A perfect political storm

The election may be won in Ontario but the country may be lost in Quebec

Jim McDonnald

Élections 2006

At the kickoff of this federal election campaign, all of the party leaders chanted predictable incantations to an unenthusiastic, fatigued and cynical electorate. Each leader tried on newly crafted campaign themes like fancy dresses for some mad coming-out party that no one really wanted to attend. Each party, as with the first day of political spring training, dreamed vividly of victory, of governing, of taking a glorious place in Canada's political history.
But few have noticed the true importance of this election. It is shaping up to be a perfect political storm for national unity, the Hurricane Katrina of Canadian politics. This election, if it ends more or less as the polls suggest, will likely represent the formal fracture of the historic French-English coalition that has formed the very bedrock of Confederation since John A. Macdonald's time. For generations, that alliance has been forged and re-forged under the leadership of successive parties, party leaders and prime ministers. Mr. Macdonald had Georges-Etienne Cartier; Wilfrid Laurier had William Fielding, Oliver Mowat and Richard Cartwright; MacKenzie King had Louis St. Laurent; Lester Pearson had Pierre Trudeau, Gerard Pelletier and Jean Marchand; Brian Mulroney had Lucien Bouchard (for a while) and one could even stretch the point and say that Jean Chretien had Paul Martin.
These real and potent symbolic coalitions of francophones and anglophones have held broad political appeal, at various times, in all parts of the country. They have allowed national governments to be formed, govern and successfully resist Canada's various centrifugal forces of regionalism, even Quebec nationalism.
Now, for the first time in Canadian history, our national political parties all lack support in Quebec at the very same time. The province is rapidly becoming a vast electoral desert for all federalists, of every stripe. There are no St. Laurents, no Trudeaus, no Bouchards (in his federalist phase) to anchor a national political presence in Quebec for any party. Quick, name Mr. Harper's Quebec lieutenant. Does he even have one? Things are no rosier on the Liberal side of the ledger. Has anyone noticed enthusiastic crowds of francophone federalists lining up behind the politically peripatetic and all but invisible Jean Lapierre?
For the first time in the history of Canada, a clear majority of Quebec voters appears to be on the brink of supporting a non-federalist party and simultaneously returning another solid phalanx of sovereigntist MPs to the House of Commons. The writing was on the wall with the results of the last election when the BQ received 48.9 per cent of the vote in Quebec, and that disturbing trend has only intensified with 18 excruciating months of Liberal sponsorship scandal in Quebec and resultant chronic political distraction in Ottawa. As a consequence, current federalist support in Quebec, as reported some polls, amounts to only a shocking 40 per cent of voter preference, clearly underscoring the vigour of this painful pro-sovereigntist trend.
With polls tracking the BQ at record levels of support (close to 60 per cent), the sovereigntists appear to have achieved their hitherto elusive goal. Barring a miraculous turnaround of federalist fortunes, they will likely secure an absolute majority of votes at the ballot box on Jan. 23, not to mention a huge majority of Quebec's seats. And with Gilles Duceppe now flexing newfound political muscles, and apparently no longer dodging the sovereignty issue, the claim will be made, with more than a modicum of credibility, that Quebecers overwhelmingly voted for a sovereigntist option for the very first time.
The Liberal party and the Conservative party have no one to blame but themselves. Both failed to nurture the grass roots of their parties in Quebec. Conservative efforts to build a lasting Quebec presence were decapitated with the defection of Bouchard and the creation of the BQ. Since then, they have been preoccupied with the reunification of the anglophone right, almost to the complete exclusion of voices from Quebec. Through that process they failed to regenerate meaningful support in Quebec and appear to have thoroughly alienated Quebecers with social policies anchored clearly in their western Reform Party origins. Footage of Mr. Harper's first visit to Quebec after the election call said it all, with the visibly uncomfortable leader riding up an escalator in a shopping centre in the company of a mere corporal's guard of six nervous, apparently doomed candidates.
The Liberal Party responded to the creation of the BQ and the near death experience of the 1995 Referendum with sloth, indifference and irrelevance. Instead of treating that close vote as a serious wake-up call to rebuild the party organizationally and intellectually, from the ground up, by engaging the best and brightest in the federalist cause, the Liberals tried to save themselves first, and the country second, by paying off a few friends to run expensive, but risible, ad campaigns that did not even come close to addressing the undeniable issue of fading federalist relevance in Quebec. These vacuous campaigns told Quebecers, in the very clearest terms, that the Liberal party no longer had anything of substance to say to them. That failure to respond to a rapidly evolving situation in Quebec with anything other than a product placement approach to politics was further exacerbated by a decade long, seemingly permanent, leadership struggle between the prime minister and his minister of Finance. While the factions arm-wrestled for power, no one noticed the elephant at the back of room, and what's worse, if they did see it, neither side had a clue as to what to do about it.
The Liberal Party of Canada in Quebec now stands as an almost universally discredited, generationally irrelevant entity unlikely to stem the political tides that appear on the verge of overwhelming it on Jan. 23. As it now stands, only one in five Quebecers in an Ekos Poll said they intend to vote the party of Laurier, St. Laurent, Trudeau, Chretien and Martin.
Lacking the prospect of political support in Quebec, all federalist parties therefore appear condemned to scrape desperately for votes in the rest of the country. With so many parties and so little political space available to win, the inevitable outcome will be a weak federal government, no matter who wins, confronting a strong, unified and determined sovereigntist BQ. When combined with a resurgent PQ under new management, and a troubled provincial Liberal government stumbling its way to the precipice of the next election, all the ingredients are there for a perfect political storm and the most serious threat to Canada we have ever known.
The storm clouds are on the near horizon for anyone to see. Yes, this election will indeed be won in Ontario as the journalistic cliche goes, but the real issue, one that will mark the beginning of a new and very difficult time for Canada, is that the country may well be lost in Quebec at the same time.
Jim McDonald lives in Aylmer, Quebec. He spent five years on Prime Minister Trudeau's political staff.

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