Why do the Harper Conservatives act like they want to drive Quebec out of Confederation?

“If the English language was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for Canada!” Certain Western separatists, like Freddy Lee “Ed” Clampett, shown here, may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.

Growing up in Western Canada after prime minister Lester B. Pearson’s Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission was set up in 1963, it was always easy to find someone who wanted to bellyache about the use of the French language in Canada.

These people were forever complaining about how “French was being rammed down their throats with their cornflakes.” I’ll leave it to readers to consider the psychological ramifications, as it were, of why that particular meme stuck in the minds of so many Western Canadians.

A relative of mine from here in Alberta – who has now passed on to his unilingual reward in the English-only section of Heaven – would regularly whine, literally whine, “Why can’t they just speak English like the rest of the world?”

My personal favourite, though, was the probably apocryphal sentiment attributed to “a farmer south of Calgary,” likely another of my shirttail relatives, who was said to have told a reporter at the roadside soon after the Bi and Bi Commission’s report was finally released in 1969, that “if the English language was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for Canada.”

Thanks to the commission, the implications of the Révolution tranquille on national unity, and the bad scare English Canadians got from the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum, which the No side won by a sobering 50.58 per cent, lots of progress has been made on making Canada, if not quite bilingual, at least a country in which speakers of the two official languages are reasonably comfortable within their mutually beneficial national compromise.

Yes, there are certainly a few die-hard separatists left awaiting their day in Quebec, and a few anti-French troglodytes driving pickup trucks festooned with bumper stickers out here in the West, but things really have been blessedly quiet now for more than a decade.

But there’s nothing like a Conservative government in Ottawa to get folks stirred up, and not in a good way. Arguably, it was Brian Mulroney’s effort to sell his version of a perfected constitution that opened the door to the 1995 referendum that came so perilously close to splitting the country.

But in Mr. Mulroney’s defence, at least he was motivated by the desire to bring Quebeckers fully into the Canadian family, and furthermore by his belief that the imperfections of the 1982 constitution left them outside. We can question Mr. Mulroney’s analysis or his tactics if we like – including his dangerous tendency to roll the dice – but there’s no doubt the man was sincere about what he was trying to achieve on the constitutional file and his actions are understandable in that context.

The so-called Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is harder to figure. On the face of it, at least, the series of symbolic and practical slaps it has delivered to Quebec just in the last 90 days seem designed intentionally to alienate Quebeckers and encourage the remaining separatists there. Some of them make sense given the Harper Conservatives’ origins and the deep resentments they harbour. Others make no sense at all. Consider:

  • The peculiar decision in mid-August to bring back the “Royal” prefix to describe the Canadian Navy and Air Force. No one in English Canada cared much about this any more – it was a fight lost by another generation. Yet it remains a powerful symbol of an unequal past in Quebec. It would seem this was done in the wake of a royal visit to please a few grumpy old vets and an even smaller number of nutty members of the tiny Monarchist League of Canada.
  • The decision to cut Quebec shipyards out of a $33-billion naval shipbuilding program. Much was made by the government of the “non partisan” nature of the civil-service-run bidding process – an oddity in itself given the contempt with which these Conservatives normally hold “bureaucrats.” But what are programs to build largely unneeded strategic naval vessels but domestic-make work arrangements that benefit various regions of the country? This is, after all, at the heart of the American political-economic model our Conservatives so much admire.
  • The bizarre decision at the end of October push to appoint a unilingual Auditor General when fluency in both official languages was right there in the job description. The chosen one, Michael Ferguson, said he was recruited by a corporate headhunter and that he never bothered to read the job description – some auditor! This despite the fact that the understanding that key public-service jobs will be held by people fluent in both languages is part of the historic compromise that has (barely) held the country together.
  • The similarly inexplicable appointment in mid-October of the unilingual Ontario judge Michael Moldaver to the Supreme Court of Canada. Justice Moldaver has promised to learn to speak French, a nice gesture, but not very meaningful under the circumstances.
  • The double slap of the Conservative plan to destroy the national shotgun and rifle registry, which is popular for good reason in Quebec – where the hideous Dec. 6, 1989, massacre of 14 young women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique prompted the drive to register these weapons – and the Harperites’ adamant refusal to share the data collected and paid for by Quebec taxpayers as well as the rest of us.

