To coincide with the 20th anniversary of the death of the Meech Lake accord, Gilles Duceppe says he's travelling across the country to gauge attitudes toward Quebec sovereignty. Perhaps. But I suspect his true objective is to revive an option that's been flagging in the minds, if not the hearts, of Quebeckers.
That said, if the Bloc Québécois Leader listens carefully, he'll find that the country has changed significantly since his arrival in Ottawa nearly two decades ago, particularly out west. True, as he notes, there's not much hostility toward him personally; indeed, in some polls, 3 per cent of British Columbians say he would make the best prime minister of Canada.
But the Bloc's performance in Ottawa has contributed to the worsening perception of Quebec as ready to take but not to give. With the party's avowed objective of preventing the formation of a majority government of whatever stripe - thereby demonstrating to Canadians that their country is ungovernable - it's inconceivable that first ministers would agree unanimously (as in the Charlottetown accord) to Quebec's being guaranteed a minimum of 25 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons.
Today, it's hard to believe that an earlier generation of first ministers agreed even to discuss the Constitution, much less put aside their own agendas to deal with Quebec's five constitutional demands. As one who was in the room when Brian Mulroney and the premiers reached their historic agreement at Meech Lake in 1987, I doubt it will ever be possible to recreate that level of intergovernmental consensus.
With the Charter of Rights and Freedoms now an integral part of the national fabric, most Canadians probably don't even know that Quebec's National Assembly objected to Pierre Trudeau's Constitution. Moreover, few outside Quebec believe this constitutes a pressing problem that must be resolved. Most Canadians would agree with Lucien Bouchard that sovereignty will not happen during their lifetimes. And while only the imprudent would declare the sovereignty movement dead, Canadians on the whole believe that Stéphane Dion's Clarity Act would deal with the problem if it ever arises again.
Twenty years after the death of the Meech Lake accord, it's easy to forget that the premiers remained loyal to their signatures even after political opposition grew during the three-year ratification period. Some, including Alberta's Don Getty, paid a huge political price. Today, the long-standing Alberta-Quebec intergovernmental alliance has been broken, thanks to criticism of the oil sands by the Bloc and by Premier Jean Charest.
Many Albertans are enraged that the taxes they send to Ottawa flow to Quebec in equalization payments. And they're not amused when they hear about industrial delegations from Quebec coming out to explore opportunities in the oil sands. Although Mr. Duceppe still can't count on much support in that province for his concept of a new relationship between Quebec and "English Canada," he will find - according to a recent Leger poll - that nearly a quarter of Albertans would be happy to see Quebec leave Canada.
Twenty years ago, governments were prepared to recognize that Quebec constituted a "distinct society" within Canada, notwithstanding that most English-speaking Canadians viewed it as one of 10 equal provinces. But with each new wave of immigration, the conception of Canada as a partnership of English- and French-speaking Canadians has diminished. In B.C., where I live, the view that Cantonese, Punjabi and Mandarin should be equal to French continues to grow.
Still, there continues to be considerable goodwill to accommodate Quebec's difference, and enrolment in French immersion remains strong. But my neighbours don't see any need to make an "offer" to Quebec, as Mr. Duceppe expects. Indeed, his very use of the word implies that Canada is a marriage of convenience - which is not how most British Columbians view their country.
With the economy improving, most of us think Canada is doing quite well these days, certainly in comparison to the United States or Britain or France - not to speak of Greece or Spain or Portugal. Canadians won't be easily convinced that the European model long touted by the sovereigntists is a model for their future.