This is always an election issue in Canada. Never the most prominent one, but always there in the background. One reason why this continues to be the case despite separation not having been on the political table since the nineties is that Stephen Harper is strangely obsessed with this issue. This obsession goes back to well before he was leader of the Conservative party, as demonstrated a speech he gave in a 1997 speech delivered to the Council for National Policy. You might remember this speech from the infamous assertion that “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it“, but that was not actually the point of the talk. Harper’s real intention was to provide an alternate view of the Canadian political spectrum, centered around the issue of Quebec sovereignty:
“The party system that is developing here in Canada is a party system that replicates the antebellum period, the pre-Civil War period of the United States.
The Bloc Quebecois is equivalent to your Southern secessionists, Southern Democrats, states rights activists.
The Progressive Conservative party is very much comparable to the Whigs of the 1850s and 1860s. What is happening to them is very similar to the Whigs. A moderate conservative party, increasingly under stress because of the secession movement, on the one hand, and the reaction to that movement from harder line English Canadians on the other hand.
The Liberal party is very much your northern Democrat, or mainstream Democratic party, a party that is less concessionary to the secessionists than the PCs, but still somewhat concessionary.
The Reform party opposes [the demands of the separatists] on all kinds of grounds, but most important, Reformers are highly resistant philosophically to the idea that we will have an open, modern, multi-ethnic society on one side of the line, and the other society will run on some set of ethnic-special-status principles. This is completely unacceptable, particularly to philosophical conservatives in the Reform party.
The Reform party’s strength comes almost entirely from the West. It’s become the dominant political force in Western Canada. And it is getting a substantial vote in Ontario. Twenty per cent of the vote in the last two elections. But it has not yet broken through in terms of the number of seats won in Ontario.”
Harper may very well still feel this way about the Canadian political landscape, though we will probably have to wait until his biography-writing days before he opens up enough to clearly state as much. What is clear is that Harper, and the majority of his uncritical supporters, continue to see separatism as a boogeyman.
Let’s look a little bit more closely at the parallel that Harper draws between Canadian politics and the United States’ Civil War. I was nine at the time of the referendum, so I don’t remember enough about the politics to comment on the validity of Harper’s analysis, but there are some inferences to be made here about how he sees Quebec. He states that the Bloc are the separatist party, and that the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals split the concessionist role. That leads the Reformers, who are the real philosophical ancestor of today’s Conservative party, the position of being opposed not only to separation, but also to any measures to make confederation a more attractive arrangement and therefore keep Quebec.
There is something ethically suspect about this position. If Harper and his Reform buddies are unwilling to let Quebec separate, and also unwilling to negotiate with Quebec so that they do not want to separate, then what is left is a kind of aggressive external coercion which seeks to shackle Quebec to English Canada whether they like it or not. This can also be seen in the video I linked to above: Harper does not raise the spectre of Quebec sovereignty; he raises the spectre of another referendum. Regardless of its outcome, a democratic process which will allow the people of Quebec to decide on their national allegiance is unacceptable to Harper.
Let me be clear that I want Quebec to remain a part of the country. The 1996 referendum was my first exposure to politics and I stayed up well past my bedtime waving a Canadian flag as I watched the results on CBC. I would do the exact same thing were there another referendum. But, no matter how hard I waved that Canadian flag, the outcome of the referendum would not be up to me. If a majority of Quebecois want to leave the country then I will be sorry to see them go, but it would be a result that I and the rest of English Canada would be forced to accept.
We cannot force Quebec to want to be Canadian, but I have a pretty good idea how we can make less likely to want to be Canadian. If the Conservative demagoguery, dismissiveness, and suspicion that has been directed towards Quebec and their elected representatives continues unabated, then I don’t blame them for trying to leave. I also would not be entirely surprised if they are uninterested in membership in a country that votes in a majority government for a Prime Minister who shuts down parliament to cover up torture allegations, and that directs its police to arbitrarily arrest over a thousand people, many simply for having a Quebecois accent. If Quebec decides to separate then, frankly, I would seriously consider moving there.