By Donald Savoie, Globe and Mail, June 29, 2012
Donald J. Savoie is the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the University of Moncton.
What if Quebec once again plunges Canada into a national unity crisis? The prospect is hardly far-fetched given that the Parti Québécois appears poised to win the next provincial election. A PQ government would spare no effort, through a referendum or a manufactured crisis, to put Quebec’s sovereignty at the top of its political agenda.
I was recently asked how many Canadians from outside Quebec would now rush to a Montreal “love-in” for national unity? In my view, not many. This time, I suspect, one would be hard-pressed to fill more than a few buses from New Brunswick. I also suspect that many Canadians would sit back, cross their arms and say, “Over to you Quebeckers – you decide.”
Times have changed. Western Canada is more confident today than in 1995 that it could fly solo, if it had to. Ontario appears to have lost interest in national unity, the provincial government and Ontario-based think tanks seemingly focused on the message that Ontario is not getting its fair share of federal government spending. Ontario is now no different from the other regions in believing it is being shortchanged by Ottawa. John Robarts, Bill Davis and David Peterson would not approve.
Many in Atlantic Canada are increasingly aware that national political institutions and national policies have, over the years, hurt their region’s economy. Ottawa recognized years ago that national policies inherently favoured Central Canada and started to send guilt money our way in the form of transfer payments. These payments served to make our region economically dependent on them. Atlantic Canadians also know that Ottawa has, since the mid-1990s, been slowly but surely closing its transfer payment tap to the region. Disheartened Atlantic Canadians now seem inclined to say, “Who cares? If Quebec wants to go, let it.” Oh! If only things could be that simple.
The political landscape, both nationally and in Quebec, has also changed. Who in Quebec would now lead the “No” side? Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien were all Quebec native sons willing to step up to the plate in defence of a united Canada. If the PQ should win power, the provincial Liberals would very likely begin the search for a new leader. However, even a cursory look at Quebec’s political scene reveals few credible voices on the horizon able or willing to speak strongly for Canada.
For many Canadians, the Quebec brand is hurting. The provincial government is running a huge deficit and trying to cope with a crippling debt. However, it is unable to stare down a group of university students fighting for lower university tuition rates, despite the fact that they already enjoy the lowest rates in Canada.
Many Canadians are baffled at the social unrest generated by a small group of students. Why are there so few voices from the political, business, academic and artistic communities speaking out? Jacques Villeneuve did just that recently and reported a few days later that he had “received a pack of injurious and insulting e-mails”and that he was castigated by many on social media sites in the name of democracy – go figure. I was surprised to see Mr. Villeneuve left dangling in the wind by Quebec’s elites.
We may well be sleepwalking into a perfect storm. Canadians are not where they were in 1995 on national unity. More than ever, Quebec federalists will find themselves alone in pleading the merits of a united country, all the while knowing that the rest of Canada has lost interest in their cause. Yet, the “No” side appears bereft of such leaders in Quebec in the event of a new national unity crisis in the form of another Quebec referendum on sovereignty or a manufactured incident.
The other important point is that although we may have grown tired of a Quebec-focused national unity debate, seeing different regions heading off in different directions is not without significant consequences. Untangling Canada’s various political and economic arrangements would hardly be a simple matter. Current developments in the European Union and its member states, which have less demanding institutional arrangements than Canada, offer important lessons that we should heed.
For my part, I remain firmly convinced that a united Canada is worth fighting for and better than any alternative. I also believe that those Canadians who argue that we would all be better off without Quebec gloss over the huge political and economic costs of getting there. That said, new leaders are needed in Quebec willing to stand up for a united Canada.
First, a hearty thanks and kudo's to M. Savoie for his courage and insight in even writing and publishing this piece! The subject is not one that is either popular or engaging for many Canadians these days for a host of reasons, many of which M. Savoie has outlined.
Second, he is right that there do not appear to be any federalist leaders in Quebec who could and would capture the public imagination about the reasons, with passion, for keeping Canada united. While on the federal front, the Harper government is a political eunuch with respect to national unity, given its obsequiousness to the corporate world, the economic fight linked to the bolster of the Canadian military and the connection to the British crown, while ignoring the environment. These are not positions with which the Quebec public, whether sovereignist or federalist, agree or find compelling. And the danger is also that Quebecers could legitimately perceive Canada in nothing more than 'dollar terms' making it even more reasonable and legitimate to seek their 'fortune' elsewhere. Supporting an asbestos mine with federal dollars is not going to enhance the stature of the federal government in Quebec, or for that matter anywhere, given the substance's carcinogenic properties.
Third, watching the various regions of the country heading off in various and different directions is not a political landscape that supports national unity, even though there will be some who say that the only issue that really matters is how each region is faring on the balance sheet. Trouble with that picture is that the balance sheet is restricted to dollars and cents, and excludes the important matters like culture, history, language, the arts and the things at the "heart" of any relationship, like trust, reciprocity and mutual respect.
Fourth, untangling the many knots that, over the last century and a half, have helped to forge this unlikely nation together, inspite of rather monstrous odds, but through the vision and collaboration of different leaders knitting disparate threads into a rather attractive political, social, cultural and historic, if somewhat loose, federal tapestry, would be a complicated and tortuous task for all participants.
Fifth, and finally, like M. Savoie, I also hold the firm conviction that this country is far better than any alternative, worthy of a protracted and strenuous and diligent fight to preserve her and yet the readiness to face what Savoie calls 'the perfect storm' of a PQ victory in the next provincial election, their raising the cry once again for separation, and the deafening silence that could be felt deeply in the Quebec forests, skyscapers and along the internet on the federalist side could be tragic.
Tomorrow, as Canadians celebrate another July 1 birthday, we would all do well to ask ourselves who, among current and potential political and thought leaders, inside Quebec and in the rest of Canada, could and would defend the country's unity effectively, boldly and dependably, in the face of another sovereignist insurgency, even though it will unlikely be military in nature. Thomas Mulcair, for all his strengths (and they are substantial) cannot be the lone voice for a future federalist Canada and needs the kind of help that could, conceivably come from a new Liberal Party leader.