Each one of these actions seems designed particularly to offend voters in Quebec. And in the great scheme of things, each one of them returns little value for the effort expended. What could explain such behaviour?

The first thing to remember about this government is that it is not the Conservative Party of John Macdonald or John Diefenbaker or Joe Clark or Mr. Mulroney. This is the embittered rump of the Reform Party of Canada that, so far, has fooled enough Canadians into seeing it as the great national party of yore with which it shares part of a name.

Moreover, Mr. Harper himself is known for his vindictiveness toward anyone who fails to support his ideas or stands in the way of his plans.

Together, these facts probably explain the government’s seething and xenophobic reaction to the sweep of the New Democratic Party in Quebec in the May federal election.

Second, these Reformers – and Prime Minister Harper in particular – are fatally addicted to the divisive but nevertheless effective American political techniques of wedge politics and fake patriotism.

And there, really, is the most likely explanation for majority the five divisive and unworthy policies noted above. Whether it is playing one part of the country against another (which the Tories also want to punish for voting the wrong way), encouraging the language resentments of a few Western Canadians who imagine they were done out of cushy federal jobs because they spoke only English, or using the inconvenience of gun registration to win a few rural ridings at the cost of alienating a province written off for other reasons, most of these decisions and the Conservatives’ response to criticism of them reflect wedge politics in action.

In the case of the unilingual judge, perhaps the desire was more to find an ideological fellow traveller. The “Royal” decision, of course, makes almost no sense at all because the designation matters to almost no one at all under the age of 70, except perhaps a few irrelevant fruitcakes from the Monarchist League.

The greatest fear, of course, is that these Conservatives see Quebec versus the rest of Canada as the biggest and best wedge issue that they’ve ever stumbled upon.

Regardless of that, one thing is clear from these most-recent developments: the Conservative Party of Canada is a divisive and destructive force in our nation’s politics. If we want our country to survive, we may not be able to afford another Harper majority government.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

11 Comments on "Why do the Harper Conservatives act like they want to drive Quebec out of Confederation?"

  1. jerrymacgp says:

    A little reminder to those "…few anti-French troglodytes driving pickup trucks festooned with bumper stickers out here in the West…", Alberta is not an English-only province. There are pockets of la francophonie right here. Take the Peace Country, for example. Falher (Canada's honeybee capital), McLennan, Donnelly, and the surrounding farmland are a little cluster of hard-working rural Franco-Albertans right in the heart of the oilpatch. I'm sure there are other such enclaves elsewhere in the province.

  2. ck says:

    Let's not forget the appointment of Angelo Perischilli to be Harper's communications guy, Soudas' replacement. French language media, like Le Devoir is still seething over that one.

    Also, shortly after the May 2 election, if you recall, there were severe floods in both Manitoba and the Richelieu Valley, as well as that fire in Slave Lake. Harper did rush to Manitoba and Slave Lake, promising federal aid, almost right away. Not for the Richelieu Valley. Only a visibly reluctant Peter MacKay showed up. Harper would only show when the first day of school (parliament) came. Quebec was only an afterthought.

    You're article is spot on. I believe that Harper really wants to be rid of Quebec. After all, he and his cons may not have needed it to get their majority, but the other parties, be it the Liberals, be it the NDP, do. As arrogant as this may sound, and given the Canadian center having shifted further to the right, even to the right of the US, as Lawrence Martin says, French Quebec is about the only thing that is progressive about Canada these days.

