The beautiful free ride of Gilles Duceppe

Élections 2006

It's fine, maybe better than ever, to be a Quebec separatist these days. In our increasingly tolerant society, those who would fracture the country are hardly treated like the enemy any more.
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe must go to bed at night chuckling at what pushovers we've become -- so soft on separatism that he can play us like a violin.
A decade-old story on Options Canada? He rehashes it and turns it into a pivotal issue in the election campaign. We can imagine him yukking it up with a fellow traveller: "You notice? They're practically on their knees asking forgiveness for getting a little heavy-handed in trying to stop us from destroying their federation. Hah!" Where, Mr. Duceppe must have wondered, was Ottawa's counterattack?
The Liberals could have shouted: You want evidence of scandal in the sovereigntist camp? How about the destroyed ballots in the 1995 Quebec referendum? Tens of thousands of federalist votes ruled invalid. No inquiry.
You want dirty tricks? How about the time when the separatists of the day ordered up studies on the effects of separation -- and were so crimson-faced with the results, they hid them.
You want insulting treatment? How about the take of Bernard Landry, the former Péquiste premier, on the Canadian flag: "A red rag," he called it.
But the free-riding Mr. Duceppe need not worry about any big whack back. Not from our wimps on the Rideau. He walks around with a halo, setting the agenda for this federal election, as he did the last one. He has Canadians so cowed that, despite his mission of dismantlement, two-thirds of them, according to a poll, have a favourable view of him.
He must love the new Stephen Harper. The Conservative Leader used to be a hard-liner. Now he cozies up. Quebec wants provincial control over aspects of foreign policy? No problem, the new Mr. Harper says. Take it.
In the debates, he and the other federalist leaders spent more time carving up themselves than the guy who wants to carve up the country. NDP Leader Jack Layton was so deferential to Mr. Duceppe, you got to thinking he might give him a big hug.
The old Reform Party stalwarts who used to take on the Bloquistes have been silenced. Liberal Stéphane Dion used to cut them to the quick, but he is now Environment Minister. The Clarity Act is the new law of the land, but the separatists say they will ignore the tougher new rules it sets for separation. The affront was hardly mentioned in the debates. Canadians could barely work up much enthusiasm for clarity in the first place.
In Paul Martin's flailing and failing campaign, one of the few highlights came in the first English-language debate when he tore into a flustered Mr. Duceppe, saying never, never, never to any attempt to bring about secession via the back door. In another time and place, the spot might have been given the talisman treatment, the clip rerun hundreds of times. But not this time: It was criticized as staged, and soon forgotten.
On the sponsorship scandal, there can be no doubting -- even if no elected Liberal politicians were snared -- its seriousness. But two non-stop years of it? Two elections with it? How long was the federal side's guilt trip supposed to last? The scandal's sting was actually beginning to subside when along came the retooled Options Canada story. The separatists could play their victim card once again.
Everything has turned Mr. Duceppe's way. Under a Harper government, which will want to appeal to nationalists, there are likely to be even more concessions.
Gilles Duceppe deserves credit. He has skillfully rolled over his weak-kneed opponents -- they are even reluctant to point out that Quebeckers have had one of their own as prime minister for close to four straight decades. The Bloc Leader has chosen the wise strategy of saying that, although Canada is a great place, it is simply a matter of Quebec wanting its own country.
In our era of big-time tolerance, it's hard to argue against that kind of logic. Very difficult until you examine the potential costs of secession: Economic turmoil. Major civil strife, if not bloodshed. Seething partitionist pressures in Quebec. Endless conflict with the rest of the country over ownership of capital and resources. A diminished Canada, subject to further breakup.
There is much to fight against but, in a Canada gone soft on separatism, there are few with the will do it. As a result, Gilles Duceppe gets his way, killing us softly with his song.

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