With the West, and particularly Alberta, now in political ascendancy in Canada, the new power shift means the marginalization of Quebec.
Not since the first Diefenbaker government of 1957 has a federal government been weaker in Quebec and apparently cared so little about the province.
The 1979 Progressive Conservative government of Joe Clark had just two seats in Quebec. But the government lasted only nine months and Mr. Clark himself was always quite preoccupied with the province, even if it did him little good politically.
Now, however, Quebec is completely estranged from the Harper government, and the estrangement is reciprocated. Stephen Harper is seen in Quebec as Pierre Trudeau used to be in Alberta, and the Conservative Party that once had hoped for a breakthrough in the province is discredited.
When Mr. Harper first became prime minister, he tried to woo Quebec with dollops of cash and attention, accepting the mythology that a “fiscal imbalance” existed between Ottawa and the provinces and, most important, declaring that the Québécois were a “nation” within a united Canada.
All these efforts came to naught. The Conservatives failed to make gains in Quebec; indeed, they began to drift backward. In the last election, they won only five seats there.
The election demonstrated, to the Harperites and Quebeckers, that a majority government could be formed without the province. As additional House of Commons seats are added for the next election – all in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia – Quebec’s electoral importance in Conservative electoral calculations will shrink further.
For most Quebeckers, the Harperites seem determinedly disdainful of their preferences. Almost every position or policy adopted by the Conservatives drives the party base wild with excitement outside Quebec, but drives Quebeckers further from the Conservatives.
The “tough on crime” policies, for instance, are reviled in Quebec, not because Quebeckers want to mollycoddle criminals but because most citizens believe in rehabilitation and attacking the social and economic causes of crime.
The long-gun registry came about after the 1989 massacre at Montreal’s École Polytechnque. That horror imprinted itself in the population’s consciousness. Quebec has as many hunters as any other province, but the ideology around gun ownership that drives the Conservative base wild with fury over the registry finds scant echo in Quebec.
The Harperites’ affection for the British monarchy and its toy-soldier plans to celebrate the obscure War of 1812 leave Quebeckers totally indifferent and remind them of what a strange lot are the Conservatives, who used to be thought of as the Protestant/British party for decades, and appear to be so again.
The Harper government’s totally one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute strikes most francophone Quebeckers as unbalanced. Tub-thumping support for military actions in Libya and Afghanistan, where Quebeckers served, suggests a militarism Quebeckers instinctively don’t like.
On climate change, a consensus among Quebec parties exists that serious action should be taken to lower greenhouse-gas emissions. In Ottawa, Quebeckers see, instead, a government doing the dictates of Big Oil and whose prime objective is to support the development of Alberta’s bitumen deposits without properly heeding the environmental issues surrounding their exploitation.
They see, too, a government that despises the CBC and gleefully hacks at its budget to satisfy some ideological itch. In Quebec, by contrast, Radio-Canada is a respected institution, much more so than in the rest of Canada. Hacking at Radio-Canada’s budget confirms the view that the Harperites are a bunch of ideologues with no appreciation of culture, especially Quebec’s francophone culture. That view is sharpened by cuts to Telefilm’s budget in a province where the film industry is producing more hits and winning more international acclaim than films from the rest of Canada.
The Liberals’ weakness in the West fed on itself because the government lacked political sensitivity and intelligence for, and from, that region. The same thing has now happened in reverse: The Harperites are weak in Quebec, display no feeling for the province and are widely seen there as indifferent, if not hostile.