Harper's Love-in with Quebec

In four short months, Prime Minister Stephen HARPER has been able to manoeuvre his minority federal government into a powerhouse of sorts.

Harper's Love-in with Quebec

In four short months, Prime Minister Stephen HARPER has been able to manoeuvre his minority federal government into a powerhouse of sorts. For now, he is the only politician in a position to undertake significant initiatives in the minefield of QUEBEC politics - while the federal Liberals are searching for a leader and a purpose, and the Bloc Québécois is mourning the downfall of their symbiotic bogeyman. The situation is even murkier on the provincial front. There, the Parti Québécois is tanking, torn anew by raging debates over ideological purity vs. strategic savvy, Premier Jean CHAREST's ruling Liberals are bleeding from a hundred self-inflicted cuts - and third parties are proliferating left and right, threatening to disrupt traditional voting patterns.

Voters' dissatisfaction is such that, recently, a poll indicated that Lucien Bouchard - former federalist minister, former separatist premier - would sweep everyone if he came back as head of the Action démocratique du Québec, a party that tries hard to be neither federalist nor separatist by calling itself "autonomiste." But Bouchard, 67, is unlikely to return to politics. And so it is Harper's show - and if he keeps playing his hand as well as he has since the Jan. 23 federal election, he could, almost singlehandedly, prop up an ailing federalist government in Quebec City, decimate the Bloc Québécois in Ottawa, condemn the federal Liberals to a decade in hell - and make another referendum on Quebec's secession a political impracticality for the foreseeable future. That and, perhaps, alter the way Canada works and currently sees itself in the bargain.

How did Harper get there? In part by tearing a page off John Sleeman's book. The brewer from Guelph, Ont., was able to steal a significant share of Quebec's distinctive suds market by directly addressing his potential customers - "Bohnjoowr, eecee John" - thus turning his halting, broken French into a likeable trademark. The key, Sleeman's local advertiser told Maclean's at the time, is that Quebecers are generally not hostile to other Canadians. Quite the contrary, said François Lacoursière: "Make an effort to reach out to them, they'll love you back." What worked for John also worked for Stephen.

So, there. Since he baffled most pundits by making an unexpected breakthrough in Quebec on Jan. 23 - capturing 10 ridings and close to a million votes - Harper has seen his support increase by four percentage points in Quebec to 29 per cent, according to a Léger Marketing poll released last week. The figures most likely to please Harper, though, are that 72 per cent of Quebecers say they are satisfied with his May 2 budget, 70 per cent like what they have seen of his government so far, and 52 per cent trust him to live up to his word and fulfill his promises. There is a word for these kinds of figures for a newly elected leader: honeymoon.

As a result, "Harper has become the political standard in Quebec at the moment," pollster Jean-Marc Léger says. The new PM's arrival has forced the other parties to review their positions, and reassess their strategies and options. In Léger's words, "everything is fluid in Quebec at the moment, nothing has gelled yet." Harper's Quebec-friendly approach has driven a wedge into the formerly tightly knit separatist coalition - the Bloc Québécois approved of his budget, the PQ criticized it. And it has thrown a lifeline to the very unpopular Liberals - one that Charest was quick to grab. Harper's election "provides Quebec with the opportunity of working with a federal government whose vision of federalism is more in tune with ours - with greater respect for our competences, one which allows us more freedom in the way we choose to operate," Charest said in an interview. "An improved relationship with the federal government will allow for significant progress in several key areas."

It has been awhile, a long while, that news, any news, from Ottawa was received with such enthusiasm in Quebec. Charest stopped short of calling Harper's approach a revolution - he settled for "significant progress" instead - but Mario Dumont went all the way. The head of the right-of-centre Action démocratique said Quebec is in fact witnessing a double-whammy revolution. "First, here is a federal leader who is not hitting us on the head, or looking for new fights with Quebec," Dumont told Maclean's. "Harper says he wants to help solve problems, then he does it! We haven't been exactly used to that in the past 10 years." Even Jean Lapierre, former Bloc co-founder, former Paul Martin Liberal lieutenant, had positive things to say about a Harper-Charest tango. "I'm happy about it, frankly. If improved federal-provincial relations can help improve the cause of federalism in Quebec, and help premier Charest's prospects, so much the better." As for the separatist forces, their predicament was best summarized by a recent political cartoon showing Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe and PQ chief André Boisclair looking on, horrified, and saying "more bad news" as Charest and Harper walked arm in arm ...

