Winning the West, and Quebec
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, March 10, 2007

Writing in the Calgary Herald on January 20th, 2006, a worried Rogers Gibbins wondered whether the imminent federal election would create a perfect storm for Quebec separatists.

The PQ was high in the polls while the Bloc seemed certain to capture most Quebec seats. “What would happen,” the president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation asked, “if the separatists were to confront a badly weakened Liberal minority government, its Quebec reputation shattered by the sponsorship scandal or, even worse, a Conservative minority government without elected representation from Quebec?”

Three days later, political writer Chantal Hébert found herself among 2,000 ecstatic Alberta Conservatives in a Calgary convention hall. The federal election results were rolling in and a minority Conservative government was assured. Out of the ashes of the defunct Reform and Progressive Conservative parties, she would later write in her just-published French Kiss Stephen Harper’s Blind Date With Quebec, the Alberta-Quebec phoenix rose as the extent of the Conservative success in Quebec became apparent: ten mps, second in forty ridings, and 25% of the vote, most from the agrarian ‘bleu’ regions of the province that were harbingers of the Mulroney and Diefenbaker landslides.

In a soup-to-nuts book of astute political observations, it’s Hebert’s delineation of the Alberta-Quebec coalition and its potential as an animating force in Canadian unity that is most commanding. “…the downing of the twin towers in New York City has accelerated the coming of age of a second distinct society, one based on the riches of oil and gas rather than on those of language and culture,” she presciently writes.

That this second distinct society should also produce a prime minister who was a co-founder of the Reform Party doesn’t escape her appreciation of the ironic either. But, she says, despite Stephen Harper’s seemingly successful flirtation with Quebec, his Conservative Party “will not succeed in becoming the natural governing party of the 21st century until it has succeeded where Brian Mulroney so spectacularly failed. As (Harper’s) risky 2006 motion on the Quebec nation demonstrated, it is a reality he is acutely aware of.”

To be sure, recent reports on the origins of the Quebecois nation resolution reveal a prime minister viewing nationhood in genealogical rather than geopolitical terms but this shouldn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for it unless, of course, financial or other claims from the next Quebec government result. Neither should it surprise that Harper was courting the pur laine vote even as he neutralized anti-nation crankiness in western Canada or that, not coincidentally, he also strengthened Canada’s negotiating position if Quebec ever separates.

But Hebert stops short of proposing constitutional change though anyone who believes, as she does, that “weak national institutions cannot be offset by a financially strong federal government” could hardly be blamed for doing so. Out West, they are less reticent. In Vancouver, for instance, a weekend conference on the theme of “Common Ground? Renewing the Federal Partnership in Quebec and the West.” at Simon Fraser University is underway. Organized by constitutional scholar and former mp for Vancouver Quadra, Ted McWhinney, it is an unabashed attempt to promote constitutional change.

“We have the second oldest constitution in the world,” McWhinney told me in a rambling telephone interview this week. “It’s out of date. There are no checks and balances. We have perhaps 20 able senators … elsewhere judges are elected or confirmed. Cities have the heaviest burden with the most responsibilities… modernization is needed. Here in British Columbia, we can try out ideas that are ahead of their time. So this conference is timely…”

Timely, indeed, despite kerfuffles first in Quebec about partition and then in Fort McMurray where a Quebec ironworker lost his job after failing a Suncor English test thirty Filipino guest workers passed.

Roger Gibbins, also a speaker at the Simon Fraser conference, believes that a Harper majority, with or without increased representation from Quebec, will have little choice but to move on the Constitution. Political elites may be adamantly opposed, he says, but polling by the Canada West Foundation found a slim majority of Canadians are in favour.

Among those survivors of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, few would disagree about improving the Constitution. But Meech and Charlottetown unleashed treacherous unity waters, too. Can Harper win a majority government without losing the country?

More on that in future columns.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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