off in court over federal plans for a national financial regulator, the issue has not turned out to be the stuff that passionate populist debates are made of or, at least, not yet.
“We haven’t got into big constitutional bickering. We have not got into big jurisdictional fights with the provinces for the most part,” the Prime Minister rightly noted in a CBC interview earlier this week.
But on that score, Harper has mostly been the beneficiary of fortuitous circumstances.
The last real treacherous pass in the Quebec-Canada debate revolved around Canada’s participation in the 2003 Iraq war — which Quebecers massively opposed. Not totally coincidentally, then-prime minister Jean Chrétien’s decision to stay out of the fray was promptly followed up by the advent of a federalist government in Quebec.
Eight years later, the days of that government may be counted. Premier Jean Charest is setting new records for unpopularity and the field of prospective contenders for Quebec’s leading federalist position is less than impressive.
That weakness is compounded by the increasing absence of high profile francophone federalists in the parliamentary arena. Over the past few years, the challenge of securing seats in Bloc-dominated Quebec has been exacerbated by vote-splitting among the three main national parties.
At this juncture there are better than even odds that a Parti Québécois government will face a federal government within which Quebec barely has a token presence in the not-so-distant future.
That is not to say that Quebec and Canada are necessarily headed for another showdown.
As things stand today a PQ government would drag Quebecers into another referendum at the peril of its sovereignist option. But time is not so much healing the untended Quebec-Canada fracture as turning it into a permanent vulnerability.

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