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A crowd waves Quebec flags during the St. Jean Baptiste celebrations on the Plains of Abraham on June 23, 2009. (Francis Vachon/Francis Vachon for The Globe and Mail)
A crowd waves Quebec flags during the St. Jean Baptiste celebrations on the Plains of Abraham on June 23, 2009. (Francis Vachon/Francis Vachon for The Globe and Mail)

Brian Topp

The central fact of Canadian politics Add to ...

Last week I gave a talk at the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan, co-hosted by the department of political studies. One of the many remarkable achievements of the people of Saskatchewan is the founding and nurturing of this beautiful, world-class university, populated by bright, challenging students and a formidable faculty who ask tough questions in the nicest possible way.

Former premier Allan Blakeney attended. I told the audience that his advice and steady hand during last year's parliamentary crisis taught me directly why he was such an effective head of government.

Former premier Roy Romanow was there. I thanked him for his equally effective partnership on a number of recent adventures (including writing the foreword for a recent book). I noted that in my home, for many years, he was known by a compound word ("Dadthebossisonthephone").

In the 1970s my father used to lecture occasionally at the school of commerce at McGill University. Here I was at the University of Saskatchewan. It is thus now a tradition in my family to speak at universities that would never in a million years now admit us as students.

I was asked to talk about the roots and implications of the form of the current Parliament. Here is some of what I said.

The central fact of Canadian politics is that the Liberals used to win Quebec, and now they don't. Here in the blogosphere (as opposed to the lunchtime lectureosphere) we can look at the details, and here they are:

Federal election / Liberal leader / Liberal seats out of Quebec total

1891 / Laurier / 33 out of 65

1900 / Laurier / 57 out of 65

1904 / Laurier / 53 out of 65

1908 / Laurier / 52 out of 65

1911 / Laurier / 36 out of 65

1917 / Laurier / 62 out of 65

---

1921 / King / 65 out of 65

1925 / King / 59 out of 65

1926 / King / 59 out of 65

1930 / King / 40 out of 65

1935 / King / 59 out of 65

1940 / King / 62 out of 65

1945 / King / 47 out of 65

---

1949 / St-Laurent / 68 out of 75

1953 / St-Laurent / 66 out of 75

1957 / St-Laurent / 62 out of 75

---

1958 / Pearson / 25 out of 75

1962 / Pearson / 35 out of 75

1963 / Pearson / 47 out of 75

1965 / Pearson / 56 out of 75

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1968 / Trudeau / 56 out of 75

1972 / Trudeau / 56 out of 75

1974 / Trudeau / 60 out of 75

1979 / Trudeau / 67 out of 75

1980 / Trudeau / 74 out of 75

---

1984 / Turner / 17 out of 75

1988 / Turner / 12 out of 75

---

1993 / Chretien / 19 out of 75

1997 / Chretien / 26 out of 75

2000 / Chretien / 36 out of 75

---

2004 / Martin / 21 out of 75

2006 / Martin / 13 out of 75

---

2008 / Dion / 14 out of 75

As Brian Mulroney used to tell his party, the Liberal lock on French Canada was the foundation of their hegemony. The Liberals have often been a minority party in English Canada. But for much of our history they have been able to count on substantially all of the roughly 100 seats French Canadians influence and, specifically, most of Quebec's seats. Now they can't.

The exceptions are instructive.

In 1958 the Liberals were begging to be defeated (pipeline debate; entitlement politics, etc. - it all sounds familiar). Particularly when standing in the University of Saskatchewan a few meters from John Diefenbaker's library and museum (and thus at some risk of being hit by lightning bolts from that direction), nothing should be taken away from Dief's 1958 achievement - cracking the Liberals in Quebec. He was a remarkable campaigner. It is also true that essentially all of the 50 Quebec Conservative MPs elected that year were figures drawn from the Union Nationale. Premier Maurice Duplessis could see Liberal vulnerability and put his shoulder (and the Union Nationale's shoulder) behind the Conservative campaign. In many ways the 1958 federal count in Quebec was the harvest of Duplessis's last campaign, fought through a surrogate.

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