By Antonia Maioni
It’s clear that Quebeckers did not so much vote for the NDP as they voted against politics as usual. They voted for Mr. Layton not so much because he was a federalist or a social democrat, but because he provided a personable alternative and promised to take a stand on the issues that matter to Quebec.
That promise has been evaporating. While Quebeckers show persistent dissatisfaction with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, the NDP’s support in Quebec is sliding, the party has not yet secured grassroots support and its leaders are not well known. Quebec voters are largely responsible for the NDP’s place in Canadian politics today, but they have been mostly silenced in this leadership contest within a party that is resolutely anchored in the rest of Canada in outlook, attitude and organization.
So, the real question is: Does the NDP want to become a party with a real and relevant Quebec voice? It is a huge responsibility, but also a risk. To do so means choosing a leader who can essentially build a new party, someone who is prepared to give Quebeckers a real voice in its organization and platform, and who is able to bridge the increasingly uneasy relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada.
The risk of not doing so is just as great. The NDP’s breakthrough as Official Opposition and a new Quebec party in federal politics should not be underestimated. But the two roles are inextricably intertwined, and party members need to face up to that dual responsibility if they want to see the NDP remain a force on the national political stage.
Bridging the increasingly uneasy relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada is not only one of the principal tasks of the NDP with its new leader to be elected this weekend, it is also one of the principal goals of any transformed Liberal Party, if it hopes to even move up in the standings after the next federal election.
Quebec is, has been, and likely will continue to be the single most "unique" province in the country. Its history, language, and especially culture set it apart from the rest as a model of embedded diversity. Canada has a unique privilege to be part of the same political family as this unique province, sitting as it does with a unique perspective on all issues that come to the table in the Canadian federal system. Far from Steven Harper's token "nation" legislation, Quebec breathes different air, smokes different cigars, drinks different wine, goes to different schools and both consumes and offers to the world a far different menu at her table than any other province in the country. Her film, her poetry and dance, her chanteuses and her attention to the details that both infuriate and endear her to both Ottawa and the rest of Canada belong under the Canadian umbrella, and, in the current global fixation on profit and economic issues, continue to place social policy, and the relationship between the individual and the state at the centre of the political debate.
Canada would not be Canada without Quebec...and while there are those who would argue that such a statement could apply to any province or territory, it is most true about Quebec. And when the relationship between Quebec and the rest of the country thrives, in a healthy spirit of vibrant and vital federalism, it is a shining beacon of pride for Canadians and a model for the rest of the world. However, as Ms Maioni says, Harper has, as John Ibbitson put it in one of his Globe and Mail columns, proved that Quebec is no longer necessary for a majority government in Ottawa thereby making the Quebec-Canada relationship increasingly uneasy.
It is Quebec that has driven much of the initiative to sustain healthy social policies and to keep them at the forefront of the national agenda.
It is Quebec that provides a second language and culture for young people across the country to profoundly enhance their education through the plethora of French Immersion programs literally everywhere, and while there are pockets of indigenous French communities, the national program would not be a reality without Quebec.
It is also Quebec that reminds every Canadian of the diversity of peoples, within and outside the country, and the need to develop approaches and policies and perspectives that welcome difference and make "the other" an integral part of the fabric of the quilt that is any nation, especially the one so many millions of us call our homeland.
It is Quebec that, more than any other province, demonstrates the capacity of a region of diversity to develop, within its own borders the approaches, attitudes and even the laws that make multi-culturalism work effectively, if it is to work at all. And while we have not always agreed with some of their attitudes, approaches and laws (Bill 101, for example), we have nevertheless always been reminded of the complexity of our nation by the mere presence of its leaders at the national debating sessions.
And the contribution to our country from men and women "native" to Quebec has been simply astounding. They have taken their responsibility as Canadian citizens seriously, and have stepped up to the "plate" in so many different situations that our history books are literally dotted with their names and their unique contributions, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to mention only one.
And now, Quebec's "uneasy" relationship with Canada is before us, on the weekend when the NDP will elect their new leader, and with the huge block of seats from Quebec in that party, he/she will be charged with the task of "speaking for Quebec" in the House of Commons, not solely, but certainly on the national stage.
Harper does not, and cannot do that.
Bob Rae can only do so with a mere "rump" from Quebec, most of the bridges having been burned by previous "hacks" in the party.
So, Ms Maioni is right in her assessment of the difficulty of the task of the new leader.
Quebec is not going away. She is an integral part of the country and the continent. And the rest of Canada cannot be lulled to sleep on this issue, and thank that papering it over with the word "royal" will keep it silent, not should that insulting move be permitted to keep it silent.
We are all watching, and waiting to see how this next chapter in our country's history unfolds.