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Defending Quebec (or at least explaining it)

Commentary about Quebec from outside the province, often from those who cannot read, write or understand French, too often displays the gusto of the uninformed and the sunken story line that "they" are not like "us."

You can read this kind of exasperated commentary in coverage of the current Quebec election. The secessionists are back! The new party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, is crackers! The students with the red squares are demonstrating again! It's all too much.

In defence of Quebeckers, who sometimes need defenders (or at least explainers), what's so strange about wanting to turf a government led by a Premier seeking a fourth mandate? Didn't Albertans eventually tire of Ralph Klein, who was deposed by his own party? Didn't Canadians defeat Pierre Trudeau after his first three terms? Quebeckers want change, and in democratic politics, what's so weird about that?

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It's true that the change they seek is hard to explain, and the promises of the Parti Québécois and CAQ are often not well considered – especially how to pay for them. But of which political culture could this not be said? If anyone was masochistic enough to read opposition platforms, they would find them stuffed with bromides and promises that are ditched or modified once they crash into reality. These promises in Quebec are no more or less unrefined than those in other political cultures.

What about the secessionists, some ask. Weren't they supposed to be buried? Well, they're back, but they're not in very good shape. If they win Tuesday, it will likely be with a modest mandate, and certainly not one to take Quebec out of Canada. To prepare for that unlikely eventuality, they would pick fights wherever possible with Ottawa and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is very unpopular in Quebec.

Quebeckers are smart about such quarrels. They have seen and lived through every political game invented by their secessionist leaders – many much more charismatic than Pauline Marois, such as René Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard. They know political theatre when they see it, because they have been treated to existential theatrics for many decades now. They appear to have developed an innate sense of what is real and what is for show.

Isn't it strange how they're considering this brand-new party, the CAQ? Well, Albertans just finished looking up and down at the Wildrose Alliance, a new force that threatened for a time to oust the Progressive Conservatives.

What about that massive swing to the New Democrats in the 2011 federal election – wasn't that bizarre? Yes and no.

Yes, because the NDP had such shallow roots in Quebec, and because Jack Layton had been around quite a while without ever becoming le bon Jack. But no because there was a rough logic to it: avoiding the worst. The Harper Conservatives were way offside Quebec's interests and values, while the Liberals were still haunted by the sponsorship scandal and had been fading in Quebec for three decades. The Bloc Québécois had run its course: play actors with the same script that had produced no useful results. So, faute de mieux, the NDP was the best alternative. Most political cultures feature that kind of choice once in a while.

Why don't politicians talk about Quebec's big debt and sluggish growth, instead of nattering on about identity? When you're a tiny linguistic minority on a continent, and a linguistic minority within your own country, you are always going to worry about language and culture – although the concern is sometimes carried to ridiculous levels, considering that French has survived and thrived for four centuries and is hardly on the way to extinction. Nonetheless, when you are part of a minority, you have collective nerve ends that people from the majority cannot easily comprehend.

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As for the fiscal situation, Quebec's deficit is much lower than Ontario's, its unemployment rate is lower, and its budget will be balanced faster regardless of which party wins Tuesday.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail's national affairs columnist, has won all three of Canada's leading literary prizes -- the Governor-General's award for non-fiction book writing, the National Magazine Award for political writing, and the National Newspaper Award for column writing (twice). He has also won the Hyman Solomon Award for excellence in public policy journalism. More


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