    Let's also add that, we're the only province seriously balking about the new tough on crime omnibus bill. Sure Ontario is, but how long will that last? Not very, in my opinion. For openers, Dalton McGuinty's only problem with it is cost to Ontario. However, with a minority, he may have to change his tune. Surely, Tim Hudak's cons support this bill. And what about Andrea Horwath? (yes, we did see an NDP government all gung ho for the bill in Manitoba).

    My point is that Quebec is the only province, that I can see, who has problems with this tough on crime bill beyond the cost to us. We have always had a different approach with Young Offenders than any other province, for thing. We rehabilitate before locking them up.

    In the meantime, in La Belle Province, this year's march for independence yielded more people than in recent years. Unlike what many pundits are saying, I did see people of all ages out there (I made an appearance out of curiosity). There were not only relics from the Quiet Revolution or the Rene Levesque days. Plenty of young people; plenty of families.

    Plus, Gilles Duceppe is high in demand these days, to lead the Parti-Quebecois. According to polls, only Duceppe can beat Francois Legault's new party, CAQ (they're supposed to officially launch next week).

  3. CuJoYYC says:

    We can't afford this majority, let alone a second one.

  4. Filostrato says:

    I watched Harper use his scuzzy anti-Québec techniques even before he got into power.

    With naval vessels, the Harperites use the American F-35 approach. Thirty-eight (?) states in the U.S. have a direct interest in keeping this turkey afloat (aloft?) and it's a vote-getter for the local congressman or senator. No matter that we don't need warships (or the useless F-35's either) but rather coastal vessels, search-and-rescue and research ships.

    On the Anglo Dei file, of course the Bible was written in English, even though it was composed by numerous authors before English existed on earth, even in its early forms. This was an indication by the Anglodeity that English was divine and its speakers were the natural inheritors of the earth. Forget all that meekness. That is so two millenia ago!

    I am a transplanted Montrealer who, finding myself in a gerrymandered far-right constituency, misses the many languages I used to hear every day. The local Reform-o-Con MP regularly sends out dispatches from Central Command about the wonder of unilingual (only English of course) judges, finally defeating the long gun registry (accompanied by drunken rebel yells from the far reaches of Lanark county) and how parents should be able to beat up their kids with impunity because it is a parent's right, goddammit!, to attack young members of their own flesh and blood.

    Fortunately, the nature of the less reactionary area around here leads to great piles of these "newsletters" being removed from post boxes and deposited, still folded and unread, in the garbage can/recycling bin or on the shelf in the lobby.

    I like the way you described the NewCons as the embittered rump of the Reform Party.

    Vote for the Sad Ass Party (SAP) of Canada. You have nothing to lose but your country!

  5. Sam Gunsch says:

    re: "Royal" and… "No one in English Canada cared much about this any more –"

    I'll expect the Tories have polling for ridings in Ontario that disagree with your assessment of "no one."

    My hunch: the same seniors that love Royal watching, are the same seniors who remain active in Remembrance day activities and watch that CBC soaper set in England.

    Isn't it the case the seniors turn up to vote disproportionately to the younger demographics?

    It's language that builds on patriotic themes, or is signifier of patriotism for enough Canadians to possibly make a difference in ridings that have non-trivial numbers of voters that could be described as supporters of "Upper Canadian Tory traditionalism" that Flanagan "wrote a lot about." This according to a Paul Wells blog post this past summer analyzing other Harper stuff.

    Harper, also according to a Paul Wells post this summer "is comfortable with patriotic themes."

    I think Wells even wrote a column arguing specifically that bringing back 'Royal' is consistent with Harper's strategy of positioning the Conservatives as THE party of Canada.

    Bringing back 'Royal' won't drive away many 'prairie populists.'

    But for Harper, if it can contribute to solidfying wins in rural Ontario or make the difference to win more…this niche based approach to politics has worked out pretty well for Harper so far.

