The white horse of federalism pulls up lame in Quebec

Québec 2007 - Résultats et conséquences

Federal governments, Liberal and Conservative, saluted every time Quebec Premier Jean Charest made a new demand.
An asymmetrical health-care deal with Paul Martin and the other provinces, giving Quebec special arrangements? Done.
An enhanced role for Quebec at UNESCO in Paris, consented to by Stephen Harper? Done.
The affirmation of the Québécois as a "nation" within Canada, in a House of Commons resolution presented by Mr. Harper? Done.
The "solution" to the "fiscal imbalance," delivered by Mr. Harper, resulting in billions of additional dollars for Quebec? Done.
Announcements by Mr. Harper before the Quebec election campaign of federal money for Quebec infrastructure and climate-change projects? Done.
Asymmetrical deals. International recognition. Symbolic statements. Billions of dollars. All were designed, of course, to assist Mr. Charest, federalism's white horse in Quebec. All were designed to impress Quebeckers about the virtues of Canada's flexible federal system, or what Mr. Harper called "open" federalism.
Et alors
The white horse, it turned out, came up lame. Mr. Charest's Liberals took a pasting. They will govern, but only with the support of the ascendant Action Démocratique du Québec, whose leader, Mario Dumont, has been a political chameleon on Quebec's relations with Canada since he bolted the Young Liberals when the Meech Lake constitutional accord perished.
The election, of course, turned on local issues: government management, health care and education, the alienation of ordinary people from their provincial government and its bureaucracy and by the predominance of Montreal.
There was, too, this business of "reasonable accommodation" of immigrants that, in Mr. Dumont's coded language, meant "they," the immigrants, had to accommodate to "us" and "our values" - that is, old-stock French speakers gathered in hamlets and cities where, frankly, few immigrants have settled. So, yes, the Quebec election turned on local issues and on perceptions of leadership, just as elections do in all democratic societies.
But it turned on something else, as Quebec elections always do: nationalism. Issues come and go, but French-speaking Quebeckers' sense of self-identity - and how to promote it politically - remains at the centre of the province's politics. As a result, Quebec elections always have a strong existential element that exists nowhere else in Canada.
Mr. Charest portrayed himself as the leader best able to make "gains" for Quebec. He told Quebeckers that even more "gains" would flow from his relationship with Mr. Harper. These "gains" apparently left Quebeckers unmoved, which invites the question: What more could have been given?
If this impressive list meant nothing, or at least very little, just what could reasonably make federalism more attractive? Or have we passed the point at which it matters any more, because Canada in Quebec is only now a milch cow from which concessions are milked but to which no genuine commitment is extended?
Mr. Harper's "open" federalism suggests that more will be offered and taken - more will certainly be demanded - but nothing in Monday's election suggests the giving will do much good, except for Mr. Harper's partisan interests in the next federal election.
Those who abandoned the Liberals headed for the even more nationalist Mr. Dumont, whose electoral program calls for "autonomy" for Quebec within Canada. This will include a Quebec constitution describing the province as the "autonomous state of Quebec," the reopening of constitutional talks, the wholesale transfer of federal jurisdictions (and money) to Quebec, a Quebec-only income-tax form - all to be negotiated with Quebeckers' "privileged partners" in the rest of Canada.
So, if Mr. Charest, with a majority government, thought he needed strong "gains" to help win re-election with a majority, what might now be required to satisfy the much more demanding ADQ and the majority of francophones who no longer really believe in Canada, except as a security blanket?
Federally, Mr. Harper emerges as a short-term winner. ADQ voters are an inviting target for the federal Conservatives. His strategy of giving so much, even if not reciprocated, might have contributed to the dismal Parti Québécois showing. His "open" federalism has the Liberals divided between the Quebec wing that fears opposing it, and the rest of the party that dislikes it.
From a longer-term view, the Prime Minister has made a political pact with Quebec voters whose demands he will struggle to accommodate within something resembling a united Canada.

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