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Parti Quebecois

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Scotland Stays

A week ago, the “Kurdistan Times” warned that “the British are exercising the old colonialist tongue to control the minds and dampen the aspirations of Scottish people who want to vote Yes (to independence).” And lo! It came to pass just as the Kurdistan Times predicted. The silver-tongued colonialists lured the Scots into voting No, and by a fairly healthy margin, too: 55 percent No, 45 percent Yes.

It is, indeed, a much wider margin for the No than the last time a proposal for secession was voted on in a Western country, in Canada in 1995. In that referendum, just 50.5 percent of Quebecers voted No, compared to 49.5 percent who voted Yes.

It was a near-death experience for Canada, in the sense that Quebec bulks much larger in Canada than Scotland does in the United Kingdom. It has almost a quarter of the Canadian population, whereas Scotland has only 8 percent of the UK population.

At the time, many Canadians thought that the country’s demolition had only been deferred, not averted. It was, after all, the second referendum on Quebec’s independence, and it was a lot closer to a Yes than the first one in 1980 (60 percent No, 40 percent Yes). Third time lucky, muttered the separatists of the Parti Quebecois. And everybody else assumed that they’d just keep holding referendums until they got the right answer.

That was when a Montreal journalist called Josh Freed coined the word “Neverendum” to describe the process, and for more than a decade that was the wheel that everybody in Quebec assumed that they were tied to. But they turned out to be wrong. Almost two decades later there has been no third referendum, nor is there any on the horizon.

Indeed, there was a provincial election in Quebec in April, and the Parti Quebecois looked set to win it – until one of its star candidates started talking about another referendum on independence, and the PQ’s vote suddenly collapsed. A recent poll revealed that 64 percent of Quebecers, and an even higher proportion of young Quebecers, don’t want another referendum.

Could it work out that way in Scotland too? That would be good, because what will probably happen if another referendum remains a possibility is what befell Quebec: a low-level depression that lasted for decades as investors avoided a place whose future was so uncertain, and existing businesses pulled out. It was not even that everybody knew that Quebec’s independence would be an economic disaster; just that nobody could be certain it wouldn’t be.

The result was that Quebec’s share of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product, which was around 25 percent when the separatist Parti Quebecois was first elected in 1976, is now less than 20 percent. That is about 90 billion dollars of lost economic activity in Quebec each year, even though another referendum on independence has been a rapidly receding prospect for at least the past dozen years.

How might Scotland avoid that fate? The only way, really, is for “Devo Max” to work so well, and so thoroughly satisfy Scots’ understandable desire for more control over their own government and economy, that nobody talks about independence any more. That will be more than a little tricky.

“Devo Max” – maximum devolution of power from London to Edinburgh – would leave little else but defence and foreign affairs to the UK parliament in London. Everything else would be decided by Scots, in Scotland, including rates of taxation and the level of spending on health and welfare.

So what’s the problem? Scotland was already more than halfway there before the independence referendum. In the panicky last days before the vote, when it briefly looked like the Yes might squeak through to a narrow victory, all three major British parties promised to deliver the other half as well.

But it will be very hard for them to keep their promises, which include placing what amounts to a proposal for a new British constitution before the Westminster parliament by next March. They are starting with three different versions of Devo Max for Scotland, and getting to a single agreed version (which also satisfies the great majority of Scots) in only six months is a tall order.

Even more difficult is the fact that Scotland cannot all be given all these powers while the other parts of the United Kingdom – Wales, Northern Ireland and even the various regions of England – stay just the same. There must be at least some more devolution for them too, but that debate has barely started.

What the United Kingdom must do in the next six months, in other words, is design and pass its first written constitution. And it will not just codify existing arrangements; it will radically change them. Meanwhile, the disappointed Scottish supporters of the Yes will be looking for opportunities to claim that the “English” (as they will put it) are reneging on their promises.

So what are the odds that Scotland will escape the “planning blight” of a long period during which a second referendum lurks in the shadows, and the economic damage accumulates? Not very good.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 6 and 14. (“It was…population”; “Indeed…referendum”; and “What…promises”)

Canada: The Dog Woke Up

23 November 2006

Canada: The Dog Woke Up

By Gwynne Dyer

“Michael Ignatieff strode back into Canada bearing gilt-edged promises that he had kept a close watch on our political evolution during his decades on foreign soil and that he would be appropriately sensitive to our sociopolitical nuances. He then, by stating a position on Quebec as a nation, proceeded to break our single most important political taboo. It is as if a papal candidate had suddenly barged into a Catholic church and set the altar ablaze.”

