It begins

It is always pleasant to learn that the Quebec-wing president of a political party believes his role is to deliver the party, bound and hog-tied, to one of several still-undeclared candidates in a leadership race whose rules and players have not yet even been determined. Say hello, not for the first time, to Robert Fragasso, Grand Poo-Bah and Lodge Master of the Liberal Party of Canada-Quebec. Let us try to decode his comments on the race to succeed — well, succeed isn’t necessarily the right word, is it? — Stéphane Dion.

The next leader must have support from one end of the country to the other. “I don’t want to personalize my remarks,” he takes pains to emphasize, “but we must have candidates whose popularity extends past Moncton or the Atlantic provinces, or on the other hand who are not known only in Quebec and nobodies once you get past Cornwall,” he says.

It takes my colleague Hélène Buzzetti about a second and a half to figure that one out: Fragasso is cheerfully kneecapping Dominic LeBlanc and Martin Cauchon, though not in a personalized way, mind you. Elsewhere in her article Hélène reports whispers among Quebec-wing federal Liberals that “the #2 victim on October 14, after Stéphane Dion, was Bob Rae,” because the economy is sputtering and Rae had a bit of a bad moment there with a large economy in the 1990s.

Well, golly. If it can’t be a nobody from Moncton and it can’t be a Quebecer who’s faceless past Cornwall and if it can’t be anyone who’s already left his fingerprints on a large economy, who could it be? And what’s the criterion that should decide it?

If you’re Robert Fragasso and an apparently not inconsiderable chunk of the party’s Quebec wing, you look at the ruins of the last election — during which the issues in Quebec were arts funding; youth criminal justice; economic management; environmental stewardship; foreign policy adventurism — and you decide the winning policy is constitutional tinkering. Because don’t you always decide the winning policy is constitutional tinkering?

The time has come to break through the Liberal party’s institutional resistance. “I’m not asking the next leader to promise to re-open the Constitution, but to show a certain openness, even if it means giving a certain constitutional dimension to the Québécois nation,” Mr. Fragasso says.

Quiz time: How do you give ideas a certain constitutional dimension without re-opening the Constitution? Hint: It’s a trick question. Prediction: There’ll be more of those before long.

Anyway. On to the who-could-it-be question. Since re-opening the constitution was not mentioned as an issue by any player in the last election, and since the Québécois nation resolution doesn’t seem to have had any effect on anything, Fragasso and Co. are all about the Certain Constitutional Dimension. And do we have any visitors from that dimension? Indeed:

Despite this functioning balance, the province of Quebec has not given its assent to the Constitution of 1982, and until it does, our federation’s architecture remains unfinished. Creating the conditions for a successful negotiation to complete our nation-building will take time. Ratification of a new constitution will require good faith and political will on all sides. When these conditions are in place, Canadians should be prepared to ratify the facts of our life as a country composed of distinct nations in a new constitutional document.

Author! Author!

You were way ahead of me, weren’t you. You knew that if the leadership couldn’t be given to

(a) a New Brunswicker

(b) a Quebecer

(c) a guy who’s ever actually run anything

(d) someone who doesn’t think it’s possible to show constitutional openness unless you open the constitution

…then we could really only be talking about one fellow, no?

Here it must be noted that Michael Ignatieff has made a strong showing of things since he got elected to Parliament. Lately I picture him walking around carrying a sign saying 320 ON-THE-JOB-DAYS WITHOUT AN ACCIDENT. This is a real achievement and must be taken into serious consideration by those of us who cast ourselves as his critics last time around. It must be assumed he has given new thought to all the issues that bedevilled him in his first run.

Still, a mother worries. The trajectory of Ignatieff’s constitutional policy last time could perhaps best be summarized thusly: (1) tambours et trompettes, as above; (2) quick backtrack, emphasizing the “will take time” part of his manifesto, and insisting that he was talking about vague wishes for someday, not a near-term policy of constitutional upheaval; (3) resolutions at Liberal party functions calling for constitutional change; (4) deciding, when Stephen Harper introduced the Québécois nation resolution to short-sheet the Bloc, that this was all he had ever called for in the first place and that he should have credit for putting the issue on the agenda.

But already (4) appears to have been discarded and we are pretty close to being back to (1). Here our text comes from Brigitte Legault, the party’s francophone vice-president (it’s a title; there’s also an anglophone vice-president) who showed promise as a candidate against Michael Fortier and the Bloquiste who beat them both in Vaudreuil, and who says a lot of insightful things near the top of Hélène’s article. Lower down she says this:

(On whether a symbol like Harper’s 2005 Laval speech is needed) “Not a symbol, because people in Quebec realized it had no impact, that’s why the Conservative Party face-planted in Quebec in 2008,” Mme Legault estimates. “It’s time to make a real statement. We have to make a bold move to demonstrate that we’re there, in the Liberal Party, to represent Quebec.”

So nothing Harper has done on/for/to Quebec was “a real statement.” The Liberal brass in Quebec wants the party to outflank the Harper Conservatives in appealing to Quebec nationalism. And it is hinting pretty strongly that it’s found the man for the job.

This will be interesting.

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