We are not going to be dragged back to 1995. The Parti Québécois’ victory Tuesday night is not the overture to a third referendum on sovereignty. There won’t be endless and fruitless debates, failed conferences, court challenges and other agonies.
Stephen Harper has been offered a powerful opportunity to smother the feeble sovereigntist flame. A Conservative government with little political stake in Quebec can convert that apparent weakness to strength, overturning the stale unity debates that have plagued this country for decades through what could be called a strategy of non-engagement.
“If Stephen Harper plays his cards well, he could marginalize the sovereigntist movement in Quebec in a way it has not been since the 1960s,” said Brian Lee Crowley, head of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa think tank.
Of course, if Mr. Harper plays his cards badly, he could provoke a separatist rebellion. The coming months will offer a powerful test of the Prime Minister’s political skills.
In previous tussles between Ottawa and the separatists, both sides had a personal political stake. Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien were Quebeckers, with a good chunk of their caucuses from Quebec.
But this federal government was elected by Westerners with the support of Ontario suburbs, including a large contingent of the four million immigrants who have come to this country in the past two decades.
Mr. Harper has no mandate from them to appease. Neither is it in his nature.
Although about one-third of Quebeckers voted to elect a bound-to-be-unstable PQ minority government, polls show historically low levels of support for sovereignty.
That chronically weak support for a Quebec state is why Mr. Harper paid little attention to the sovereigntist threat while the Charest Liberals were in power. Now that the PQ is in, he must pay attention. But that doesn’t mean he has to play their game.
Ms. Marois will demand new powers for Quebec over employment insurance, culture and communications, immigration and foreign policy, and who knows what else. The Conservatives, in response, will politely but firmly reject every demand. No negotiations. No accommodation. The federal focus will be on jobs, trade and eliminating the deficit – and nothing else. That, simply, is what a strategy of non-engagement entails.
Because their own governments were rooted in Quebec, previous prime ministers could not risk such a strategy. Because his government is rooted entirely outside it, Mr. Harper can risk no other. The national mood outside Quebec is powerfully opposed to being dragged back to the constitutional and cultural strife of the unquiet past. Mr. Harper will be guided by that mood.
The PQ no doubt hopes that a strategy of non-engagement will anger Quebeckers. And if Mr. Harper seems arrogant or insensitive to Quebeckers’ needs, he could damage his party’s and the nation’s prospects.
The risk of such a strategy “is that it strengthens the hand of a PQ government that says Ottawa’s not listening, which helps stir the pot for a referendum,” observed Gerald Baier, a political scientist at University of British Columbia who specializes in Canadian federalism. “The potential reward is that it … confirms the reality that a lot of people in Quebec don’t care about the sovereignty issue as much as they used to.”
If so, the sovereigntist cause could be dealt a blow from which it never recovers: an ironic and Pyrrhic outcome from Tuesday’s victory.