So ran the lead editorial of one of Canada’s two national newspapers, the National Post, on the day after the blaze spread to the roof. When Michael Ignatieff, a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party and therefore potentially a future prime minister, declared last June that he saw the mainly French-speaking province of Quebec as “a nation” within Canada, and was open to new negotiations to enshrine that concept in the constitution, he re-opened the wound that never really heals, and condemned the country to another constitutional crisis.

Last month, taking their lead from Ignatieff, the Quebec branch of the Liberal Party adopted a resolution calling for the party to recognise “the Quebec nation within Canada,” and to “officialise this historical and social reality.” Then the separatist Quebec party in the federal parliament, the Bloc Quebecois, seized on that to introduce a bill demanding “that this House recognise that Quebecers form a nation.”

The Bloc hoped the other parties would vote against the bill, thereby demonstrating their alleged hostility to French-speaking Quebecers and their aspirations, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper was too clever for them. On Wednesday, he introduced a resolution declaring that parliament “recognises that the Quebecois form a nation WITHIN A UNITED CANADA,” and all the parties flocked to support it — even the Bloc Quebecois.

In one swift move Harper won support for his Conservative Party in Quebec in the next election, and boosted the chances that Michael Ignatieff, the easiest candidate to beat, will win the leadership of the Liberal Party. However, he also raised the spectre of Quebec separatism from its shallow grave.

Harper’s Conservatives, of course, insist that they have done no such thing. His Quebec lieutenant, Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, in a performance that would have left Don Rumsfeld envious, denied that the motion had any legal consequences: “We are not at the point of a constitutional demand. Has anyone seen a constitutional demand in the works? No, we haven’t seen one. Is it our intention to have one? No, there is no intention to have one.”

But Andre Boisclair, leader of the Parti Quebecois which spearheads the separatist movement within Quebec, took a very different view. The motion to recognise that Quebecers form a nation “will give us a powerful tool for the international recognition of a future sovereign Quebec… I feel better equipped today to talk about sovereignty to Quebecers than I was before the motion.”

Since the “quiet revolution” of the 1960s delivered Quebec into the modern world politically, the issue of independence for Canada’s only French-majority province has never gone away for long. The separatist Parti Quebecois has been in power much of the time since then, and is favoured in the opinion polls to return to power in the next provincial election. Twice it has held referendums on independence, and twice it has failed to get a “yes” vote, but it has promised another when the circumstances are right.

In practice, “when the circumstances are right” has meant when francophone Quebecers are feeling alienated from English-speaking Canada. The first referendum on independence in 1980 was defeated 60-40, but after two failed attempts at constitutional reform the second referendum in 1995 came within a hair’s-breadth of saying “yes”. Canada has now almost certainly embarked, willy-nilly, on a third attempt at constitutional reform, regardless of how much the present government denies it. The sleeping dog has woken, and will have its day.

But a third attempt at finding a constitutional formula that will satisfy both nationalist Quebecois and the English-speaking majority in the other nine provinces is almost certainly doomed to failure for the same reasons as the first two: there is no such formula. So at the end of this road, very probably, lies a third referendum in a Quebec that is feeling rejected and alienated.

Prime Minister Harper bears a good deal of blame for this train-wreck with his too-clever resolution declaring the Quebecois to be a nation “within a united Canada,” but the true responsibility lies with Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian-born academic and journalist who had lived abroad for 27 consecutive years before he arrived in Canada from Harvard University last year to offer the Liberal Party and the country his leadership.

The lesson that most Canadians (including most French-Canadians) had gleaned from the long and gruelling ordeal of referenda and constitutional crises was that the country worked perfectly well in practice, but could not be made to work in theory — so stop obsessing about constitutional principles. But Ignatieff was absent for all that time, and he simply hadn’t grasped the lesson.

