Stephen Harper appears once again to be courting Quebec. The Prime Minister has met with his predecessor Brian Mulroney and with Premier Jean Charest to seek advice, and made a high-profile appearance at St-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations. Federal ministers have swamped the province. It’s a welcome development, particularly given that a change in the provincial government could soon introduce more volatility to federal-provincial relations. It is to be hoped that Mr. Harper’s interest in Quebec will be sustained, and not transitory as it has been in the past.
While in opposition, and in his early years in office, Mr. Harper tried to make inroads through a series of gestures (including the recognition of the Québécois as a nation within Canada), and by piggybacking on the success of Quebec politicians (first Jean Charest and then, more ill-advisedly, the ADQ leader Mario Dumont). After those efforts landed his Conservatives just 10 of the province’s 75 seats in the 2008 federal election, Mr. Harper appeared mostly to give up, determining that his path to a majority government could be paved through Ontario instead.
That political calculation proved correct, and some would argue it has served Mr. Harper well – sparing him the difficulty of managing a potentially fractious coalition that includes a large number of Quebec MPs. But it would be short-sighted for his party to continually write off such a large part of the electoral map.
More important than partisan considerations is that, even at the best of times, it should not be an option for the prime minister to ignore the country’s second-largest province. And as Mr. Harper himself seems now to realize, his lack of a strong Quebec position would leave him poorly positioned to defend national unity in the event that sovereigntists took power from Mr. Charest’s Liberals.
While Mr. Mulroney’s model of federal-provincial relations is perhaps not the best one to emulate, seeking advice from those with experience in such matters is a good start. From there, it is incumbent on Mr. Harper to begin staking out his own positions on Quebec, and to speak more consistently and expansively than he has previously done about its role within Canada – which, even as power and attention shift westward, remains one of the defining questions of Canadian federalism.