It was written in the sky. The moment more than 2,000 soldiers from the Royal 22nd Regiment were on the verge of being sent into Afghanistan, it became impossible for Stephen Harper to escape the opposition of a huge majority of Quebecers to the Canadian mission there.
The prime minister knew it, too. Hence the unprecedented, American-style marketing campaign in Quebec to precede the soldiers' departure this July, featuring the soldiers themselves.
Soldiers will take part in flag- exchange ceremonies throughout a number of smaller towns, attend barbecues and "goodbye" ceremonies. On Thursday, they attended a Montreal Alouettes game at the Molson stadium. And last night, there was a parade of soldiers in Quebec City.
Harper's problem is that even with this clear attempt to lessen Quebecers' rejection of the Afghanistan mission by putting the soldiers at the centre of a concerted public relations strategy by the army and the the federal government, there is a chance that public opinion won't be swayed much.
For Harper, leader of a minority government that desperately needs Quebec votes in the next election - even more now that he has angered the Maritimes - this is not good news.
This week, a Leger Marketing poll showed that 70 per cent of Quebecers oppose the departure of Quebec soldiers to Afghanistan. About 62 per cent want the Canadian army to end the mission either now or in 2009. The same 62 per cent also thinks the army's presence is to please the Bush administration, not to defend democracy. Perhaps even more telling is the 69 per cent who said that if they had a daughter or a son about to be sent to Afghanistan, they would try to convince them to refuse.
With such strong opposition throughout the province, there was also an attention-grabbing exchange in newspapers this week between a brother who opposes the mission and his sister who is a captain in the Canadian Forces. She will be leaving for Afghanistan with the other soldiers now based in Valcartier.
With such an obvious attempt from the federal government and the army to change these numbers, it should be no surprise that last night in Quebec City, there was a protest against the mission at the same time soldiers marched to publicize their role.
By putting soldiers in the limelight, it should be no surprise either that on Wednesday some MNAs refused to applaud or stand as seven soldiers sat in the public gallery of the National Assembly to be greeted before question period .
For these MNAs, it was nothing personal against the soldiers. But if soldiers are to be used to sell this mission, staying seated was one way for those MNAs to protest against the mission itself. They spoke silently for the 70 per cent of Quebecers who think the same way.
These same MNAs later voted for a unanimous motion that saluted the soldiers' "courage, abnegation and sense of duty." If federal politicians had the courage to come here and defend the mission themselves, instead of sending soldiers to do the job, it is certain that these MNAs would have preferred to cross swords with them instead.
That is why Health Minister Philippe Couillard erred when he rose in the National Assembly to chastize those MNAs, calling their gesture "regrettable and pathetic." If anything, he and his colleagues should have been able to put their emotions aside and see the federal PR campaign for what it is: propaganda in a province that opposes Canada's presence in Afghanistan, one of the crown jewels in Harper's policies.
If that had been done, Couillard would have understood why they chose not to applaud. It's called silent protest. And it took on even more meaning on the day three Canadian soldiers were killed needlessly because the army gave them what experts called a "vulnerable" vehicle that's as open as a Beetle convertible.
Soldiers used to sell war
When troops are paraded as part of PR offensive, Quebecers react