Philippe Couillard, radical federalist

Quoting Wilfrid Laurier, the Quebec Liberal front-runner rocks the boat
CORRECTS SPELLING OF PHILIPPE Philippe Couillard arrives to announce his candidacy for the leadership of the Quebec LiberalsWednesday, October 3, 2012 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

What an amazing op-ed Philippe Couillard, the physician who is generally regarded as the front-runner  to succeed Jean Charest as leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, has published this morning in Le Devoir. 

It’s an attempt to define liberalism in a Quebec context, but along the way it establishes Couillard as the most unconditionally pro-Canadian figure among prominent Quebec politicians. More so, at least in Couillard’s choice of rhetoric, than Charest. (Charest sometimes soft-pedaled his federalist convictions to avoid being criticized as an outsider who didn’t get Quebec.) In the context of Quebec’s Liberal Party, which was led for four decades by strongly nationalist figures — Jean Lesage, Robert Bourassa and especially Claude Ryan — Couillard’s position is radical, especially for a man who seems likely to win the leadership with little bother and who will surely have been advised against rocking the boat.

He starts off uncontroversially enough, defining the “political content” of liberalism as a combination of political, economic and social liberalism. But in defining a liberal “way of seeing the world,” he quotes Wilfrid Laurier, who said in 1877 that “everywhere in human affairs there are abuses to reform, new horizons to open and new forces to develop.”  Laurier does not often appear on most Quebec provincial Liberal hit parades.

But things really start to rock when Couillard says his movement has a “particular political sensibility,” which includes cultural diversity (dating back to an 1837 flag) and “friendship” with progressives in the United States and the rest of Canada. Again he cites Laurier, whose federalism “gives our Canadian citizenship a meaning that goes well beyond considerations of ‘profitability’ or constitutional mechanisms.” I read that as a direct rebuke of Bourassa and Ryan.

Then he vaunts his predecessors’ “battles to open Quebec to immigrants,” linking prominent early critics of anti-Semitism to today’s “reasonable accommodation” of (mostly Muslim) immigrants. This has already earned Couillard a dreary summons from columnist Mathieu Bock-Côté, who frets a lot about burqas. “I am not sure I understand this passage,” Bock-Côté writes. But Couillard anticipated flak on this point and takes care to underscore it: the liberalism he advocates is different both from “neoliberalism, which proposes the free market as the only referee” and “secular fundamentalism, which claims to defend tolerance while rejecting many of the accommodations through which it is expressed.”

On Quebec’s ties with Canada, on its relations with cultural minorities and with its own history, Couillard’s discourse here is bold. He’s clearly staking out territory in response to the PQ, which is accused even by some of its most steadfast supporters of choosing a narrow, exclusionary nationalism.

But his article also puts Couillard at odds with much of his own party’s history. Compare his article with the long text Claude Ryan wrote in 2004 to validate Charest’s bona fides as a fit defender of Quebec values. Ryan mentioned the constitution 39 times; Couillard mentions it twice, both times as a fixation Quebecers would do well to get past. Ryan did not mention Jean-Charles Harvey or Télésphore-Damien Bouchard,  early Liberal stalwarts who’ve fallen deeply out of fashion, although he did share Couillard’s admiration for Adélard Godbout’s defence of conscription in World War II. Couillard, amazingly, does not mention Claude Ryan, and he mentions Bourassa only as a champion of economic development, not as a constitutional theorist.

In 1976, Jean Chrétien flirted briefly with leaving federal politics to replace Robert Bourassa as Quebec Liberal leader. Claude Ryan won the job instead. Couillard’s manifesto today could more easily have been signed by Chrétien than by Ryan. Expect Couillard to come in for a lot of criticism over this article. If he sticks to his guns, he’ll instantly be one of the most interesting Quebec political leaders in recent decades. And if he can win the leadership, he will be helping to continue Charest’s redefinition of the Quebec Liberal Party along lines Bourassa and Ryan would hardly have imagined.