In the words of Ken Dryden, also at one point a Liberal leadership candidate, Ignatieff “bumped into a chair and woke the dog up.” But he will probably be long gone, back to Harvard or some other ivory tower, before the storm really hits Canada.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Harper’s…motion”)

Quebec’s New Hero

17 November 2005

Quebec’s New Hero

 By Gwynne Dyer

He’s young for a party leader (39), he’s gay, and he admits that he took cocaine “on a few occasions” while serving as a minister in the Quebec government in the late 90s. In fact, Andre Boisclair is practically ideal for the task of winning back the youth vote for the project of Quebec’s independence. Unfortunately for the separatist Parti Quebecois, that is only one of its tasks. The other is to win over the immigrant vote, and the very things that give Boisclair street cred in the eyes of young French-speaking Quebeckers make him anathema to many immigrants.

The question of independence has been at the centre of politics in Canada’s only French-majority province for over forty years now, and the original generation of separatists has grown old in the struggle. Many of their kids have simply lost interest in the project — there is nothing as unfashionable as the ideology of your parents’ generation — and the Parti Quebecois had to find a way to win them back. Andre Boisclair seemed perfect.

Boisclair had the warm support of the outgoing PQ leader, Bernard Landry, and he won the leadership easily in the first round of voting on 15 November: 53.6 percent of the party’s members gave him their votes, more than all the other candidates combined. They believe that he can recapture the young for the cause of independence, and maybe they’re right.

In his victory speech, Boisclair promised that “we will seek a mandate to hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty in the next election…Let us all work together to build the country of Quebec.”

However, the softness of support for that goal among francophone Quebeckers is clear in the way that the PQ avoids talking bluntly about “independence”, preferring weasel words like “sovereignty” that frighten the voters less — and even if Boisclair can attract the young back to the PQ, that alone will not be enough.

The first referendum on Quebec’s independence, held in 1980, was defeated by a 60-40 majority, but the second one in 1995 was a very close-run thing: staying in Canada only won by 39,000 votes in a province of 7.5 million people. A clear majority of “old stock” francophones (those whose ancestors had been in Quebec for many generations) voted for independence, but the English-speaking minority in Quebec and 90 percent of the recent immigrants voted against it.

It’s obvious why Quebec’s anglophones would vote not to separate from a country where three-quarters of the people speak English, but why did almost all of the recent immigrants vote with them? After all, most immigrants eventually integrate into the francophone majority, mainly because Quebec laws requires them to send their children to French schools.

Those laws have caused some bitterness, because most immigrants, left to their own devices, would choose to educate their children in English, the language that confers mobility within North America. However, it is quite understandable that the Quebec government compels them to send their children to French schools instead. Immigrants are the only part of the population that is growing, and free choice would eventually create an English-speaking majority in Quebec.

Those laws are almost thirty years old now, and they have had the desired effect. Over a tenth of Quebec’s population is foreign-born and 30,000 new immigrants arrive each year, but the proportion of Quebeckers who speak French is higher than it has been at any time in the past century. The new Quebeckers mostly work in French, send their kids to school in French, watch television in French — but the Parti Quebecois cannot persuade many of them to vote for independence from Canada.

The reason so many “old stock” francophones dream of independence is that their culture has preserved an historical memory of conquest and oppression. The injustices are long past — francophones dominate Quebec politics, there is no significant difference between the average incomes of francophones and anglophones, and the French language is safe — but for many people descended from the original French population the project of independence is a way to make history have a happy ending.

You cannot teach new francophones those emotions, however, and there are no convincing practical reasons for separating Quebec from Canada. On the contrary, it is a project that carries a certain risk of economic upheaval and even political turmoil — which is exactly what many of the immigrants came to Canada to get away from. So 90 percent of them voted to stay in Canada in the last referendum, and all the PQ’s attempts to persuade them that this is not mere ethnic nationalism but a rational, “territorial” nationalism that all Quebeckers can share have failed.

Even the separatists’ own kids were getting bored with their project, which is why they chose Andre Boisclair as their new leader. But the same lifestyle that makes him seem modern and liberated to the younger generation of “old stock” francophones — his open homosexuality and his admissions about cocaine use — will just alienate immigrant Quebeckers, most of whom are profoundly conservative in their social attitudes.

If all the anglos in Quebec and almost all the immigrants continue to vote against independence, then the PQ must win over 60 percent of the “old stock” francophone vote in a referendum to get even a slim majority for independence. That is probably still too high a threshold to cross.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Those laws…from Canada”)