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NDP Leader Jack Layton eats watermelon during a campain stop at the Atwater Market in Montreal Sunday, May 1, 2011 (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP Leader Jack Layton eats watermelon during a campain stop at the Atwater Market in Montreal Sunday, May 1, 2011 (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

William Johnson

'Conditions gagnantes' - the NDP dilemma Add to ...

The Earth moved and Canada changed. What had been an unimaginable scenario is now reality. It all began in Quebec, which loves to surprise itself and the world.

For the first time ever, Canada's House of Commons is polarized between a clearly right-wing Conservative Party majority and a clearly left-wing official Opposition - Jack Layton's New Democratic Party. The long reign of centrist parties that claimed to express Canada's very identity and values - especially the Liberals - is now history.

The new Parliament offers yet another polarization, this one more ambiguous. Stephen Harper's Conservatives dominate in every region of the country except Quebec. They are the party chosen by English-speaking Canada to govern. But Quebec, in a sudden turnaround, has returned 58 New Democrats, seven Liberals, six Conservatives and four members of the devastated Bloc Québécois.

The NDP now draws a majority of its 102-member caucus from Quebec. It was its surge in Quebec that bolstered the party in Ontario and British Columbia. The heartland of the NDP is now Quebec, and Quebec has delegated the NDP to express its voice and its identity in Parliament.

So Quebec ended the sullen isolationism it had affirmed by electing a majority of Bloc members for six consecutive elections beginning in 1993. But, at the same time, by choosing the NDP to speak on its behalf in Ottawa, Quebec has sent the message that it remains unreconciled to its current place in the Canadian federation.

Quebeckers' new choice is a federalist party, but it is still a vote of protest, a signal that puts Canada on notice that there remains unfinished, unresolved business stemming from the 1982 patriation of the Constitution against the will of the National Assembly, and the 1990 failure of the reparative Meech Lake accord.

The choice of the NDP was not fortuitous. On March 31, Jack Layton gave an interview to La Presse to signal that he put his party at Quebec's disposition to resolve its unsatisfied existential issues. Under the headline Les 'Conditions Gagnantes' Selon Jack Layton, La Presse summarized the interview as follows: "While Stephen Harper brandishes the scarecrow of a Liberal coalition backed by the 'separatists,' Jack Layton presents the NDP as the only cross-Canada party that espouses Quebec's values. As proof, he wants to put in place the 'winning conditions' for Quebec to find its place within the Quebec federation."

Then, as during the leaders' debates and throughout the campaign, Mr. Layton repeated the phrase, "winning conditions," that was first coined by Lucien Bouchard as his requirement before he would hold a referendum on secession. Mr. Layton turned the phrase around to mean meeting the requirements demanded by Quebec to acknowledge its adhesion to the 1982 Constitution.

This was not a new posture for the NDP. In 2006, the party held its convention in Quebec City and adopted as official policy the so-called "Déclaration de Sherbrooke." It committed the party to many demands made for years by Quebec's provincial politicians but that had been rejected by the Liberals of Pierre Trudeau.

The NDP accepted special status for Quebec under the name of "asymmetrical federalism." Quebec was to exercise powers not available to other provinces: "The NDP believes that asymmetrical federalism is the best way to consolidate the Canadian federal state with the reality of Quebec's national character. That means that Quebec has to have specific powers and room for manoeuvring."

The NDP also accepted unconditionally Quebec's right to secede unilaterally by obtaining a majority vote on a question of its choosing: "The NDP recognizes Quebec's right to self-determination, which implies the right of the people of Quebec to decide freely its own political and constitutional future. This right can be expressed in various ways and can go as far as achieving sovereignty."

In the Commons, the NDP has supported subjecting federally regulated industries in Quebec to the Charter of the French Language, in violation of the Official Languages Act. It opposed the right to accede to English-language public schools in Quebec obtained by a sufficient stay in non-subsidized private English schools - a right recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada. It opposes the nomination to the Supreme Court of Canada of anyone who is not fluently bilingual. And it opposes changes to representation in the Commons according to population that would mean more seats for Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, if that would have the effect of diminishing Quebec's present proportion of seats.

Can the NDP push these demands by Quebec without violating the Constitution, both of 1867 and 1982? Can it do so without again splitting the country, as Brian Mulroney did with the 1987 Meech Lake accord? That is the dilemma posed by Monday's election results.

William Johnson is an author and a former president of Alliance Quebec.

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