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Remember what the pundits wrote in the Toronto dailies prior to the election: the emergence of an Anglo prime minister, a right-winger, and from Alberta of all places, was going to light a fire under Quebec's fence-sitting soft nationalists, and blow more wind into the sails of the separatists, who were already coasting at around 50 per cent support in the wake of the federal sponsorship scandal. Instead, support for separation has declined since Harper became prime minister. Actually, it started to decline even before that: shortly after wunderkind André Boisclair beat PQ lifer Pauline Marois for the leadership last November. Back then, the PQ's polling figures were at 49 per cent. Now, they're at 43.

How could Harper - largely unknown in Quebec, and equipped with only a skeletal organization - ingratiate himself with Quebec voters, so easily, and in so short a time? He first attracted some attention with a campaign stop in Quebec City on Dec. 19 - during which he outlined a vague vision of "open-minded federalism" and promised to tackle "fiscal imbalance" between Ottawa and the provinces. Harper has made several visits to la vieille capitale since. But, as former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau once quipped, voters don't fight at bus stops over tax points. They wouldn't embrace a stranger over fiscal imbalance either - even if that stranger threw in a seat for Quebec at UNESCO sessions.

There has to be more. The fact that Harper is not a Liberal certainly helped. But mainly, he succeeded because his advisers had a very good read of the electorate's mind - and of where the separatist drive came from. Remember John Diefenbaker? No stand-up comic, that man, but the former Conservative prime minister is, still today, credited with one of the best one-liners ever uttered in this province's rich political lore. When Dief asked his fateful "What does Quebec want?" question in the early sixties, Canada was still very much a British Dominion, the Red Ensign was our flag and, even in Montreal, bilingual meant a francophone who spoke English. And Canada's main problem lay, of course, in the fact that the medium - the prime minister of the day - was so perfectly in tune with the message: clueless as to why the county's largest minority and co-founding nation was becoming increasingly restless.

A lot has changed since then, of course - the advent of the PQ, the hair-rising referendum of 1995 - but the dominant attitude in Ottawa has been to consider Quebec a problem, a threat, a delinquent child worthy of tough love. That, at least, seems to be the lingering feeling, even among soft federalists in Quebec. "National unity" here is code for "denying Quebec's special identity." "Clarity Act" translates into "coercion"; Ottawa cooking up a national education program becomes "barging into a field of provincial jurisdiction."

Because he understood these codes, Harper was able to send equally subtle messages that his Canada would not be a love-it-or-leave-it proposition, and that the presence of Quebecers - as they are, warts and all - would be fully acknowledged. His bet was that the outstretched hand, some courtesy (Harper routinely speaks in French first while in Ottawa) - and a homeopathic dose of asymmetrical federalism - would go a longer way toward keeping the country together than a $300-million sponsorship program and a Clarity Act to boot. Harper could make that bet because he had understood that Quebecers cannot be forced into calling themselves Canadians, but could easily be coaxed into doing it.

Pay dirt for him was the nearly one million votes in Quebec last winter, a federal Liberal party that's in shambles everywhere in Quebec outside of Montreal - and, potentially, a ticket to a majority next time around. And Harper was on to something, says Jean-Herman Guay, a political scientist at Université de Sherbrooke, because "SEPARATISM is not an aggressive force, but more a reactive one. Support for separation rises to perceived hostility in Canada or Ottawa, and subsides in better moments."

