With the demolition of the Bloc Québécois, election day was supposed to be a nice day for federalism.
But that prognosis is already in doubt. After years on the margins of the national discussion, Quebec nationalism is moving to the forefront.
Its new primacy of place is assured by an Official Opposition, the New Democratic Party, that is hostage to many of the interests of Quebec autonomists. With 59 seats, most from former Bloquiste territory, the New Democrats have little choice but to sing their song, minus the ultimate goal of separation.
We see it already. The Clarity Act, rarely talked about, is now an issue dividing the federalist parties. NDP Leader Jack Layton tossed a bone to Quebec with his weekend statement that a vote of 50 per cent plus one is good enough for the province to say sayonara. This was already the NDP's formal position, but given its third-party status, no one previously cared. Now, it's big news.
The New Democrats are raising the language issue, always a sensitive subject, by demanding a greater presence for the French language in Quebec's federal workplace. And on the Conservative plan to redistribute seats, giving more to Ontario and the West, the New Democrats are jumping in on Quebec's behalf, insisting that it, too, get an increase.
When the Commons reconvenes, who knows what other sleeping dogs the Dipper 59 will awaken? In order to maintain their support in Quebec, what choice do they have but to take up the Bloc's priorities?
Strange as it sounds, we could soon be missing the Bloc and Gilles Duceppe. The paradox is that as a separatist party, it did a lot to maintain peace on the unity front. It had the majority of Quebec's seats. Sovereignist voices were being heard in Ottawa on a daily basis. For the Québécois, it was a comforting thing. The Bloc's presence gave them less to complain about.
Now, with the security blanket gone, a new dynamic emerges. The impact of the election may well be to mobilize the separatist rank and file and have them concentrate their efforts behind the provincial Parti Québécois, which is arguably now even better situated to win the next provincial election.
A big reason for the peace of recent years has been the repeat victories of Jean Charest's federalist Liberals. Stephen Harper's astute manoeuvre to grant the Québécois nation status in 2006 also contributed.
But how long can this calm last? In addition to pressures from the NDP, Mr. Harper will have demands from his own conservative base, which might not be so friendly toward Quebec. In his minority governments, the hard-liners were kept at bay. In a majority government, they could be more difficult to manage.
Politically, Mr. Harper need not worry about catering to Quebec, adding to the new uncertainties. The Prime Minister has just five seats there; his majority coalition is built around Ontario and the West. He must be salivating at the election result, which has left more than half his chief opposition's strength hinging on Quebec's mood swings.
The New Democrats, meanwhile, are in a bind. The party risks becoming known as a Quebec party with dubious ties. "My goal," Mr. Layton says, "is to work on concrete solutions now, so we wouldn't have to face a referendum question. Wouldn't that be the ideal scenario?"
That sounds reasonable enough. Mr. Layton can hardly be expected not to agitate on Quebec's behalf. But therein lies the problem. The unsettling noises were okay coming from the Bloc. From a federalist party, they threaten the long-running détente.