    Sam Gunsch

  6. Anonymous says:

    Sadly your attack on the awarding of the ship building contracts was not accurate

    -The actual closing date for bids was extended to allow for Davies to bid.

    -Alas, they lost as there were other bidders in other parts of Canada that have beter bids.

    -A fact proven by and NDP staffer claiming the process was fair.

    Are you claiming that ALL bids must be awarded to Quebec companies, that ONLY Quebec companies are worthy, and that the rest of Canada need not apply.

    What is wrong with best bidder wins?

    Besides, there is still another bid that needs to be awarded

    As for bi-ligual postions, clearly the best qualified to work in numbers is the best man/woman, language be damned, or would you settle for mediocrity to satisfy racism?

    I have to agree about the damn F35 though, overweight, under performing thing that is already on probationdown south. In fact the Royal Navy has switched types to keep costs down (don't be surprised to see a cancelation) and other countries are either reducing or re-examining this dog.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Good article Dave. Right on point. I think Harper liked it better when he could disrespect Quebec by suggesting they were separtists. Keep up the good work.

  8. Sam Gunsch says:

    "In other words, Harper is trying to enhance his own position by association." J. Dyrkton

    Said here: http://joergedyrkton.blogspot.com/2011/10/canadas-royal-forces.html

    On Canada's "Royal" Forces
    by (Joerge Dyrkton)

    Over the summer, after the official visit (their first) by newlyweds Kate and William, Stephen Harper re-introduced the term “royal” to the Canadian military. He also ordered that a portrait of the Queen be placed in a prominent location in each and every Canadian Embassy around the world. The Queen is our Head of State, but Etienne de la Boétie discerns other motives:

    … it has always happened that tyrants, in order to strengthen their power, have made every effort to train their people not only in obedience and servility towards themselves, but also in adoration.

    In other words, Harper is trying to enhance his own position by association.

    Source: Etienne de la Boetie, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, tr. John Lothrop Motley (Kessinger Rare Reprints), p. 21.

    Sam Gunsch

  9. Anonymous says:

    Well a few facts regarding this long leftist rant by Mr. Climenhaga.

    Official Bilingualism has cost this country 100's of billions of dollars and has resulted in no discernable positive results. Read…Canada is a country with two official languages but is certainly not bilingual. In your home province only 0.4% of the population speaks french regularily in the home. The balance of the country is nearly the same, except for Quebec and officially bilingual New Bruswick. Surely the appointments reflect the intent of the OLA and the right to work or be served in either official language within the federal government. OH, and BTW, I don't recall any draconian language laws such as Quebec's 101 anywhere in Canada but in Quebec. So, if you want to criticize perhaps start where language of education is restricted (immigrants to Quebec have no choice but to enroll their children in the French school system) Also, perhaps you might want to investigate the fact that Quebec is guaranteed 33% of supreme court justices (3 out of 9) when their population reflects only 23% of the country.

    On the Davie shipyard contract etc etc. Do you recall the Bristol Aerospace debacle during the Mulroney era, where a winning contract in Manitoba was overruled and redirected toward Quebec. Quebec has been the recipient of many perks from he Feds over the years (such as dairy industry where 50% of the subsidies are directed towards a population base of 23% – thats a fair deal, isn't it?) What about equalization where 8 billion per year is sent from those terrible oil sands to Quebec each year. Yep, those same rednecks you speak of in your article !!!!

    Maybe Harper is just trying to apply a policy of fairness to all people/regions in Canads, rather than the continued pandering to one province at the expenses of others. It's long overdue.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I love every thing Harper has done that's mentioned in this post…and I'm an Albertan/French Canadian.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Quebec is now irrelevant to Canadian national politics. They insist on voting for rump irrelevant parties that can easily be played off. Their seat count has fallen as their population continues to decline relative to the rest of Canada. They have no economic clout.

    Quebec is a backwater. Good for little but selling popcorn to tourists.


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