Goodbye, Quebec? A Quebec Politician and Civil Servant Reissues a Provocative Invitation
Scowen, Reed, Literary Review of Canada
A few years ago I wrote a book with the central proposition that Canada would better off without Quebec. It was published in 1999 under the title Time to Say Goodbye: The Case for Getting Quebec Out of Canada. In it I suggested that the political values of Quebec and the rest of the country are incompatible. One indication of this is the independence movement, supported by slightly more than half of Quebec's francophone population. But the mismatch is equally evident in the attitude of the other half, which overwhelmingly sees Quebec as its one and only political home and believes that the federal government should hand over an undefined but ever increasing share of its revenues, responsibilities and status to the Quebec legislature. To make their position perfectly clear Quebeckers consistently elect the majority of their members of Parliament from the Bloc Quebecois, a political party whose only discernible idea is the achievement of Quebec's independence, and whose presence in Ottawa critically undermines the federal system.
My second point was that the federal government's response to these pressures--its costly and erratic efforts to prevent separation--diverts our attention from many more important issues vital to Canada's long-term prosperity and security. It also gives rise to a legitimate feeling in the other provinces that they are victims of discrimination. This erodes the sense of fairness that is essential to the successful management of our Canadian federal system. The present situation is corrosive and profoundly dysfunctional--for Canada.
Finally, I argued that Quebec will never separate, or stop threatening to separate, because the maintenance of this tension admirably serves its own interests. By playing off threats of independence with demands for more autonomy and more money, it has already achieved a kind of "special status" in Canada--in the form of the status quo. For Quebeckers, federal-provincial relations could not get any better than they are right now. Until recently, Canadians have reluctantly chosen to live with this federal bias toward Quebec--seeing it either as a duty to make amends for past injustices or as the price to be paid for the originality of our dual nationhood, or as a problem that time would resolve.
Although my book received considerable attention for a few weeks, and a French-language edition was published that same year with the title Le Temps des adieux: plaidoyer pour un Canada sans le Quebec, the timing was bad. In early 2000 it was widely believed that a new generation of "forward looking, internationally minded" Quebeckers was evolving in a way that made talk of independence irrelevant for them. In any event, the failed Parizeau referendum of 1995 had made another one unacceptable; even those who had voted yes were opposed to putting themselves through the process again. And, in Ottawa, the government was busy adopting the Clarity Act, which put tough restrictions on the wording of the question in any future referendum, and on the majority which would be required. So it seemed that the beast was finally dead and could be given a quiet burial.
Today, six years later, one cannot be so sure. The separatist movement is still alive and well in Quebec, supported, it seems, by the new "outward-looking" francophones who were supposed to have outgrown it, and by at least 30 percent of all new immigrants to the province. The shabby efforts of the Liberal government to buy the federalist vote during the 1995 referendum (revealed in the sponsorship scandal) have hardened suspicion of Ottawa in Quebec. Meanwhile, the federalist Liberal Party controls Quebec's Assemblee Nationale but the most recent polls indicate it would receive only 30 percent of the vote if an election were held today. It is quite possible that we will have another independence referendum in Quebec in the next few years.
In the rest of Canada the feeling that Quebec has gone too far is becoming more prevalent. …