I vividly recall my eleventh grade modern history textbook featuring a striking photo of an enormous rally of out-of-province Canadians carrying a billboard-sized maple leaf flag through the streets of Montreal. It was taken during the height of Premier Parzieau's failed 1995 Quebec secession campaign, and the powerful imagery was clearly meant to stir federalist triumphalism in my tiny teenage heart.
Photos like that formed the backbone of a patriotic narrative that became fashionable in the aftermath of the separatist defeat -- this idea that the primary force "keeping Canada together" was a deep and abiding love between Anglo and Franco.
Like most feel-good fables, it was never entirely based on reality. With Quebec now facing an election where it looks increasingly likely that the separatist party will not only win a second term, but a majority government to boot, it's being strained like never before.
Supposedly twice killed by the power of love, separatism is poised to make its third great comeback. The question is whether any Canadians will be willing to carry the flag this time.
Postmedia syndicate columnist Michael Den Tandt thinks a lot of hearts have hardened since '95. On a whole host of metrics, he writes, Quebec and its people simply aren't as popular with outsiders as in the past -- which doesn't bode well for anyone hoping to rally the anti-separatist forces.
For starters, the province still shows no interest in taming its galling attitude of entitlement -- Mike cites Ottawa's recent estimate that Quebec's currently running something close to a $16 billion deficit with the federal government, given how much they take versus how much they give. (If you want a good example of how this sort of thing happens, by the way, recall that Premier Charest's 2007 response to $700 million in fresh federal handouts was to give everyone in his debt-straddled province a big tax cut). Such habits might have been forgivable in the boom '90s, but with Canada's biggest province now a net-loser have-not, the contrast in greed has become unavoidably offensive.
"Resentment of Quebec's endless gripes has always bubbled just below the waterline in Ontario," cautions Mike. "With so many in the province struggling, expect that to surface."
Ditto for the Quebec government's xenophobic Charter of Values, which Den Tandt says runs viciously counter to the "pluralism that animates the rest of the country." And it's not just a government thing; polls show Quebeckers themselves are happily rejecting pluralism by substantial margins, too.
What it all ads up to, Mike concludes, is the distinct possibility that a renewed round of separatist agitation will not bring Canadians to the streets of Montreal, but rather provoke them to organize "a movement for a nationwide referendum on whether Quebec should be handed its hat, and don't let the door hit you on the way out."
A similar note is sounded by Paul Wells in Maclean's magazine. Back in 1995, he reminds, public opposition to separatism was politically controlled, and heavily stage-managed. The Chretien Liberals organized a tight referendum campaign pushing single narrative (Canada loves you, Quebec!) and "weird or hard-to-control voices" that might complicate that message were suppressed.
Is anyone working that hard today? "I get the distinct impression the amount of strategic thought that's gone into this, among federalists who may be a year from a referendum campaign, is zero," concludes Paul.
Opposition to Quebec separation has always been a complicated phenomenon in the so-called "ROC." On the one hand, there doubtless exists a genuine affinity for the French province in some corners -- particularly Ottawa, with its disproportionate dominance by Quebeckers and bilinguals -- and the idea that Canada's founding purpose is to be some manner of permanent union between "two founding peoples" is a powerful and romantic one.
But so too has a great deal of Anglo-Canadian anxiety over separation always been fairly reactionary in nature, born more from fear and anger than any positive or inspiring emotion.
The proposition that Quebec's succession could fundamentally destabilize the Canadian economy and tank the dollar, for instance, is a fate one seeks to avoid primarily for self-interested reasons. Such rationalism could just as easily be directed the other way, should evidence suggest Quebec's actually a net drain (hardly difficult to find these days).
Likewise, if one buys into the idea that Quebec "gets away" with too much -- and I think ROC anger over their debt and xenophobia has more to do with a perceived lack of consequences for these actions than opposition to the actions themselves -- then reactionary hatred of separatism can easily arise simply as a politically acceptable way to finally deny Quebec a thing it wants. In other words, it can hardly be taken for granted that someone wanting to keep Quebec in Canada even likes the place.
As Den Tandt notes in his column, this sort of antipathy was very much the animating philosophy of the old Reform Party, which he only slightly unfairly characterizes as being "born in a lather of anti-Quebec feeling" in response to years of perceived coddling. When Stephen Harper was in the party, he took a dogmatically hard line against the very legality of separatism, going even further than the Chretien government's own uncharitable Clarity Act. His position was basically that Quebec could never leave Canada under any circumstances and damn their feelings -- a common stance we might call "spiteful federalism."
Assuming we ROCers are really as fed up as they're saying, one of the great uncertainties of the future of Canadian politics is in what direction all this pent-up anti-Quebec bitterness will eventually be released. Will English-Canadians back the irritated anti-separatism of Stephen Harper's Conservatives, or launch a grassroots surge of pro-separatist sentiment, spread, as Paul Wells fears, by the untamed, uncontrollable power of social media?
Either scenario would be dramatically unprecedented, and would mark an overdue moment of honest reckoning about Canada's Quebec dilemma, finally unburdened by the patriotic niceties and charitable blind spots that have stymied and censored the debates of years past.
But first comes the election.
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