Please, Not This Again
I am a unilingual Ontario Anglo whose longest personal exposure to Quebec was playing in a pee wee hockey tournament in Val d’Or that culminated in a championship game between our guys and a hometown team supported by what seemed to be a hundred thousand screaming fans who were not pleased when we won. From this experience I learned that Quebecers love hockey.
Given this background, I have no choice but to admit that I do not know what the Quebec election means for Quebec’s politics and society. Revoke my pundit’s licence if you must. I will not attempt to answer the question “whither Quebec?” I am hopelessly unqualified.
But I do know how I feel about the election, and, I suspect, how lots of other unilingual Anglos in that remarkably large rump sometimes known as the Rest Of Canada feel about it.
Tired. Exhausted. Trying hard to care because I know I should. But I don’t. Not really. Not if I’m honest with myself. I’m too sick of it to care.
I was born in 1968. For virtually my entire life discussions about Canada have been dominated by “whither Quebec?” So much that could have been said or dreamed or tried wasn’t because we were consumed with figuring out what Quebecers wanted. And what are we about to plunge back into? A Parti Québécois government. Possibly a referendum. And what, oh what, do Quebecers want?
It’s like 1970. And 1976. 1980. And all through the ’80s. And the early ’90s. And the near-death experience of 1995. And most of the years since. Modern Canadian history is what the movie Groundhog Day would have been if it had never ended.
How sick would Bill Murray be of that? That’s how sick I am of this.
And yet, if we leave aside the Quebec-ness of the election, and don’t attempt to scrutinize the inscrutable mind of the Quebec electorate, there is another way to look at things.
The Liberals have been in power for nine years. They’re clapped out, dogged by corruption scandals and mass protests. The economy is weak. In any functioning democracy, anywhere, a ruling party fighting a campaign under those circumstances is likely to be replaced by the alternative.
Which in this case is the Parti Québécois.
We unilingual Anglos who do not comprehend Quebec’s subtleties tend to focus on the PQ’s desire for Quebec independence, both because that is the party’s raison d’être (I’m told that’s French) and because smashing Canada like a dinner plate would be rather consequential. From that perspective, any improvement in the PQ’s fortunes is a deterioration in Canada’s.
But as my Quebec friends often tell me, many Quebecers see no contradiction at all in voting for the Parti Québécois but opposing independence. I don’t know how they manage that. A superior grasp of epistemology, maybe. A peculiarly Gallic metaphysics, perhaps. In any event, a resurgence of the PQ shouldn’t automatically be interpreted as a resurgence of support for independence.
Seen that way, the election does not have to be the dawn of yet another damned Groundhog Day. It could just be a struggling government tossed out and replaced with the principal available alternative – an event which happens in every healthy democracy from time to time and is no reason for existential hand-wringing.
So how about it, fellow ROCers? Let’s agree to give Gallic metaphysics a try and assume that the election of a minority PQ government is simply Quebec doing ordinary democratic politics and not a mortal threat to Canada.
It may be wishful thinking. But there’s at least a little reason to think it might even be true.
For one thing, polls don’t show strong and rising support for independence.
Quite the contrary. And let’s not forget the collapse of the Bloc Québécois in the 2011 federal election. That was pleasant.
And bear in mind that the Parti Québécois’ victory really wasn’t all that strong, particularly given the dreadful state of the Liberals. From 1976 to 1998, the PQ consistently drew more than 40 per cent of the popular vote. Last night, they got around 33 per cent. That’s actually down from 35 per cent in 2008.
So no hand-wringing. No anguished conversations. And for God’s sake, no talk about what the federal government absolutely must do if it wants to save the country.
And I don’t just mean masochistic calls to reopen the Constitution. I mean, for example, guff like Senator Jean-Claude Rivest’s insistence that Stephen Harper must promote bilingualism or risk doom.
“Because of immigration, the people do not have the same knowledge that this country was founded by two great nations,” the senator recently told John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail. “If the people (in the Rest of Canada) can accept that this country is a bilingual and bicultural one, I have no fear for the country.”
I’ve heard sentiments like that my whole life and I’ve always found them odd. Leave aside the stuff about “two great nations,” which the historian Frank Underhill called “a modern Laurentian fantasy.” Why does Rivest – a former adviser to Robert Bourassa – think pro-moting bilingualism would diminish the appeal of separatism when the rise of the separatist movement, and its greatest successes, coincided with the creation and vigorous promotion of bilingualism?
In 1995, the prime minister, the governor general, the clerk of the Privy Council and the chief justice of the Supreme Court were all bilingual francophones.
Three of the four were Quebecers. And the majority of francophone Quebecers voted “oui.” Today, the prime minister is an anglophone from Alberta whose attempt to create a base of support in Quebec failed badly. He leads a government more alienated from the province, and francophones, than any in modern history. And support for independence is trolling the depths.
And “bicultural”? Really? In the Rest Of Canada, we stopped describing the country as “bicultural” back in the days of Pierre Trudeau’s ridiculous sideburns. Because it isn’t bicultural. It’s multicultural.
That much I know.
I’m also pretty confident that most of us never want to watch Groundhog Day again.