The events of May 2nd exposed political turmoil that had clearly been roiling across the country for some time, relatively unnoticed up until then, but now obvious in hindsight. It’s hard not to make the somewhat large claim that Canada truly shifted after that election, and things aren’t ever going to be the same.
For all the talk of the collapse of the Bloc Québécois and the Liberal Party of Canada this year, the shutting out of the Conservative party in Quebec has not been taken up in the national discourse. While many Canadians applauded the apparent end of the separatist era in Ottawa, few seemed to contemplate the sobering fact that Quebec voted very differently than the rest of the country. For all the ringing endorsements of Quebec’s “return to federalism,” nobody seems willing to consider that perhaps the Quebecois have given up on voting for something in Canada and now only vote against whomever they dislike (in this case, just about everyone but the NDP).
Alongside the Bloc, its provincial counterpart, the Parti Québécois, has been beset by problems essentially from the moment the ballots were counted in May. A series of resignations by party members, most of whom were serious party heavyweights, has rocked Quebec and revived long-dormant discussions of federalism, separatism and Quebec’s place within Canada.
Despite the relative calm on the so-called “national unity front” over the past few years, anyone familiar with the nature of Quebec-Canada relations knows the status quo has always been precarious. The country has been stuck in a rather silly situation wherein 25% of the population does not, symbolically speaking, recognize or accept the Constitution that rules them.
The more troubling aspect of the status quo, however, is the long ferment of a generation of young Canadians who have grown up with no real sense of attachment to Canada. Many young Quebec citizens today define themselves as Quebecois first and foremost, and refute any ownership of a Canadian identity. Most of them do not even know the words to the national anthem. Surely the status quo isn’t truly working if an entire population of young Canadians grows up with a distaste for their own country.
Young Quebecois, essentially, believe sovereignty is cool. It has all the edgy spin and risk of history’s great political movements, and it’s an easy rallying point for their disenchantment with current politics—always-effective enticements for the young to attach themselves to a cause. It is in this regard that the massive NDP win in Quebec becomes clear: if Quebec, particularly its ever-dynamic young population, doesn’t care about Canada, then they probably don’t care about whom they vote for. The NDP sweep of the province may well be a honeymoon, as Stephen Harper hopes. Who knows what will happen when smiling Jack Layton is out of the picture? Are Quebecois voting for a party, with its values and policies, or just a face they’d like to see on the news more?
Quebec’s tidal sweeps of politicians in and out of power have always punctuated its politics and history; it is easily the most politically turbulent province in the country. The pattern of change does bode interesting, but not necessarily better, things for the future. Quebec is now massively underrepresented in a federal government, the most it has been in nearly a century. Although the NDP has done an ostensibly good job of securing Quebec’s vote for the time being, the other major parties need to examine their relationship with the province as well. Until they strike a chord with Quebec, until they work hard to rebuild a relationship with the province’s disaffected youth after decades of allowing separatist to grow deeper roots, federalism will remain a pipe dream. The collapse of the sovereigntist parties of yesterday does not necessarily signal the resurgence of Canada’s unity—all it takes is a new separatist movement to fill the void. After all, if its electoral sweeps prove anything, it’s that Quebec loves a new face and loves a winning one even more.
All the country’s politicians must work to nurture a new sense of Canada in Quebec. They must debate and discuss what that means with the young Quebecois of today to ensure they feel a sense of belonging in the Canada of tomorrow. If they don’t, the future of Canada lies in the balance. Watching the old guard die off recently, I fear too many of us have looked back to triumphantly congratulate ourselves for settling the disputes of the past, while ignoring the simmering problems of the future they haven’t yet turned to see. William Johnson of the Ottawa Citizen declared ‘The Quiet Revolution is Over’; what if Canada is just sitting on the cusp of a new one? Unless federal politicians change their tactics, the possibility remains.