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Where's the NDP's Big Promise to Quebec?

Posted: 09/20/11 11:28 AM ET

What's the NDP's big promise to Quebec?

Quick answer: there isn't one.

Brian Topp has the establishment and the big endorsement; Thomas Mulcair lines up key support in the Quebec caucus. As the NDP leadership kicks into high gear, this much is obvious: the party wishes to consolidate its Quebec base after this year's surprise breakthrough.

Quebec was once an after-thought for the NDP. After Meech Lake, Topp's big endorser, then-leader Ed Broadbent, gave up on the province; his staff used to refer to the Quebec office as Club Bon Voyage.

Today, the party sees the province as the key to a future win, and the path to 24 Sussex. That's not to suggest that Quebec is the only province in leadership sites (indeed, Mulcair frets that his caucus support isn't enough for a winning campaign).

But Quebec is suddenly a Very Important Province to New Democrats. To this end, Topp will remind party members that he's the union-friendly candidate, born in Quebec to a Francophone mother; Mulcair is likely to emphasize his career in public service, as a provincial civil servant, an elected official, and a Cabinet minister -- all in Quebec, the province of his birth.

The ambition is to appeal to Quebecers; notice what isn't on the agenda: a big (read constitutional) promise.

That may not seem particularly surprising -- it's been nearly 20 years since the Charlottetown Accord was rejected by voters and no federal party has openly championed another round of constitutional negotiations.

But as the NDP looks to reinvent itself as Quebec's party, let's pause for a moment and consider what that actually means: advocacy for La Belle Province, modest flirtation with separatist positions, and bilingual frontrunners (both Mulcair and Topp speak French). Quebec outreach -- sensitivity and flattery -- doesn't seem so profoundly different from the effort to break into ethnic Toronto.

And here is what it doesn't involve: a full court effort to outflank separatists.

Courting Quebec for the NDP is, in fact, similar to the efforts of the Tories, who have offered up a menu of symbolism, attention, and the promise of pork. Not that long ago, of course, Quebec outreach meant constitutional concessions. No longer. As much as the country grappled with constitutional negotiations in years past, it's firmly off the table.

Even previous temptations -- remember former leader Jack Layton's dismissal of the Clarity Act in the 2004 campaign? -- are resisted.

Which begs a big question: it this further proof that separatism is dying?

It is, and add it to a growing list of evidence:

1. Today, we consider which federal politicians were once separatist. In the past, we considered which separatists were once federalists. Politicians, like rats, don't jump onto sinking ships.

2. The separatist movement seems to be splintering into different factions. People in winning political movements don't fight each other; they busy themselves by readying their resumes.

3. Consider David Brooks' question about youth and politics: where are the beautiful people? They seem to be playing for the federalist team. In contrast, the PQ seems like the passion of aging Quebecers, with the 60-something Pauline Marois fighting her senior citizen rivals Lisette Lapointe and Pierre Curzi, with the octogenarian Jacques Parizeau behind the scenes.

4. And, hey, even the PQ leader doesn't champion a referendum since "there isn't a crazy appetite for sovereignty."

In my youth, Canadian politics was dominated by two questions: how to distinguish ourselves from the American empire and would we really survive as a nation? An increasingly confident Canada isn't so much unsettled by the colossus next door. As for separatism, the movement seems to be on the wane.

Which means that this coming decade may prove as consequential as the 1960s in deciding what sort of a nation we'll be.