Montrealer Thomas Mulcair’s election as NDP leader completes the reversal of the fundamental dynamics of Canadian politics that have prevailed for more than two decades.
Since the late 1980s, Canadian politics has been shaped, more than anything else, by the dialectics between Montreal and Calgary or, more broadly, between Quebec and Western Canada, whose political centre is Calgary.
Since the 1960s, when the Quiet Revolution changed Quebec politics, the aspirations of that province dominated federal politics until the end of the Jean Chrétien era. Under both Liberals and Conservatives, Ottawa struggled to deal with Quebec’s restlessness.
Quebec was always in power in Ottawa (except for the Joe Clark interregnum). It drove decisions and shaped events. Its priorities were usually those of the federal government. All those constitutional and federal-provincial conferences were, more than anything, about Quebec.
Quebec’s ideas about constitutional change, the role of the state, social policy, even international relations – most of which were incubated in Montreal – influenced every federal government. Clearly, Quebec provincial governments and the more nationalist elements in the province did not always get what they sought, but their pressure was always felt in Ottawa.
In the late 1980s, a reaction began against some of those Quebec ideas. Intellectually and politically, the reaction began and flourished in Calgary, epicentre of the Reform Party, the Canada West Foundation, the oil business, the University of Calgary’s social sciences departments, and some contributors to the magazine Alberta Report.
To Montreal’s demands for special status for Quebec, Calgary replied that all provinces should be equal. To Montreal’s preference for constitutional changes giving more power to provinces, Calgary replied with a Triple-E Senate. To Montreal’s preference for a providential state, Calgary favoured a diminished one. To Montreal’s belief that the state should guide the economy, Calgary preferred laissez faire. To Montreal’s belief that climate change was a real and pressing danger, Calgary replied with indifference.
The Mulroney government broke apart because of the political and intellectual gap between the ideas of Montreal and Calgary, with parts of his coalition becoming the Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois.
It also fractured because, after the failures of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional reform efforts, the rest of Canada grew tired of Quebec’s agenda and was no longer scared by its threat to secede. In Quebec, it became clear that constitutional reform was at a dead end, so, after a last shot at seceding in the referendum of 1995, the province’s politics settled into a less existential mode. Quebec would stop trying to change Canada, or break it up, but withdraw into a de facto special status.
Quebec remained central to the Chrétien thinking, led by a Quebecker. But when Stephen Harper, a transplanted Calgarian and former Reform MP, created today’s Conservative Party, Calgary shoved Montreal out of the driver’s seat.
From being the intellectual and political centre of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, Calgary’s vision (and, more generally, Western Canada’s) became ascendant in Ottawa – lower taxes, smaller government, no special status, indifference to constitutional reform, conservative social policy, little interest in the environment.
In Mr. Harper’s first years, there was muted dissatisfaction in Calgary with their prime minister (who, if truth be told, knew very few big hitters in the city). But the disillusioned bit their tongues because their boy and party had arrived in office and one day, they prayed, the Conservatives would form a majority government.
Quebec had put itself on the political sidelines by voting Bloc Québécois, a party with no interest in governing Canada and no interest in Canada as a whole.
Quebeckers finally tired of this political futility but couldn’t vote for a Calgary-dominated government whose vision was so different from their own. They voted to put themselves into Official Opposition status by supporting the NDP. With Mr. Mulcair’s election, in no small part due to his support in Quebec and the sense in the party that he could hold that support, Quebec’s interests will daily shape the NDP.
So the Calgary-Montreal dialectics that dominated Canadian public life remain, but in a different relationship. After being in opposition for so long, Calgary is now in power – and after having been in power for so long, Montreal is now in opposition.