The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
Ten years ago I was invited to a poetry festival at Trois-Rivières. A volunteer drove me from Montreal airport to the festival site, and we chatted, mostly in French, on the trip. At some point he told me that he was a federalist.
Later on I ran into him at the festival headquarters, where books by the poets were on sale. He was impressed by the printing of my book and asked me what such a book would cost ‘in Canada’. That was the phrase he used. Though he was not an advocate of separation for Quebec, he clearly thought of it as implicitly a different country. I am reminded of the famous formula of Jean Lesage, the Liberal premier in the days of Quebec’s révolution tranquille. Canada, c’est mon pays, Québec, c’est ma patrie.
This all came back to me under the minority government in 2008 when the Liberals and the NDP proposed to form a coalition government with the support of the Bloq Québecois, and suddenly, encouraged by Stephen Harper, there was a lot of loose language about the Bloq, a suggestion that they had no right to effect the choice of Government, as if the elected members from Quebec, who supported some kind of sovereignty for the province, were not allowed to have a political position on any other issue. Voters in Quebec were to be punished for their votes.
Do those who took this position now believe that electors in Quebec, having largely replaced the Bloq by the NDP, have—magically—more right to express themselves? Will they lose it again in the next election?
Nothing is more essential to identity than language. As a French-speaking society, Quebec is different, and though confederation is not a blank cheque, the borderlines between federalist and sovereignist positions are both moveable and porous. I have no objection to their attempts to push the border, and no objection to the Clarity Act, which sets rules for these attempts. But I do object to the idea that those democratically elected bloquistes were second class MPs.
On to note 2.
A very few days after this column appears, PEI will be having a provincial election. I’m not a member of any political party, though I’m not (obviously) without opinions. One needn’t be deeply partisan to wonder if perhaps something closer to a balance of the two parties in the provincial legislature might be a good thing.
But there is another issue that arises in various ways in a federation like Canada. (My copy of The Canadian Encyclopedia has several columns of small type offering explanation and comment on federalism and federal-provincial relations.) How are the provincial parties related to the federal parties of the same name? Though I have sometimes voted for the Progressive Conservative party in the past, I believe the current federal government is a different outfit altogether. Should I, as I consider my vote, consider the PEI opposition, who now call themselves the PC party, Progressive Conservatives, or are they Regressive Conservatives, Incipient Harperites? I suspect I’m not the only one asking that question.
Which leads to Note 3.
How do men and women manage to commit their lives to a political party? It’s a bit like being a lifetime fan of the Red Sox or the Maple Leafs. I can see being a fan of Sidney Crosby. He’s a joy to watch. But a team? If I did join a political party I doubt that I could stick with it for very long. Political issues are too complex. I always feel a strong sympathy for those like Bob Rae and Scott Brison, who have looked at the political map—who stands for what—and have changed parties.
Maybe when people say they don’t respect politicians, they are saying that they don’t understand unswerving loyalty to a name, a team, any better than I do.