An indignant Quebec has voted, sending Canada's PM a message

The Canadian PM's desperate clutch at power is likely behind the resurgence of the sovereignist Parti Quebecois in this week's provincial election, and could have major federal implications when he is next forced to go to the polls

Canada is a country divided. As with many things Canadian, the world tends to say “who cares, it’s Canada and it’s boring”, but the divisions go to the very heart of its ethos of nationhood; an ethos shared by fellow democracies, including New Zealand.

In the last two weeks Canada has been rocked by what many in the Eastern and Maritime provinces – particularly the French majority province of Quebec – see as a usurpation of power by the Prime Minister, who was able to shut down of Parliament rather than face a confidence vote. In the prairie provinces of central Canada and to a lesser extent in sections of the mainly socialist-hippie enclaves of Western Canada (i.e. British Columbia), PM Stephen Harper is a hero. There’s true venom in the public opinion columns of newspapers and on radio talkback. The fall-out since the prorogation of Parliament has hit the nation like the current winter snows.

And therein lies the question. Is Canada really a nation, or is it a large land mass with relatively few people perilously clinging to the US border, while arguably it’s most vibrant province, Quebec, would really like to leave and those out West would love to say “good riddance”?

Harper sorely tested this notion of nationhood in the way he approached the coalition of opposition parties who essentially called his bluff on his economic statement to Parliament. The game of constitutional dominoes that he triggered, culminating in prorogation, has damaged any ideal of unity. And it was all so easily done. Harper simply evoked the Bloc Québécois as an evil and dangerous threat to, as the national anthem goes, “our home and native land”.

Harper made much of the Liberals and the New Democrats in a formal coalition having to rely on the Quebec-only Bloc for confidence measures. Only too well aware of the pejorative epithet involved, he called the Bloc a “sovereignist” party when speaking in French but damned it as “separatist” when speaking in English. It was as subtle as a snow plough. It reeked of desperation as Harper clutched at anything to avoid the unlikely coalition cabal which threatened his political survival.

Subsequently he managed to convince the Governor General to prorogue Parliament. But he could not put off this week’s provincial election in Quebec.

While politics delivers very few bouquets for second place, the results of this election are the exception. The Parti Québécois (essentially the provincial arm of the federal Bloc) has been returned to the position of a strong and determined major opposition party holding 51 of the province’s 125 seats. The Liberals won a majority of three with 66. The rest really don’t matter as last term’s official opposition, the ADQ, was all but wiped out.

While the Liberals maintained their majority, they fared much worse than the polls had predicted. The PQ surpassed all expectations, particularly in the final week of the campaign that just so happened to coincide with the Harper slagging of the separatists/sovereignists. Mon Dieu! Does anyone else detect a possible coincidence in timing?

The election was exceptional on many fronts.

  • In what seems to be a newly emerging Canadian tradition, it was held just 17 months after the last election for a four year mandate.
  • The separatist sentiments of the PQ were very much a soft sell at the beginning of the campaign until Harper poked them in the eye with his sharp survival stick.
  • On election day in Montreal, for example, the temperature with the wind chill factored in was -31c. That’s right, -31c. Only the really dedicated brave that sort of cold to vote for a pesky Premier who, as was the case with Harper’s last election call, only went to the polls to try and secure a majority.

Quebec Premier John Charest did get his Christmas wish majority, but the turnout was a disgraceful 57%. That was the lowest since the late 1920s when turnouts began to be calculated. In some electorates the turnout was as low as 44%.

Radio stations have been begging voters – or in this case non voters – to phone in and explain why they didn’t vote. The response has not been great to that either, possibly because by law each eligible voter must be given four hours off work to go and cast their vote. By my rudimentary calculations there will be many eligible voters who took the four hours respite from the Arctic conditions but blew a frozen raspberry to the idea of darkening the doorway of a voting booth.

The exception seems to have been those so incensed with Harper that they abandoned their Poutine (a Quebec delicacy of French fries topped with cheese curds and brown gravy) and headed out to shove a collective fleur de lis at Harper. The full analysis of the backlash is yet to be worked through, but the resurrection of the PQ is indicative of the divisions that have in the past eaten away at the notion of nation-Canada.

It must be remembered that the separatist/sovereignist cause has as recently as 1996 been only narrowly defeated in this election-plagued tundra. It remains on the books of the PQ and promises to live as a constant irritant to Charest’s tiny majority of three.

Even more of an irritant however, will be the effect of the Harper attitude on the Federal vote within Quebec. Every Prime Minister sucks up to the province because without it there really is little hope of having a federal majority. Harper has in the past gone as far as to recognize Quebec as a nation within a united Canada. Now all bets are off. Voters have shown what they can do provincially when they are indignant. They may well be warming up for the message they intend to send Harper should, horror of horrors, there be yet another election in early 2009 – that would be the fourth in six years.

Whatever happens, the Liberals will have a new leader with the hapless Stéphane Dion now gone. In his place is the rather cool (in the truly chilly Canadian sense), aloof and excessively bright Michael Ignatieff, who stared down all challengers to be the only candidate still standing for the top Liberal job. It will be his officially mid-way through next year, but what is more relevant is that when Harper returns to Parliament as the GG ordered him to do on January 26 he will no longer be able to sneer at Dion. While he’s no slouch himself, Harper will be forced to ensure his grey matter is in full working order to combat Ignatieff’s.

It is a fair argument however to believe that Canada now needs much more than two leaders with personality bypasses to effect a reunification of Anglophones and Francophones.

Harper, with his much improved but still fingernails-on-chalkboard French, has dug himself a hideous political trench from which he may never emerge.

Ignatieff, fluent in both national languages, may just be smart enough to disengage from the coalition Dion lead. Instead, he could provoke Harper into an election at a time that suits Ignatieff’s hopes and desires to be Captain Canada – whatever that means these days.

In the meantime, we should all stay indoors and spend the winter contemplating the meaning of democracy, nationhood and those other warm fuzzy notions that come with jingle bells, big red suits and sleighs.