So What If Quebec Separates?

In an astute article of today’s (April 23) National Post, “Liberal remedy to Layton is to look in the mirror,” Kelly McParland writes,

In 21 elections between 1921 and 1993, when the Liberals won it was because of Quebec. They took the overwhelming majority of Quebec seats in every winning campaign, and only once were they popular enough in the rest of the country to have won without Quebec (and even then, in 1935, it would have been iffy). The Liberal party was about keeping Quebec happy; that’s where power lay. It all changed when the Bloc Quebecois came along and stole their meal ticket. Since 1993, when the Liberals win it’s because of Ontario, yet the party has never put the effort into pleasing Ontario that it did into Quebec.

And what an effort it has been, governed from start to finish by the principle that no good deed goes unpunished. In the case of the Sponsorship program, the Liberal party’s answer to 1995’s near-successful Quebec referendum on separation, the deed was deserving of its subsequent condemnation. Quebecers like a good economic stimulus as much as anyone, but the stench of the HRDC racket made folks wretch here as it did elsewhere. It is therefore odd, but fitting also, that McParland writes of the Liberals in the preterite, the way in which one wrote of the Red Tory in 1994. If McParland is correct, what Canadian regionalism did to the Progressive Conservatives in the 90s it is now doing to the federal Liberals, that is, forcing them to reconstitute themselves. The immediate symptom is that Quebec is now anyone’s for the having: one need only pay the asking price.

It happens that I will be moving out of province in one week, having spent nine years on the Quebec side of the Gatineau-Ottawa border. The race in the Outaouais is one of the few expected to be of the photo-finish variety. The Liberal incumbent, Marcel Proulx, is for many here a non-entity but nonetheless a credible candidate. (This is the sorry outcome of a first-past-the-post system, where thirty percent of the vote gets you all the representation.) There are few places in Quebec where this is the case for the Liberal candidate. But even here, Proulx’s campaign pamphlet  — to return to McParland — is written in the past:

Here, in Hull-Aylmer, is where my wife and I, almost 40 years ago, started our family. Here is where I was involved with the Club Richelieu de Hull, the Outaouais Youth Animation Service, the Association des Jeunes professionnels de l’Outaouais and the Outaouais Regional Hospital.

As only someone who has been in my place (I mean this in its literal, as well as figurative, sense) can know, everything is skewed in Quebec. I am over and again reminded of the Steve Martin line that “it’s as if the French have a different word for everything.” What they have in Quebec however is a different law. The difference, furthermore, is a matter of postured hostility. Quebec will be different to spite Canada, whether it is multiculturalism or the laws governing signs or the way you pay for your car insurance or how you buy your beer. One cannot even use the phrase Caveat Emptor in Quebec: selling my house, I was informed that this is a Canadian principle and that, in Quebec, the seller must beware. Again, the French and their different word for everything. I have no doubt that were the Government of Canada to pass a law forbidding the throwing of babies into the river, Quebec would invoke the notwithstanding clause and the next day, as a matter of principle, the bridges of Quebec City would be crowded with the Péquiste perpetrators of infanticide.

Here is where I ought to make a few very important declarations of principle. The first is that I get along very well with my neighbours, and that the maddening conditions which I find in Quebec are not the product of the people, but of the political class. Federalism here is an extortion racket. Who can deny it? There is very little appetite for separatism in Outaouais, many of the folks here either working for federal government or having a spouse, or close relatives and friends, who work for the federal government. In any case, I think it is fair to say most are sick of the politics. One of the products of living in this region, which is again a bit different from the rest of Quebec just as Quebec as a whole is different from (do I say “the rest of”?) Canada, is my complete indifference to the tedious and in my view useless debate over federalism. I’m more interested in the Kashmir and Khalistan independence movements than I am in Quebec separatism. I also think they are of greater geopolitical importance. (Sikh separatism for example is behind the Air India bombing and recent violence in British Columbia, of which we are certain to hear more.) Nothing bores me today more than the topics of language politics, Quebec nationalism, and the two solitides. The two solitudes, by the way, are indeed that. Only, I don’t care, and I don’t think anyone else here does, either.

If at some time in the future a majority of Quebecers elect to separate from Canada, why should they not then do so? I’ve been unable to find a compelling answer to this question. Yes, separation is a very complex thing, certain to be expensive and exhausting. That is not an argument against it, however, it is merely a noting of the obvious. It could be said also of travel to the moon, or indeed of the creation in the nineteenth century of a contiguous nation from sea to sea to sea. What is to me inexplicable and without rational ground is the romantic attachment to a contiguous federation, often held by people who have never lived in Quebec, and who could not name one of its poets or national holidays. Having spent time here, it is apparent to me in a way it seems not to be apparent to many federalists that Quebec is independent of Canada in every sense but economic. In other words, the only thing left for the federalist candidate is the business of the bribe, the good deed which sooner or later will be punished.

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