Nfld Premier Williams Discovers His Inner Québécois Nationalist

"When you are a nation, it is perfectly natural to be a nationalist," Stephen HARPER said the other evening in St-Narcisse-de-Beaurivage, sounding for all the world like he was launching into the big showstopper tune in some bizarre off-off-off-Broadway musical.

Nfld Premier Williams Discovers His Inner Québécois Nationalist

"When you are a nation, it is perfectly natural to be a nationalist," Stephen HARPER said the other evening in St-Narcisse-de-Beaurivage, sounding for all the world like he was launching into the big showstopper tune in some bizarre off-off-off-Broadway musical.

When you're a naaay-shun, it is perfectly natural to be a nationalist

With concentraaay-shun, you can finally act like you get the hang o' this

Oh, the Liberals are stuck in green mud

And Duceppe's comin' down with a thud

I'm being paaaa-tient, 'cause I might get a majority at the end o' this.

Okay, so the show closed in previews. Which is too bad because there was potential for a touring production. After workshopping in St. Narcisse - a town named after the patron saint of politicians who think they're cleverer than everyone else - the show could open big in Quebec City, capital of the federally endorsed Québécois nation. From there it would be only a short hop to St. John's, where Danny WILLIAMS has discovered it's more natural to be nationalist than, say, rational to be rationalist.

Premier Williams is vexed because the recent federal budget breaks a Harper campaign promise by paying the province only $62 jillion in transfers over the next decade, rather than the hoped-for $147 kajillion zillion. "My government will affirm NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR's status as a distinct people," Williams had the province's lieutenant-governor, Ed Roberts, say in his Speech from the Throne. "Not uniform in lineage but multicultural, one nation inclusive of many nations living in harmony together." In case anyone had missed the point, Williams had Roberts add that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will become "masters in our own house."

This is what provinces do when they feel aggrieved: they discover their inner Québécois nationalist. It's perfectly natural when you live in a nation - I refer, in case it's not clear, to Canada - whose Prime Minister rarely uses the word "nation" except in reference to Quebec. Soon enough, whatever Quebec has looks like it's worth having, and if you can't get it, it's perfectly natural to pretend. Nobody would know this better than Stephen Harper. After Stockwell Day's Canadian Alliance blew the 2000 federal election, Harper wrote an op-ed in the National Post announcing that this was evidence of irreconcilable differences between Alberta and the rest of Canada.

"It is time to look at Quebec and to learn," Harper wrote. "What Albertans should take from this example is to become 'maîtres chez nous.' ... Such a strategy across a range of policy areas will quickly put Alberta on the cutting edge of a world where the region, the continent and the globe are becoming more important than the nation-state."

Region, continent and globe having slipped from his grasp, Harper must content himself with governing a nation-state. He consoles himself by sharing the gig with almost nobody. Harper's is the first cabinet in the history of the nation - sorry, of Canada - that meets, in toto, every weekday after lunch to rehearse Question Period together. Poor performers are not rewarded. Gordon O'Connor at National Defence and John Baird at Environment both learned, when their files became trouble spots last week, that their responsibilities could quickly be taken away from them in a crunch.

Harper's one-man management style is what it is. He will not change it soon. Nor, probably, should he: it got him into the Prime Minister's Office and it bids fair to keep him there after the next election. He is a formidably intelligent man, and if you had his cabinet you'd task them lightly too. But his style has the weaknesses of its strengths, as we say in Quebec. Harper is the only guy in his theatre company who knows the tune. When others try to sing it, they produce only confusion.

This will prove to be true about Harper's nationalist flirtation, too. Last autumn, he presented that motion in the Commons calling "the Québécois" a nation within a united Canada. What became clear during that speech the other night in St. Narcisse is that the motion wasn't a one-off; Harper plans to campaign on it. Which means its nasty internal contradictions will come back to haunt him. Why did he call "les Québécois" a nation, and not Quebec? Is not everyone in Quebec a Québécois?

It's pretty clear that Harper wants the nation in question to include only francophone, old-stock Quebecers. But Quebec nationalists think their nation is more "open" and includes every Quebecer. The two definitions are impossible to reconcile. Harper has avoided trouble so far in his usual way, by not letting anyone else say anything. Go look at the speeches on the website of his intergovernmental affairs minister, Rona Ambrose. You'll see there are none. But if Harper insists on making his appeal to nationalism the centre of his Quebec campaign pitch, then these questions won't go away. You can't open Pandora's box only halfway.

Maclean's May 14, 2007