Shortly after the debate, Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hébert called it "one of the most vacuous political conversations ever held on this defining topic among would-be candidates for the role of prime minister."
Many of the words exchanged during the debate had little or nothing to do with "building a strong, united Canada." However, when the topic was actually discussed, I started asking myself what decade it was. I'm as nationalist a Quebecker as they come in the Liberal party, but what I saw was pure pandering.
Niki Ashton's closing statement spoke of the need to become maîtres chez nous (masters of our own house), a phrase originally coined by Jean Lesage, premier of Quebec in the early-mid 1960s and father of the Quiet Revolution. At a time when health care and education were controlled by the Roman Catholic Church and English was the language of business in Quebec, this 1962 election slogan provided hope for the average francophone Quebecker that they could finally take control of their destiny.
Okay, using the slogan was kind of cute. It was really two other phrases that bothered me more.
An entire question in the debate was dedicated to creating the conditions gagnantes (winning conditions) for creating this "strong, united Canada." The phrase was originally used by federalist-turned-separatist-turned-federalist-turned-separatist (kind of like the NDP's current interim leader) Lucien Bouchard -- Parti Québécois premier of Quebec from 1996 to 2001 -- with regards to creating the "winning conditions" for a "Yes" vote in a referendum on Quebec sovereignty.
The late Jack Layton brought the phrase back last election, flipping it on its head and using it to describe creating the conditions under which Quebec would feel comfortable signing the Constitution of Canada. I wouldn't exactly have used the phrase "winning conditions," but it gets worse.
Thomas Mulcair and Nathan Cullen took time during the debate to reaffirm their support for Quebec sovereignty following a 50 per cent +1 "Yes" vote in a referendum question of the Quebec government's choosing. This is in line with the NDP's Sherbrooke Declaration endorsing asymmetrical federalism, which Jack Layton confirmed last year.
Earth to NDP leadership candidates: Loving Canada and being federalist doesn't mean "Well, I kind of like the idea of a united Canada, but if a separatist government tricks half of Quebec's population into voting 'Yes' on a sovereignty referendum, then I'm happy to see nearly 150 years of trying to keep the country together go down the tubes." It means fighting for Canada. It means actively fighting the separatists.
In a country where we are bound together by shared values, mutual interest, and institutions more than a century old, separation isn't a legitimate option. Ever. And if people of different linguistic backgrounds can't live together in a single country in Canada -- the most progressive, tolerant, moderate society on the planet -- then where?
NDP leadership candidates keep blabbering about an issue that was resolved more than a decade ago with the introduction of the Clarity Act. Any province wishing to leave Confederation needs to hold a plebiscite and obtain a clear majority in favour on a clear question before entering into negotiations with the other provinces on separation, as recognized both by Canada's Parliament and the Supreme Court.
I ask the NDP leadership candidates this: If to them 50 per cent +1 is a clear majority, then what exactly is an unclear majority?
Grammar lesson: The adjective "clear" is present in the noun phrase "clear majority" because the noun "majority" does not satisfy the framers' intent alone.
Either these New Democrats really mean what they say -- in which case they are dangerous -- or they don't and hence don't deserve the support of Canadians for lying about their beliefs on the quintessential issue of national unity. Take your pick.
Pierre Trudeau stood up for national unity unabashedly and fought the separatists with every ounce of his effort, and still managed to win 74 of Quebec's 75 seats in the 1980 general election. Maybe the NDP should try fighting for Canada before giving up so quickly on the Canadian identity of Quebeckers.