Sterile debate on national unity

Élections 2006


The high-water mark of the first half of the Liberal election campaign, according to most pundits, was Paul Martin's stirring defence of federalism in the Dec. 16 leaders' debate.
"I am a Quebecer and you are not going to take my country from me with some trick, with some ambiguous question," he told Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe. "This is my country and my children were born and raised in Quebec.
"You're not going to win, Mr. Duceppe, let me tell you that."
It was an affecting declaration.
But it was also a sign of how threadbare Canada's national unity debate has become.
The fact is, Martin's love of Quebec is unrequited. He may regard the province as his home, but most francophones don't regard as him as their champion, spokesman or saviour. There is no certainty - except in his own mind - that he could defeat Quebec's resurgent separatists.
Moreover, the Liberals are repeating a pattern they've followed for more than 30 years - with disappointing results. Despite choosing three of their last four leaders from Quebec (the exception was John Turner, who promptly lost the prime ministership to a Quebecer, Brian Mulroney), they have failed to quell the threat of national breakup.
Perhaps there is no better formula. But the current one has been costly in ways that are seldom acknowledged, let alone publicly discussed.
All of the Quebecers who have led the nation since the 1970s have become pariahs in their home province.
Pierre Trudeau, chosen for his intellectual prowess and avant-garde image, was ultimately disowned by Quebecers as an out-of-touch elitist.
Mulroney, chosen for his ability to bridge the country's two solitudes, was spurned after two abortive attempts to rewrite the Constitution to accommodate Quebec's aspirations.
Jean Chrétien, chosen for his connection to ordinary Quebecers, came to be seen as an embarrassing throwback to a bygone era.
And Martin, initially embraced as a man who recognized Quebec's potential in the global economy, is now regarded with contempt in his adopted home.
While Quebecers turned on each of these "favourite sons," voters in other regions of the country - the West in particular - chafed as their priorities fell by the wayside.
While the Liberals accused their opponents of cozying up to the separatists, non-Quebecers watched helplessly. Anyone who dared suggest a shift in the Ottawa-Quebec axis of national politics was denounced as misguided or unpatriotic. It is so even today.
New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord was widely condemned last month when he said: " I do not accept the proposition of the Liberals that only they can keep this country together. They are responsible for the divisions that are taking place in the country."
Granted, Lord had both partisan and parochial motives. He is a Conservative and he would benefit from Stephen Harper's decentralist approach.
But Quebec Premier Jean Charest, a Liberal, also found favour with Harper's plan to offer the provinces more autonomy and a greater share of tax revenues.
For the most part, Harper has steered clear of discussing a third referendum on Quebec's secession, calling it a "phony" campaign issue designed to deflect attention from the Liberal sponsorship scandal.
In one ill-advised foray, he went further, alleging that Martin wants to see the Parti Québécois elected so he can engage in a high-stakes showdown with the separatists.
That outburst raised legitimate questions about Harper's political maturity. His weak Quebec organization would also be a worry, should he become prime minister.
But his provenance does not make Harper - or another bilingual westerner, Ontarian or Maritimer - unfit to handle the national unity file.
Both of Canada's major political parties have tried to break Quebec's 38-year stranglehold on the country's top office. Under the Conservatives, Joe Clark, an Albertan, was prime minister for nine months. The Liberals chose Turner, who ran in Vancouver, to carry their banner. He lasted three months. And Kim Campbell, a Conservative British Columbian, governed for five months.
But power quickly reverted to a Quebecer after these brief interruptions.
It is not healthy for one province to exercise such dominance. And the state of Confederation reflects it. The West feels shut out of national decision-making. The Maritimes feel neglected. Ontario, once the linchpin of the federation, feels shortchanged by Ottawa. And despite all this, Quebecers are not convinced that their future lies within Canada.
It may strike an emotional chord when Martin says: "Fighting separatists and fighting for national unity is part of my DNA." But the debate can't end there.


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