Winnipeg Free Press Fri May 4 2007
THE Harper government had an unhappy week, last week. On the issue of whether or not Canadian prisoners in Afghanistan were being tortured when turned over to Afghan officials, the government’s position changed daily, through rounds of denial, reassurance, dismissal, then back to denial. Ultimately, the clearest answer — improbable as it might seem — came from Security Minister Stockwell Day who reported that Canadian corrections officials in Afghanistan had spoken to prisoners who claimed to have been tortured, but had seen no evidence of torture themselves. When it falls to the likes of Mr. Day to provide enlightenment on a matter that has the prime minister contradicting himself on a daily basis, you know the government is having an extraordinarily bad week. In the circumstances, it was time to change the subject and at the weekend Mr. Harper attempted just that. In a speech in a small farming town south of Quebec City, Harper gave a remarkable speech which Canadians ought to read carefully. Canadian Press reporter Jonathan Monpetit wrote of this meeting: “Stephen Harper championed his ‘open’ brand of federalism in Quebec’s rural heartland Saturday night, finding an echo in the province’s newly emboldened autonomists… Harper — speaking exclusively in French — painted himself as a defender of the Quebec nation, and the federal leader best positioned to fight the province’s separatist forces.” Harper was quoted as saying “Open federalism is what we did when we asked the Canadian Parliament to recognize that Quebecois form a nation within Canada.”
The Montreal Gazette reported Harper’s pledge that “A re-elected Conservative government would lead a Canada … ’strong, united and free, with a Quebec (that was) autonomous and proud.’ “
This rhetorical flourish invites two questions: Under a “re-elected Conservative government” which powers would an “autonomous” Quebec have, and which powers would remain those of a “strong and united” Canada? After all, trivial changes will infuriate Quebec autonomists, while substantial changes should be identified so the rest of the country knows what they face if they re-elect Harper.
Harper is also quoted as saying: “When you are a nation, it is perfectly natural to be a nationalist.” This is an arresting statement on several levels. First, it is not something Harper is given to saying about Canada as a whole. He has never said that Canada is a nation and it is therefore natural for Canadians to be nationalists. Indeed, on his record in matters like the Iraq war, softwood lumber, and Canada-U.S. relations generally, he gives every sign of being a continentalist, largely in thrall to the political values and ideas of the American right.
Harper’s latching on to Quebec nationalism and the autonomy issue is hardly surprising: Given the Quebec election results, it was as predictable as the flowers that bloom in the spring. His remarks could readily be construed as little more than a pitch for the votes of Quebec nationalists. But the current crop of Quebec nationalists who find voice in the ADQ are not appeased by the acknowledgment of Quebec’s status as a nation. With that acknowledgment they want national power, which is now exercised by the government of Canada, the transfer of which would reduce the federal government to barely managing traffic. Of course, every Quebec government since the 1960s has sought more power from Ottawa. The difference now is that their position, though the most radical (short of outright separation) is precisely what Harper has been advocating since his salad days in the Reform Party.
How, then, are we to construe these remarks? It may be relevant to note that Harper was speaking to an audience which included several newly elected members of the ADQ and many of their supporters. Indeed, a Conservative MP, Jacques Gourde, who was present for Harper’s speech, emphasized that there are strong affinities between the ADQ and the federal Conservatives in that both represent a “third way” between the federalism of the Liberals and the separatism of the Parti Quebecois. What is a third way that is neither federalism nor separatism? In an earlier time, some Quebec nationalists advanced hybrid models like “special status” or some kind of “associate state” status for Quebec. Maybe Harper plans to revive one of these notions, or to invent something else altogether. One has to ask, however, before Harper is given the nod to proceed, what is this new system he hopes to bring into being? Will it be one tailored exclusively for Quebec or for all our provinces and territories? On the models Harper has advocated in the past, Canada would be a nation — if at all — without a national government.
These are serious issues, made more serious by Harper’s approach to governing this country. Few prime ministers in the modern era have been elected with the support of a majority of the electors, but most have tried — by their own lights and with varying degrees of commitment and success — to govern in the interests of the country as a whole. When it comes to Harper, however, it is very clear that he would quite happy to govern in the interests of the 40 per cent whose support would ensure him a majority government, and let the other 60 per cent go hang.
In the past, moreover, we have always had prime ministers who, notwithstanding differing visions of the country, saw Canada as one and whole. In Harper we have a man prepared to abandon Canada to regional tensions and to those many provincial politicians who endlessly demand more money and power. In this quagmire, who speaks for Canada?