Not if you listen to the usual suspects obsessing about how “dangerous” it is that the federal government has only a handful of seats in Quebec. Horror stories abound of late, including one about former prime minister Brian Mulroney expressing his fears about Quebec politics to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Ottawa’s alleged “weakness” is contrasted with the likelihood of a victory for the Parti Québécois in the looming provincial election. The nightmare picture painted for us is of a frightened federal government dominated by non-Quebeckers facing a strong provincial government committed to taking Quebec out of Confederation. Who would speak for Canada in a referendum campaign, is the question asked in anguished tones by the professional doomsters.
For many years, I have believed fervently that this way of thinking about the issue is exactly backwards, and for once, I think we may have a chance to test out which view is right.
Where we all got so badly off track was in convincing ourselves that because Quebeckers were different, and valued that difference, that the rest of the country had to apologize for not being like them. Our differences were reason for us to feel guilty. And if we protested that we too saw value in our thoughts, the way we behaved and the history that made us, we were bad Canadians, clinging to an outmoded past best bundled surreptitiously, like all family skeletons, into a dusty attic.
We acquiesced in rewriting our history to make Quebec a unilingual French-speaking province, when the English presence is nearly as old and every bit as legitimate as that of French-speakers. The rest of the country, including Ottawa, watched in silence as oppressive and revanchist policies were put in place that drove hundreds of thousands of Canadians from their homes in Montreal and elsewhere in Quebec simply because the province decided it would make it onerous and unpleasant to live, work and be educated in English.
English-speaking Canada collaborated in the demonization of English Quebeckers with the dismissive epithet of Westmount Rhodesians, implying that law-abiding citizens whose only crime was to wish to preserve the language and the institutions their ancestors had legitimately established in Quebec were somehow a distasteful remnant of a repugnant colonialist and racist past.
In the name of celebrating “la difference” we went along with an orgy of public spending, tax rises, state intimidation of business, public debt, and other policies that have so devastated the provincial economy that the last time I looked Quebec had nearly one-quarter of the national population but a mere seventh of the private sector jobs. One reason for the decline of my beloved Montreal Canadians is likely the ruinous taxation the province imposes, driving talented athletes as well as businesspeople to less confiscatory jurisdictions.
But lest Quebeckers turn around and blame Canada for their self-inflicted economic decline, we lessened the blow by massively subsidizing this perverse behaviour. We didn’t breathe a word of criticism, however, lest it be taken as proof we despised Quebeckers and they were better off in their own country. In fact with each election and referendum we offered to up the bounty.
We accepted the emasculation of Ottawa to the point where we have to beg the provinces to tear down the barriers they themselves have erected to the freedom of people to buy and sell their goods and services to other Canadians across the land. Ottawa feels daring when it allows individual Canadians to buy a bottle of wine in Niagara or the Okanagan and take it home to Calgary or Sorel without fear of arrest.
These behaviours were sold as necessary to make Quebeckers feel “at home” in Canada, the price of “keeping the country together,” but they were nothing of the sort. They were acts of collective self-abasement. But if I have learned anything about negotiations in life, it is that if you don’t respect and believe in yourself, the people on the other side of the table certainly won’t. They will exploit your self-doubt.
Our great failing vis-à-vis Quebec then, has not been our unwillingness to change to accommodate them. It has been our unwillingness to demand their respect for our differences, and for the country. And if we do demand that respect, far from slamming the door on the way out, Quebecers will find their emotional attachment to Canada renewed and refreshed.
On this I can cite no less an authority than one of the founders of the separatist movement in Quebec, Pierre Bourgault, who said, “Believe in yourselves and then maybe we’ll believe in you too.…The day you believe in Canada as much as I believe in Quebec, 90 percent of your problems will go away.”