So, separatism dead, again? "That'll never happen," says Alain Giguère, head of the CROP polling firm in Montreal, "because separatism is not a clear-cut, black and white issue. It's about identity." A number of Quebecers have made a final decision about their identity and are either staunch separatists or dedicated federalists. Neither group makes up a majority - because there are a large number of dual citizens. "They're Québécois first, but also Canadian, and happy that way," Giguère says. "They don't want to have to choose, but if they feel forced to, they'll withdraw toward their Quebec identity." That explains why support for sovereignty yo-yoes up and down - and why separatists can become federalists, and vice versa, to the puzzlement of other Canadians.

The last time a Conservative prime minister emerged, in 1984, Brian Mulroney had to make a deal with the devil. He promised major constitutional reform - Meech Lake, RIP 1990 - to get Robert Bourassa's Liberals and René Lévesque's Péquistes on board. This time, Harper had to go it alone; the separatists would not be burned twice, and the provincial Liberals are not in a position to deliver much to anyone at the moment.

Has Quebec gone conservative all of a sudden? Not really. It is just that conservatives here are slowly coming out of the closet, and finding their voice. In this province, public discourse has been formulated, and controlled, by a resolutely left-wingy coalition of artists, unionists, journalists and social activists who were also mainly nationalists and separatists. A lot of people felt left out of that picture of their society. That is changing. Of course, a Quebec conservative would probably pass for a pinko in Calgary and a flaming-red commie in Dallas. But a genuine conservative discourse is taking shape in the province nonetheless.

Lucien Bouchard, for one, made a big splash last fall with a manifesto - "Pour un Québec lucide" - lambasting fat-cat, unproductive unions and warning there will be hell to pay down the line if Quebecers don't shake things up. Recently, Alain Dubuc, a senior editorialist at Montreal's La Presse newspaper, published a book, Éloge de la richesse (Celebrating Wealth), in which he argues that Quebec is a poor province due to its dependency on governments - the famous, old Quebec model.

It is a good illustration of Jean Charest's political flair that he took eight long years to morph from Tory into a full-blown Liberal - just in time to see a Conservative land in Ottawa, possibly for a long run. Charest came to power in Quebec City three years ago with a heady agenda of reforming the economy, re-engineering the government, privatizing public services - and ran at high speed into a big concrete wall. The outcry by public service unions - in sync with the chorus of artists and social activists - was strident. Charest had to tone down the rhetoric, and his image was seriously tarnished. After that, the premier kept digging deeper holes for himself and his government, mainly through gaffes and blunders, picking the wrong fights, letting minor local problems puff up into major political catastrophes. Even Liberal insiders now pull their hair at their leader's apparent political insensitivity, his authoritarian, executive style, and his propensity to find new traps to fall into. Charest's polls are abysmal. "People just don't like him - there isn't much to add," Giguère says. "Whether that will be a reason not to vote for him remains to be seen."

Privately, some Liberals now admit that they would be really worried had Bernard Landry kept his job, or had Pauline Marois become the head of the Parti Québécois. That's because André Boisclair, the new leader, hasn't cut much ice at the helm of this notoriously fractious party that thought nothing of lunching on leaders of the stature of René Lévesque, Lucien Bouchard or Pierre-Marc Johnson.

But Charest must in no way be dismissed as roadkill. He is a formidable campaigner, and his previous career in Ottawa shows that he has more lives than an alley cat. Already, pundits here are saying that Charest's government hasn't been so bad after all - what's been off is the premier's way of presenting it to the public. And the Liberals have made a number of crowd-pleasing announcements lately - more money to municipalities, a program to help the families of victims of violent crime, a deal to offset pay inequity for women. But Charest insisted in an interview last week that these are not pre-election goodies, and that a fall election campaign is not in the cards. We'll have to see who, Harper with his minority or the unpopular Charest, goes to the polls first.

A year can be an eternity in politics. Fully 10 years separate us from the referendum of 1995. "That's the time it took for Canada to come up with a proper response to that referendum," Jean-Marc Léger says. "What Quebecers want is for Canada to say 'Oui' to them as well." That's also an answer to Diefenbaker's question. And such a message can only come from outside the province - from someone like Stephen Harper.

Maclean's May 22, 2006