Toward a New Canada

Article excerpt

Byline: Jeffrey T. Kuhner, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The victory by Jean Charest's Liberal Party over the separatist Parti Quebecois in Quebec's recent provincial election raises the important question: Is the province's nationalist movement dead?

Mr. Charest's win was impressive. The provincial Liberals captured 45 percent of the vote, compared to 33 percent for the Parti Quebecois and 18 percent for the center-right Action Democratique du Quebec. Mr. Charest is an economic conservative, who during the campaign called for tax cuts, balanced budgets and improving the province's faltering health-care system.

His great achievement was that he denied Premier Bernard Landry and the Parti Quebecois a third term in office. A victory by the Quebec separatists would have most likely resulted in another referendum on whether the French-speaking province of 6.7 million should declare independence from Canada. In the last referendum held in 1995, Quebec nationalists came within 1 percentage point of winning a vote on secession.

Mr. Charest declared on election night that Quebec had given itself a 21st-century government. "It is a mandate for change that we have received and a mandate for renewal," he told cheering Liberal supporters.

The new federalist premier's task will be a difficult one. Following 30 years of constitutional wrangling with Ottawa over Quebec's status within Canada, the province's economy has plummeted. It has a bloated public sector, the highest tax burden in North America and one of the lowest standards of living in the country. Quebec nationalism has come with a high cost for the province's citizens.

Yet as Mr. Charest tackles Quebec's economic problems, he will also need to focus on the nationalist question. For the defeat of the Parti Quebecois was in fact the best thing that could have happened to the province's nationalist movement at this time.

After 10 years in power, the party was seen by many Quebecers as complacent and out of touch with the economic trends prevalent in the rest of North America. The leftist Parti Quebecois remained wedded to social democracy, high taxes and strong public spending, while most other English-speaking Canadian provinces made painful decisions to improve their competitiveness in the global economy.

The result is that the separatist party lost the confidence of many voters in its ability to manage bread-and-butter issues such as jobs, health care and education. The relentless erosion in Quebec's standard of living threatened to undermine the nationalist project. Many voters asked themselves if Quebec City cannot get its economic house in order, how then will it forge a viable, French-speaking independent state?

The irony is that if Mr. Charest succeeds in passing his sensible economic agenda, it is almost inevitable that a prosperous economy will serve as the basis for the renewal of Quebec nationalism. …