10/27/2011 09:19 EDT | Updated 12/27/2011 05:12 EST

Quebec Needs a New Alliance

No one should have been completely surprised that the Conservatives were appealing to voters in the rest of Canada, given Québec's declining weight in the federation.

A few weeks ago on this site, I dismissed the argument making the rounds that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had written off Québec after winning a majority government outside the province. Mr. Harper announced that his government would compensate Québec for harmonizing its sales tax with Ottawa's GST-- a promise he had made during the election campaign. Then, days later, Mr. Harper committed to constructing a new bridge to replace the Champlain Bridge -- a promise that other parties, but not the Conservatives, had made during the election campaign.

In the wake of these announcements, some Québec-based observers cautioned against interpreting Mr. Harper's gestures as the beginning of a new charm offensive in that province. In particular, they cited the Conservative government's moves to strengthen Canada's links with the British Queen (their term), who also happens to be Canada's Head of State according to the 1867 Constitution.

Personally, I think these moves were both unnecessary and ill-advised. That said, no one should have been completely surprised that the Conservatives were appealing to voters in the rest of Canada, given Québec's declining weight in the federation.

In part, this decline is the result of demographic changes and migration flows. More important, the 2011 election showed that the Conservatives can put together a majority government based almost completely outside Québec. These trends will soon be reflected in changes in the House of Commons, though rumours suggest that Québec's representation will not decline as radically as was first thought.

Still, the strategy Quebecers adopted in the wake of the defeat of the Meech Lake accord needs to be replaced. Voting for the Bloc was a message to the rest of the country that it would not be business as usual. While a divorce was not being demanded after the 1995 referendum results, Canadians told that that we'd be sleeping in separate bedrooms. And that the relationship would not be without some nastiness.

For example, during the 2008 election campaign, Yolande Brunelle -- Gilles Duceppe's spouse -- explained in an interview that the role of the Bloc Québécois was to "prevent Canada from having a majority government." In the 2011 election, Mr. Harper destroyed that strategy.

Now, a Conservative majority government based in Ontario and the West has appointed a second unilingual jurist to the Supreme Court of Canada. And shipbuilding contracts have brought smiles to faces on the east and west coasts, but not in Québec.

It's true that, three decades ago, the last Conservative majority government also appointed unilingual Supreme Court judges. However, Mr Harper's shipbuilding contracts are in stark contrast to the CF-18 decision of Brian Mulroney's government -- a decision that led to formation of the Reform Party and, ultimately, to the destruction of the Progressive Conservative Party.

Mr. Harper has clearly drawn a lesson from that experience. Still, his Conservative Party will continue to compete for votes in Québec and they have room to grow, to say the least. In this context, it's worth observing that, according to Jean-Marc Leger, more than three quarters of Quebecers think sentences are too lenient and want tougher ones, particularly for adults who commit crimes.

At the same time, the NDP will assiduously be courting Quebecers as it tries to maintain its position as Official Opposition in the House of Commons. Indeed, it's likely that either Thomas Mulcair or Brian Topp will be the next leader of that Party, and, perhaps, the next prime minister of Canada. While Mr. Topp has not lived in Québec for the past 20 years, his links to the province are as strong if not stronger than Jack Layton's were.

For Quebecers to make the most of this situation in the NDP will still require forming alliances with other regions. In other words, while the sovereigntist movement is not dead, right now Quebecers urgently need a new approach for dealing with the rest of Canada.