French debate shows what’s Bloc-ing Quebec – and Canada
Depressed. Disappointed. Those are the two words which best encapsulate my reaction to the French leaders’ debate. Not simply because the three English leaders gave the frequent impression of fish gasping for air, as they struggled to find words in their second language, but because of what the debate says about the Canadian political system, and our country in general.
Canada’s two solitudes are alive and well. If anything, the gulf between English and French Canada has grown wider in the past five years, in terms of priorities, cultural differences, and political attitudes. On issues such as law and order, foreign policy, and the role of the state in everyday life, Quebec and English Canada diverge significantly. And one of the chief contributors to this divide is the continued presence of the Bloc Quebecois.
Like a pebble in your shoe, the Bloc represents a constant irritant to English Canada, as well as a constant background noise in Quebec, subliminally brainwashing it with the message that it is being screwed by the rest of the country. Gilles Duceppe’s arguments last night can be summed up in two sentences: Quebec wants to be its own country. Until then, please send money.
Money for forestry companies. For R and D. For HST harmonization. For the Champlain bridge. Even the journalists moderating the debate brought up the issue of the Champlain Bridge. In a national leaders’ debate, the issue of this one bridge took up more space than the environment, international trade, or other matters of true national importance.
Yet the paradox of an aspiring nation making such overtly provincial demands seemed lost on most observers, and sadly, voters, in la belle province. In the end, it was Duceppe’s night, as the French debates always are, by virtue not only of language but also of understanding of the dynamics of Quebec politics.
As in the English debate, Jack Layton started strong but weakened as the night went on. He had good one-liners and hockey metaphors, and was oddly more pleasant to listen to in French than in English, but when he started talking about running for Prime Minister, Duceppe ran him into the boards with a hockey analogy of his own: “(the Bloc) won’t form government, and we’ve always had more players on the ice than you.” Bam. Layton’s credibility never fully recovered.
Michael Ignatieff, meanwhile, did himself no favours either. He came across as the bloke version of Stephane Dion: the Harvard professor, giving a lecture on democracy and the outdated nature of sovereignty in the 21st century. Sorry, but no one in Quebec cares about that, and one glance at the map of the former Soviet Union proves the argument wrong. What Ignatieff should have said is that a sovereign Quebec would be an economic basket case, and if you want to separate so badly, Mr. Duceppe, then go head the PQ and stop living off political subsidies from English Canada.
Meanwhile, Stephen Harper’s measured demeanour, so effective during the English debate, evaporated last night as he grasped for words, his rising voice betraying an increasing frustration and irritability. He would then make a conscious effort to lower his pitch to a Mulroney-esque baritone, at the beginning of each new response – so obviously that it became almost risible. Only on the fifth issue, Quebec’s place in Canada, did Harper find his feet, in a defining moment when he stepped into a back and forth between Duceppe and Ignatieff and basically said, “this is what you get with a minority Parliament.”
Harper is right – to a point. This is also what you get as long as the Bloc is around, period. The debate made one thing perfectly clear. For federalists, the Bloc continues to represent an immovable force, not only an obstacle to a majority government, but a siphon for political talent and resources which would otherwise be deployed in the other parties, most notably the Tories and the NDP.
Instead of allowing federal politics to develop on a left-right continuum, as in the Rest of Canada, the Bloc continues to perpetuate the federalist-separatist dichotomy, and run an effective extortion scheme to boot. Harper is right that this situation would be worse in a formal coalition – but it’s pretty bad as it is, and as long as the Bloc holds the bulk of seats in the province, it isn’t going to change.
How long this can continue before reaching a breaking point is anyone’s guess. But it can’t go on indefinitely. As one of my fellow TV panellists, herself a Francophone Quebecer, remarked last night in Montreal after the cameras were off, if Quebec does eventually separate, it won’t be because it votes to leave. It will be because the rest of Canada asks it to go.