Quebec's back. And, apparently, surprised

Chantal Hébert’s column in L’actualité points out what, to her, is a paradox: “In total, Quebec has never occupied as little place as it does today in the places of power in the federal capital.”

Let me summarize Hébert’s argument before gently trying to critique it.

Quebec’s five Conservative MPs, she writes, give it the seventh-largest provincial sub-caucus in that party’s national (well, Canada-wide) caucus. Ontario has 14 times as many Conservative MPs as Quebec does. Saskatchewan and Manitoba together have about 5 times as many Conservative MPs as Quebec does.

As for the NDP, despite those 59 MPs from Quebec, 58 of them newly-elected, only 2% of all the card-holding NDP members in the country are Quebecers.

“We’re swimming in paradox,” Hébert writes. “In 20 years, Quebec has never been so cool toward sovereignty and the parties that advocate it. But it has also never been so absent from the places of power and political influence of a Canada to which it nonetheless seems destined to continue belonging. Find the error!”

Okay. I’m pretty sure the error lay in expecting any other result.

If I left my house for 20 years and then came back, I should reasonably expect the house to be in shoddy repair, or occupied by strangers. I might really be looking forward to coming back. I might have all kinds of fun ideas for decorating and entertaining. But my decision to neglect that house for 20 years would have easily predictable consequences. We can phrase this more generally: Actions have consequences.

Similarly, if the voters of a province — let’s call it “Quebec” — devoted the vast majority of their political effort, attention and allegiance for 20 years to a party that has no interest in most of the country, it would not be a huge surprise to discover that otherwise pan-Canadian political organizations would have limited presence in Quebec and vice versa. It’s great that millions of Quebecers have, at least in some limited and provisional way, changed their minds by voting for parties besides the Bloc Québécois on May 2. But their earlier actions have consequences.

Hébert anticipates and seeks to rebut this line of argument when she writes:

“The prolonged absence of Quebec from many federalist organizations or even its demographics are not alone in explaining this growing loss of influence. A certain negation of its distinct political culture contributes to this too.

“Unlike what is the norm elsewhere in Canada, none of the three federal parties has a wing in the National Assembly. In Ontario, for example, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals and Andrea Horwath’s NDP share their membership lists with their federal cousins.”

Again, this strikes me as the direct result of political choices made in Quebec by Quebecers. I’ve had two generations of Quebec Liberal Party grandees rush to insist to me that they have nothing whatsoever to do with those out-of-touch Chrétien/Martin/Dion/Ignatieff Liberals. Fine. There used to be a Quebec provincial NDP. For a minute there in the late ’60s it actually looked like it might flourish. But most of its members left for the Parti Québécois. Fair enough. Was the NDP supposed to print tens of thousands of membership cards for phantom Quebecers who wanted nothing of it?

None of this means the Harper government has no obligation towards Quebecers. It should provide services to them on the same basis as other Canadians. It should not hand out substantially more pork, proportionately, to other provinces than to Quebec. It was maybe not super-brilliant of Angelo Persichilli to explain to the Globe that he planned to be really nice to the Quebecers, and then turn down an interview request from La Presse.

But some of these questions are hard questions. How much of a political party’s energy should go toward a population that shows it no interest? Ask Jean Chrétien, who flew right over Alberta for the duration of the 2000 campaign.

But, some say, Quebec is a nation and a founding peuple and a distinct society and a unique constituent of the Canadian mosaic, or one day it will leave. You’re actually going to get a lot more sympathy for that argument from me than from a lot of anglos. But actions have consequences. You spend two decades ignoring national parties, you should expect national parties to have atrophied Quebec wings. How long will it take to fix that? I don’t know. Not four months. Longer. Assuming everyone’s in good faith.



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