Denormalizing separatism

December 23rd, 2008
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From the editorial pages of the Calgary Herald, December 17, 2008:

The past weeks have revealed many things, including the tendency among much of Canada’s political class to treat Quebec separatism as basically normal. The trend even includes a son of the man who spent his national political career fighting the separatists. Numerous pundits have also adopted this mindset. Among the few who hasn’t is the National Post’s Robert Fulford, who recently illuminated how Quebec separatism and separatists have been progressively “normalized”, with their English-Canadian apologists inventing a vocabulary of euphemisms – and studiously avoiding the subject whenever possible.

A central part of the story of the past weeks is Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s counter-campaign to denormalize separatism. Undoing the ill-work of decades will take time, but Harper has started well. His political opponents plus many journalists are appalled and, apparently, terrified. Millions of Canadians, by contrast, seem to be on board – almost as if they’d been waiting for it. If the polls are to be believed, the Conservatives have climbed to record popularity. For many Canadians, Quebec separatism – and politicians who offer separatists an effective federal veto – are anything but normal.

For the crime of speaking plainly, Harper’s been hammered as a demagogue, a practitioner of “wedge” politics, even Robert Mugabe-lite. The mildest commentary holds that Canadians didn’t need to hear about separatism, that Harper should have focused on the proposed Liberal-NDP coalition’s other defects. Even sister newspapers of the Herald ran tut-tutting pieces taking that line. Repeated often enough, this narrative will become the meme on Parliament Hill.

Justin Trudeau, wearing his most doe-eyed expression, urged that it was time to move beyond the “old divisions.” In other words, it’s just fine to govern jointly with separatists – and in poor taste to mention it. By raising this unbearably painful subject, Harper was said to be stoking divisions and insulting all Quebeckers (although it would seem tough for even a “distinct” society to be at once bitterly split and unified in outrage). Almost alone, André Pratte of La Presse insisted the PM wasn’t insulting all Quebeckers.

It’s true Harper was quite blunt during the most heated exchanges in the House of Commons. (Then again, Stephane Dion was shrieking “liar” almost hysterically.) But Harper’s lengthy remarks after his meeting with the Governor-General show a man explaining himself calmly and rationally.
“The Bloc has a mandate that is different than the three other parties’,” he said. “For our three parties – and I can speak especially about my Quebec conservative colleagues – my, our, Canada includes Quebec. For the Bloc Quebecois their Quebec doesn’t include Canada and this is a difference of perspective that is much more fundamental than other political differences between parties.” There was much more, none of which could be construed as denouncing Quebeckers.

Harper’s message was that the separatist federal party may be legal – but it’s not normal. Although well outside the particular currents of Parliament Hill opinion, events suggest Harper’s position represents the nation’s mainstream. The focus of disapproval, disbelief and anger for many Canadians has been the coalition’s alliance with separatist politicians far more than its mere existence or wasteful proposals.

Many of the anti-coalition petitions that circulated during the crisis placed separatism front and centre, including this open letter to the G-G: “When a group whose purpose is to promote separatism, and does not run a candidate in any province other than Quebec, can form part of a coalition government, any rules that previously existed need to be disregarded or thrown out.”

Anti-separatism also featured at the nationwide rallies, like the 3,000-strong crowd here in Calgary. Yet even we Albertans proved easily able to distinguish separatism and its federal practitioners from Quebeckers generally. When one speaker reminded folks that Quebec City is Calgary’s sister-city, people cheered. Nonetheless, Quebec Liberal politicians were later reported to have been cowering in terror that they were about to witness another “Quebec flag-stomping or burning” episode. Now who’s insulting a whole province?

Yet the hammering of Harper continued last week. Leading figures accused him of strengthening the separatist cause – citing claims from the separatists themselves. But why take separatist politicians at face value? Dogmatic ideologues such as Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois are driven by an unwavering agenda, and say whatever advances their purposes. In any case, why would calling out the separatists strengthen them more than concocting a coalition in which the Bloc Quebecois would gain a veto? Again we see the mindset that separatism and its practitioners are normal – it’s the PM from Alberta who’s the aberration.

Luckily the public doesn’t seem to be buying it. Public opinion is meshing with Harper’s program to denormalize separatism. His position is of a piece with the young opposition MP whose private member’s bill one Stephane Dion would later pass as the Clarity Act. The next – much longer and more arduous – phase will be persuading Quebeckers they have more to gain by supporting federalist parties than gravitating to the Parti and Bloc Quebecois. We don’t deny any individual’s right to advocate independence, but separatism as a national political agenda needs to be denormalized.

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By George Koch and John Weissenberger