Whither Québec? (Part One)
By Mark Wegierski
The results of the provincial election in Quebec on September 4, 2012 – where the Parti Quebecois won 54 seats; the Liberals, 50; the new, right-leaning Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), 19; and the left-wing Quebec solidaire, 2 – have to be placed in the context of some Canadian and Quebec history to be more understandable.
It should be noted that CAQ is basically a successor to the ADQ (Action democratique du Quebec), which had largely collapsed in the December 8, 2008 provincial election. In that election, the Liberals won 66 seats; the Parti Quebecois, 51; the ADQ, 7; and Quebec solidaire, 1.
One should begin a discussion of Quebec by looking at the role of Quebec in federal elections. Since 1896, at the end of the nineteenth century, Quebec had, in federal elections, almost always voted for the Liberal Party. At the federal level, Quebec was almost always a Liberal Party stronghold, until the emergence of the Bloc Quebecois in the 1993 election.
Indeed, English-speaking Canada, as a whole, had voted Liberal only once in the 1960s to 1980s period, in the 1968 election (and by a very narrow margin, in that case), as Peter Brimelow has noted in his book on Canada, The Patriot Game (Key Porter, 1986). Without their Quebec bastion, the Liberals would have usually been a minority party in Canadian federal politics, perennially losing federal elections. From 1896 until the 1993 federal election, Quebec and the federal Liberal Party were almost inextricably intertwined (as the prominent Tory historian Donald Creighton had noted) -- Quebec ensured the perpetuation of the Liberal government in Ottawa, while the Liberal Party ensured an increasingly eminent position for Quebec in Confederation.
In his book, Brimelow had tried to understand the dynamics of Quebec in Canada, and Quebec politics, without silly “happy-talk” and “sugar-coating”. Brimelow distinguished between the Liberal "Federalistes" in Quebec (who aspire to give the French-Canadians an illusion of power from coast to coast) -- and what he considered the more honest Quebecois nationalism. One of the main reasons that long-serving Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau was a committed "Federaliste" was because he feared that real Quebec nationalism would probably move into more right-wing channels, as had been the case under Maurice Duplessis, known as "Le Chef", who had kept the liberals and socialists at bay in Quebec for over a quarter-century, and had delivered the Quebec vote to the staunch Tory Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in the federal election of 1958.
In 1987, Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had signed the Meech Lake Accord with the provincial Premiers. In exchange for Quebec’s acceding to the Constitution Act, 1982 (whose most salient aspect was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms), there would be another document incorporated into the constitution, whose main point was the recognition of Quebec as “a distinct society.” Quebec had refused to accede to the Constitution Act, 1982, in 1982, since it considered that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would undermine its “collective rights” to uphold a distinctive, French-speaking society in Quebec.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau (Canada’s Liberal Prime Minister from 1968-1984, except for nine months in 1979-1980) argued against the Meech Lake Accord presumably because it could – from his perspective -- weaken over-all French power in Canada (i.e., the "Federalistes"), while strengthening the Quebecois position ("Separatistes" - "a distinct society"). Trudeau clearly preferred a liberal-socialist Quebec dominating and deriving economic benefits from a continent-wide polity, as opposed to an "ourselves alone" (and possibly right-wing) national state limited to Quebec. It could also be noted that (ironically enough) a more traditional, Catholic, and inward-looking Quebec would have a far greater chance of survival in North America, than the cosmopolitan, wide-open, and socially liberal one which left-wing Quebec intellectuals have striven to create. With the decline in traditional ethos, the traditionally-high Quebec birthrate has plummeted, and abortion rates have soared, thus undermining the previous demographic achievements of the French in Canada. French Quebec had earlier celebrated their demographic triumph as “the revenge of the cradle” (against the British conquest). It may be argued that, because of the demographic collapse, the Francophone (French-speaking) leadership is forced into ever more drastic, and increasingly artificial, “social engineering”-type measures, to maintain "the French fact" in North America.
It may be remembered that during 1986 to 1987, there was a revolt against John Turner, the leader of the federal Liberal Party, led by the Quebec wing of the federal Liberal Party, and exacerbated by the media. It arose mostly from Turner’s perceived conservatism (at least in his image), as well as from the fact that Francophone Liberals were not particularly willing to accept anyone who was not a full Francophone (or Trudeau loyalist), as leader of their party, regardless of his fluency in "Paris French" -- as opposed to the colourful Quebec dialect of French. It appeared at some points that Turner was indeed close to ouster. According to the conventional wisdom of that day, only a Quebecker could compete with another Quebecker for control of that vital province in federal politics, without whose support no Canadian government could really be considered as fully "legitimate" -- setting aside what the other three-quarters would ever want or decide. When in the 1990s, the Reform Party used a highly-charged political advertisement, objecting to the election of "another politician from Quebec" as Prime Minister of Canada, the negative fall-out against the Reform Party continued for years.
The fact that Brian Mulroney's stance towards Quebec was seen as highly partial generated much dislike for Mulroney in English-speaking Canada. Viewed in the context of the debate between the "Federalistes" and Quebecois nationalists, Mulroney's attempts to disentangle Quebec and the Liberal Party, by offering even more benefits to Francophones everywhere in Canada, and even more bilingualism in the federal civil service, and in every English-Canadian province, were futile.
These efforts only confirmed the viability of the liberal "Federaliste" option in Quebec, and also alienated much Progressive Conservative party support in English Canada, particularly in the Western and Maritime regions. However, the Meech Lake Accord, by strengthening the “collective rights” of Quebec and pointing towards arrangements where Quebec could exist within a far more decentralized Confederation, seemed to be a helpful evolution.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.