by Warren Kinsella
It haunts us still.
The Quebec question, that is. With Quebec Liberals now edging ahead of separatist Parti Quebecois rivals — by a whopping single digit, according to a June poll by the Leger agency — Premier Jean Charest is now considering pulling the plug and calling an election for Sept. 4.
What if he loses? What does it mean for Quebecois, and the rest of Canada?
For Charest, the rationale for going now is plain. The global economy is in serious decline once again, and all of Canada will inevitably be hurt by that. The lead that PQ leader Pauline Marois once enjoyed has evaporated. The fledgling Coalition Avenir Quebec party hasn’t caught on yet.
And, for some Quebec Liberals, they figure it is better to go now (when things aren’t so bad) than to go later (when things are likely to be worse).
Maybe. Perhaps. But what if that political shorthand is wrong?
Charest, a mon avis, is one of the most consistently underrated politicians in modern Canadian history. He is a fighter. Whenever he is counted out, he comes back with a win. In 2003, he captured a big majority in a province that had grown sick of the ’90s-era PQ. But in 2007’s provincial election, when many had written him off, Charest lost nearly 30 seats, but clung to minority power. In the 2008 race — just before the global recession hit — the former federal Conservative leader pulled off a coup, and another majority.
Since then, Charest has been rated as one of the country’s least-popular premiers. His governing Liberals have been buffeted by economic decline, a host of scandals, byelection losses, resignations and an angry student protest movement that paralyzed the politics of the province for months. To most observers, the Quebec Liberals were seemingly doomed.
But the student protesters have taken a few weeks off, as has a construction industry corruption inquiry. A devastating attack ad — depicting an addled Marois banging some pots together in support of the now-widely disliked student protesters — helped chip away at the PQ’s once-formidable advantage. Charest, some Quebec Liberals have told me, must call an election now. There’s no reason not to do so, they say.
Except this one: He could lose. And, if Charest loses, so would Canada.
Make no mistake: If the PQ win, they will — sooner or later — return to their raison d’etre, separatism. They’d be fools not to. Irresponsible polls showing Canadians “don’t care” if Quebec leaves; a weakening Canadian economy; an anglophone prime minister who is richly despised in Quebec; a federal NDP caucus that is overflowing with crypto-separatists; a federalist Liberal Party of Canada in decline and wholly unable to mount an effective “No” campaign in Quebec.
In those circumstances, all that it takes is some small ritual humiliation — some idiots wiping their feet on the Quebec flag in Brockville, some idiots removing French from O Canada at the Calgary Stampede — and we could easily edge towards the abyss once again. Another sovereignty referendum, with all that comes with it: Economic chaos, political disarray, division, disunity.
A respected Globe and Mail reporter and a respected pollster have a book coming out in the fall. The book suggests that non-Quebecers don’t care so much about Quebec anymore. They apparently intend to argue that Canada’s focus is now on the West. Quebec is old news.
Perhaps. Maybe. But if that dark day comes — when we have again become a risky place to invest; when our dollar is again going down and interest rates are going up; when our entire future as a nation is once again at stake — we might have a rather different view.
On that day, we might all be wishing we’d paid more attention to Quebec.
And, in particular, that we’d done more to assist the departed political fighter named Jean Charest.
Categories: Contributor Columns