As the Alberta election approaches, I can't help but remember being there exactly a year ago to cover the federal election and having lunch one day with Reeve Don Gregorwich of Camrose County. There we were, a Quebec francophone and an anglophone from rural Alberta in, of all places, a Chinese buffet.
At one point Mr. Gregorwich started talking fondly about a recent visit to Quebec City: “I got to visit the Plains of Abraham and I was very, very moved. I got to see these cliffs that the British soldiers scaled ...” He seemed so clearly wrapped up in the victory of his side over mine that I was tempted to start throwing egg rolls.
It turns out I had got it wrong. Mr. Gregorwich, a history buff, was simply awed to be at such a historic site, just as he had been when visiting centuries-old cathedrals in England. In talking about General James Wolfe's victory, he was not trying to rub it in – to him, the place was neutral.
Then the conversation veered to the topic of Quebec's identity in this vast country. Whenever I travel in Canada, I am fascinated by its deep feeling of patriotism – the federal flag flies everywhere. Not so in Quebec, where you'll see the red maple leaf on federal buildings, mostly. Bureaucratic obligation.
I told Mr. Gregorwich that it would never fly (no pun intended) to have the Canadian flag alongside the Fleurdelisé on the top of Quebec's National Assembly. I also told him that a Quebec premier would probably commit political suicide were he to proclaim being a Canadian first and Québécois second: The backlash would be huge. That would be true even of a federalist premier.
The affable Mr. Gregorwich listened intently. He was not angered by what I was describing – just fascinated. It seemed very foreign to him.
Of course, all this is just another version of Hugh MacLennan's “two solitudes” metaphor for describing how French and English co-exist without really mingling.
Although cliché, it still rings true, maybe more than ever, because 30 years after the patriation of the Constitution, 32 years after the first Quebec referendum and 17 after the second, Quebec is probably more detached from the country than ever.
Don't take it just from me. Peter White, an official in the Brian Mulroney government and a Quebec federalist with impeccable credentials, wrote an open letter chiding Prime Minister Stephen Harper for his lack of interest in Quebec. “We are weakening the ties that bind,” he stated. “We are drifting ever farther apart. We are witnessing the slow de facto separation of Quebec from the rest of the country – emotionally, spiritually and intellectually.”
I was a child of the passionate constitutional battles of the 1980s and 1990s. These battles were, of course, mostly about Quebec. As a consequence, Canada was everywhere you turned, on the Quebec agenda. Like them or not, key cabinet ministers hailed from Quebec. You could recognize yourself in the issues being debated and the politicians debating them.
No more. With constitutional issues on the backburner, and with a Harper cabinet dominated by people Quebeckers don't know and beliefs we don't share (ditching Kyoto and the long-gun registry, really?), by and large, Canada sometimes seems as distant – emotionally, spiritually and intellectually – to mainstream Quebeckers as Switzerland, if Switzerland had a funny and new-found fetish with the British Crown.
This month, as we mark the 30th anniversary of the patriation, Parti Québécois leaders are reminding people that Quebec has never signed the Constitution. It is hard to believe that Quebec has been left out of the constitutional “family” for the three decades. But the truth is, this injustice doesn't stir collective emotions the way it once did.
I think that's because people now know it's a charade. Not because belonging to that family has no bearing on everyday life, but because people consider Quebec and Canada two very, very different places (I was going to say countries).
Take Danielle Smith. The leader of the Wildrose Alliance may well become Alberta's premier on Monday, and has delivered a healthy dose of Quebec-bashing in the last few days of the campaign. In the past, such criticism would have been met with fiery rhetoric. Now, it barely registers.
As media commentator Jean-François Lisée, a former adviser to premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, has pointed out, polls show that the number of those who consider themselves “Québécois first” keeps rising. It passed 50 per cent in 2004 and last year reached 60 per cent.
Of course, Canada and Quebec drifting apart may not seem like a big deal. After all, as the common wisdom holds, a third referendum is not in the cards. That is true, but the political winds can change rapidly and brutally here, as the election of Quebec's 57 New Democrat MPs last year will attest.
So here's a thought: A third referendum is called and there are no high-profile Quebeckers, like those who served under Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, speaking for Canada. Instead, there are Vic Toews, John Baird, Peter Mackay, Tony Clements and Stephen Harper, representing a gun-loving, Kyoto-hating, Queen-adoring government.
It would be a strange battle, indeed, waged by people who live in very different universes. Like me and Don Gregorwich.
Patrick Lagacé is a columnist with Montreal's La Presse.