Québec!: Part Five
By Mark Wegierski
As was suggested in an earlier piece in this series, a vote for Québec sovereignty in 1995 might have actually been salutary for English-speaking Canada. One is left to ponder what the long-range effects of Québec's particularism in Canadian history have actually led to: the coming triumph of an integral Québec (and the dissolution of English-speaking Canada into "North America"); or the eventual cultural attenuation of both founding peoples?
Is it too late at this point for some kind of "dualism" as a path to save Canada? This "dualistic solution" would be heavily predicated on the recognition of "two nations" in Canada, the English-speaking and the French-speaking. It could be argued that the interests of Québec have for a long time had an undermining effect on English-speaking Canada -- could this factor, at such a late date, be reversed? An absolute requirement for this "dualism" would be the establishment of separate Parliaments for English and French Canada. It might be something like the "sovereignty-association" proposed in the 1980 referendum by the Parti Québécois. Whatever the commercial and economic arrangements, Québec would under no circumstances send elected representatives to Ottawa. (Any joint institutions would consist of government boards and commissions.) At that point, almost for the first time since 1963, there would be a considerable chance of forming a majority, small-c conservative government representative of a more traditional English Canada.
Although Québec had remained socially ultraconservative until the 1960s, it has, throughout the Twentieth Century, generally voted in federal elections for the Liberal Party (apart from some exceptional elections), which has generally prevented any long-term, continuous period of Conservative government emerging from English-speaking Canada. Under Mackenzie King, Canada's longest-serving Prime Minister, the Liberal Party was mostly "traditionalist-centrist" so it was not especially important whether the Liberals or Conservatives held power. However, from 1963 onward, the successive elections became of absolutely vital importance as to the kind of society that Canada would or would not become.
The very high political skill of Pierre Elliott Trudeau (who was Canada's emphatically Liberal Prime Minister from 1968-1984, apart from a brief Tory interregnum in 1979-1980) had been to convince English-speaking Canada (at least in his first critical election victory of 1968, during which the term "Trudeaumania" was coined) that he would – so to speak -- "put Québec in its place"; and to convince Québec to vote for him because he was the native son, and would enhance the status of French-Canadians in Confederation. In Trudeau's conception, the common ground on which French and English Canada would meet would be the rights of the individual. Ultimately, of course, it could be argued that the Trudeau regime had highly negative effects on both French and English Canada. Early in his career, Trudeau had written: "There is some hope that in advanced societies, the glue of nationalism will become as obsolete as the divine right of kings". (Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Federalism and the French-Canadians. Toronto: Macmillan Press, 1968, p. 196.)
It could be argued that a possible alternative to "dualism" would be some form of general "provincialization" or regionalization in Canada. It is the Liberals that have usually held a majority in the federal Parliament. Especially in the 1990s, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien was frustrating whatever somewhat sensible measures the provinces were attempting to undertake to get their fiscal houses in order. For example, in that time period, the government of British Columbia, which was at that time an NDP government, attempted to impose a three-month waiting requirement for welfare, for persons coming to that province. Since B.C. had some of the highest welfare payments in Canada, persons seeking welfare were coming there in massive numbers from the rest of Canada. The Federal Government threatened to cut off much of its funding to the province, if these measures were enacted in B.C. In Alberta, where Progressive Conservative Premier Ralph Klein attempted to introduce private healthcare clinics outside of the official public system, the Federal Government also threatened to cut its funding to that province. The chief effect of the Liberal federal government at that time appeared to be the prevention of any kind of commonsense initiatives to improve Canada's fiscal situation. Although the federal deficit was eventually wrestled to the ground, it was as a result of a confluence of circumstances that favoured the government of the day – such as most notably the revenue from the GST (the Canadian equivalent of a value-added tax), which Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had enacted virtually in the last year of his government, but which only the Liberals benefited from, as far as allowing them to fairly easily balance the federal budget. Chretien had explicitly promised to get rid of the GST in the 1993 election campaign – but he was not excessively censured for reneging on it.
Given Western Canadian provinces' insistence on "the equality of provinces" in Canada, and their unwillingness to recognize Québec's distinctiveness (which is simply a historical and sociological fact), perhaps they would be more satisfied as an independent country or countries, where they would no longer have to worry about entanglements with Central Canada (Ontario and Québec). Surprisingly, even NDP provincial governments in Western Canada sometimes have appeared to be more conservative than the Liberal government in Ottawa. For example, the NDP government in Saskatchewan had in the 1990s balanced its budget. The Maritimes (Atlantic Canada) have traditionally voted Liberal, both provincially and federally, but their Liberal governments have usually had a degree of fiscal prudence. The Maritimes are also probably the most socially conservative region in Canada, with genuinely rooted local cultures. Perhaps the last bastion of a more authentic identity in English-speaking Canada is some form of mostly Maritime-based "Celticism." The politics of the Maritime provinces have largely continued in an earlier Canadian mode, where it makes comparatively little difference whether Liberals or Conservatives form the government. The Maritimes are somewhat tied to the federal government because it is seen as a source of fiscal support. An intriguing hypothetical possibility for the future of the Atlantic region would be to join the EU.
It is possible to perceive that the federal government today – despite occasional Conservative electoral victories -- is effectively "owned by" the Liberal Party. This is, it must also be remembered, the Trudeau and post-Trudeau Liberal Party, and emphatically not the Liberal Party of Mackenzie King. The next federal election, it can be predicted, will be highly important in demonstrating whether the Conservatives can in any sense challenge that hegemony. The Conservative Party under Stephen Harper, it could be argued, has made enormous efforts to be "ultra-moderate." While Stephen Harper is subordinating virtually everything to the winning of a majority government in the next election, the odds against him are perhaps insurmountable. Because of all the massive social and cultural transformations in Canada since the 1960s – many of them carried out by the federal Liberal Party -- it appears that the Liberals simply cannot go below 30% support in public opinion – and the Conservatives can hope for 40% support only in a few fleeting moments. (Because of the "first-past-the-post" system of geographic ridings, 40% popular support will typically win a majority in the federal Parliament.)
In the 1990s, when Ontario elected virtually 100% Liberals federally, the province also had a Progressive Conservative government that was more discernibly right-leaning than the Liberal government in Ottawa. However, as the social and cultural transformations in Ontario continue, even the "ultra-moderate" Ontario Progressive Conservative John Tory is hard pressed to make any inroads in Toronto. During the 1950s and earlier, Toronto was considered so conservative and British-focussed, it was nicknamed "Tory Toronto."
What is the essence of so-called "Canadian nationalism" today? It is typically expressed through such institutions as "our vaunted social programs", "free healthcare", multiculturalism as well as the state-funded "cultural industries." It could be argued that most of these so-called "cultural industries" – as far as the putatively Canadian element in them goes -- have virtually no authentic existence outside of a few narrow Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa "art cliques." Indeed, large sectors of the general public are either indifferent or openly hostile to most current-day products of the "official" Canadian culture. Having deliberately cut itself off from its traditional roots, such a culture can exist only through massive state-subsidies.
The possibility of regionalization could be a clarion call towards the re-discovery of more authentic roots and the curtailing of what could be seen as an almost entirely artificial system of a failed culture. Indeed, it might constitute a move towards general cultural and social renewal in the northern half of North America.
Québec, which has frequently been a problematic presence in Canadian Confederation, might actually be in a situation today, where it could lead all of Canada towards a better path for the future.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.