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Quebec for Dummies: What 'Blue March' teaches us

People attend the Blue March rally on the Plains of Abraham in support of bringing an NHL franchise back to Quebec City on Oct. 2, 2010.


Reviewing coverage in the Quebec press of Saturday's "Blue March," one has the distinct impression that the campaign for a new hockey arena - er, multi-purpose amphitheatre, as it is now known - in Quebec City is on a roll. Indeed, so confident is Mayor Régis Labeaume, the project's chief proponent, that he has requested a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to put forward some "creative ideas." That would be the same mayor who, a couple of short weeks ago, sarcastically dissed Mr. Harper as "a real superstar" after the Prime Minister suggested that private funds should be building the arena.

For those outside the province, some of this may be difficult to understand. For example, how is it possible, you might ask, that Premier Jean Charest's government would have made an open-ended commitment of $175-million to an economically dubious project?

That's an easy one: Mr Charest is in political difficulty. Announcing the contribution was a good way to divert attention from allegations concerning the appointment of judges, which is now being looked into by former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache.

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What's more difficult to understand is the wall-to-wall political consensus in the province when, according to polls, public opinion - particularly in Montreal - is actually against funding the project. Here's how it works.

From an electoral point of view, Montreal doesn't much matter - there are few swing ridings in the region. Most of the marginal seats in the province are in the Greater Quebec region. The large turnout at the rally on Saturday gives you some idea of the support there for the project.

The secessionists - in Ottawa and in Quebec City - have an additional reason to support the return of the Nordiques. Had they been able to carry the Greater Quebec region in 1995, they would have won the referendum. In furtherance of their cause next time out - whenever that is -they like the idea of a team wearing nationalist blue to confront the red-draped Montreal Canadiens. And they like the fact that the team owner would be media magnate Pierre Peladeau, who, unlike the Desmarais family which owns La Presse and Le Soleil, is seen as friendly or at least neutral to their cause.

At the Saturday rally, Mr. Peladeau and Gilles Duceppe greeted each other warmly. And Mr. Duceppe was quoted in Mr. Peladeau's papers as follows: "Ottawa gave Toronto $500 million in 2001 to help with its bid for the 2004 Olympics, but Toronto didn't get the Games. Let the feds do for Quebec what they did for Toronto."

For his part, Mr. Peladeau - who attended the rally with his kids and his TV-star wife Julie Snyder - for the first time did not dismiss outright the prospect of putting some of his own bucks on the table: "We're open to it, you have to be creative," he said, prefiguring what Mayor Labaume is likely to tell the Prime Minister if and when he gets his meeting.

Mr. Charest, who put the ball firmly in Mr. Harper's court with his $175-million announcement, has another idea. In a weekend radio interview, he suggested that Ottawa could allow Quebec to determine its own priorities in the federal infrastructure program - a privilege that has not been accorded to other provinces. Still, according to Mr. Charest, discussions with Ottawa along these lines have already begun. "This could help Mr. Harper from being put in the unenviable position of having to choose in which cities to build an arena," Mr. Charest told the interviewer.

So here's the bottom line: Mr. Harper has been hoist on his own hockey petard. He is now desperately looking for a way not to have to choose between his political base in Quebec and in the rest of Canada. The Bloc and the PQ win whatever he decides. And, be it in regard to a hockey arena or the cover of Maclean's magazine, that's the way it is in the Parliament of Canada.

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