Prepare for a continental shift
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, October 20, 2007

Make no mistake, Stéphane Dion is no milquetoast. Following Quebec’s 1995 referendum, he tackled the separatist dragon with due diligence, learned letters and the astute Clarity Act - facing down, along the way, even the formidable Lucien Bouchard.

Partisan posturing aside, concerns about weakness usually mask concerns about something for which great strength is required. So, unable to make an impact on other files or to connect either in his province or elsewhere, it may be Dion did the job for which he was specially recruited too successfully and now, with Quebec separatism waning, his time has passed. Certainly, if the man with a Ph.D in public administration and the looks of a silver haired celebrity hoser Rick Moranis seemed an unlikely separatist-buster, he appears an even less likely saviour of a party caught in the death throws that necessarily precede resurrection.

In any case and although the trappings of Quebec separatism remain intact, it is a decidedly different beast that is slouching toward the federal status quo, one whose influence will have continental implications and whose taming will require an approach different from anything Stéphane Dion appears to have contemplated.

Linda Diebel’s new biography Stéphane Dion: Against the Current, describes how the young Dion became a federalist. It was the early 1990s and a time of world wide ethnic tension. But the Canada-Quebec conflict was different, Dion argued in an essay for the Brookings Institution in Washington, from the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and Ethiopia. “Created in 1867, the Canadian confederation is not a decaying, totalitarian regime, a new democracy, or an unstable third world country; it is a wealthy modern welfare state.”

While it is true Canada is no Soviet Union, he overlooked Czechoslovakia. By 1992, the velvet revolution that earlier unburdened the two-nation country of Communist dominance had also laid the ground work for its velvet dissolution. Arguably, though, it was the existence of the European Union that eased the separation of the Czechs and the Slovaks by simplifying citizenship and labour mobility issues.

To be sure, no one was talking about a North American Union in the nineties; today such discussions are rife in conspiracy theory circles and silently acknowledged in others. But if free trade opened Canada-U.S. borders, 9/11 and the Security and Prosperity Partnership agreement established the impetus and the bureaucratic infrastructure necessary for next steps. In the meantime, interprovincial and state/province agreements are establishing new trading and other blocs. British Columbia and California, for instance, signed a memorandum of understanding on climate change this year while British Columbia and Alberta, signatories to the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (a de facto economic union) held their 5th annual joint Cabinet meeting. In Quebec, Mario Dumont’s Action démocratique is demanding and will probably acquire a greater devolution of powers.

In other words, some new North American continental arrangement is under way. Call it the rise of the region state or the post national state but as nation states everywhere adapt to the imperatives of a globalized economy, new political dynamics are following. Today, it is on Canada’s doorstep and Quebec’s aspirations are the first of many it will accommodate.

This new sweep of history will require transcendent leadership to contain and direct it.

This need not preclude Stéphane Dion though Stephen Harper, with his Québécois-as-nation motion, spending power restraints, and throne-speech designs for an economic union, has set the pace, if not the tone, on this issue.

Potential Liberal leadership candidates also qualify but former New Brunswick premier and one-time ambassador to the U.S., Frank McKenna stands out as does former deputy PM John Manley. His credentials continue to deepen with his appointment as chair of the Afghanistan review panel.

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

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