Canada's Tories and Quebec 

Canada's Tories and Quebec

Not long ago, Tory leader Stephen Harper suggested he could work with the NDP, on a "case by case" basis, to remain in government if he had only a minority of seats.

This week he suggested he could work with Quebec nationalists, if not separatists. This re-opens what is almost a traditional split between the Conservative Party (previously the Progressive Conservatives) and the Liberals.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper promised to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold, instituting an "open federalism" in which consensus will be built on an issue-by-issue basis and allowing Quebec a role at international conferences, including UNESCO.

Speaking to the chamber of commerce in Quebec City, Mr. Harper also said he would move to address a fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces.

"We will limit the federal spending powers that the Liberals have so badly abused. This exorbitant spending power has given rise to a domineering federalism, a paternalistic federalism, and is a serious threat to the future of our federation."

Quebec Premier Jean Charest, a Liberal, has asked for a place at international conferences, but Liberal Leader Paul Martin's government has so far refused.

Mr. Harper said he is not prepared to dismiss Quebec on the constitutional issue either.

Although his plan lacked detail, Mr. Harper told reporters that there is a "huge difference" between what he is proposing and what he believes is the Liberal plan. He says his approach is to work for consensus on individual issues.

Mr. Martin's approach amounts to inertia, Mr. Harper argued. "Mr. Martin's position, the position of the Liberal Party is 'we won't move on anything unless we get a consensus on everything.' Well, that's saying you'll never move at all."

He said if consensus develops around issues such as Senate reform, a Conservative government would proceed on that issue.

The "red flag" issues in this list are really "participation in international negotiations," and "constitutional reform," especially the Senate.

The Tories under Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney (and briefly under that same Jean Charest) were always trying to find an approach to Quebec (and other provinces/regions, as provinces/regions) that was truly federalist, yet different from the Liberals. Apart from patriotism, and being a loyal opposition, there was an obvious strategy to try to win some Quebec seats. Typically this involved working with Quebeckers who identified themselves as nationalist but not (the Tories hoped) separatist. All too often the result was working with some pretty scummy people, and not being able to count on Quebec seats anyway. Mulroney won a lot of Quebec seats, put enormous faith in Lucien Bouchard, and Bouchard founded the Bloc Quebecois, a separatist party serving exclusively at the federal level, which is still with us.

In Lament for a Nation, George Grant wrote about some of John Diefenbaker's failures as Tory Prime Minister in the late 50s and early 60s.

Diefenbaker does not seem to have sought serious French lieutenants who could mediate the interests of their people to the rest of the country. He seems to have contented himself with the rag and bobtail of the Union Nationale. Despite present propaganda, there were noble elements in that party. Even after the death of Duplessis, in September of 1959, Diefenbaker does not seem to have tried to bring such obvious Quebec conservatives as Bertrand into his cabinet. Duplessis's death was followed immediately by that of his successor, J.M.P. Sauvé, in January of 1960. This was the deepest blow that Canadian conservatism ever sustained. Sauvé could have become the first French-Canadian Conservative Prime Minister. However, this disaster need not have prevented Diefenbaker from seeking out other leaders from the Union Nationale.

There are deep waters to plumb here, and questions well worth thinking about. Was the lingering conservativism of parts of Quebec at this time closely related to any powerful strand of English-Canadian conservativism? Was there such a thing, to use the idiom of today, as conservatism on social issues, including traditions, the Crown, etc.? I don't know. Somehow the Liberals always end up looking like they have a plan that is both patriotic and a winner--or enough of a winner--in Quebec. Will this still be true if we are in for another referendum on separation in Quebec, many years after Trudeau said separatism was dead?

UPDATE: Although Harper's remarks were sketchy, they will remind some of Joe Clark's "community of communities" approach to federalism, and granting the provinces new powers (which prompted Trudeau to say Ottawa should not be "headwaiter to the provinces." Also Mulroney, the Meech Lake Accord. i for one have long hoped the Tories could come up with a coherent alternative to the Liberal approach. This gives me a reason to vote for my local Tory--someone I worked with a few years ago.

UPDATE: Graham Fraser had a great piece in the Star pointing out that Harper and Martin seem to have switched positions on Quebec and federalism.

Return to Main Page


Add Comment

Search This Site

Syndicate this blog site

Powered by BlogEasy

Free Blog Hosting