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jeffrey simpson

Very few places in the world would feature, as Quebec's four bruising televised leaders' debates did, one-quarter of the debating time devoted to "identité."

Whether all, or only some, of Quebec's ongoing political dialogue involves who francophone Quebeckers are as a "people," a "nation," or some other collective notion of self, very few debates these days have much to do with Canada.

Canada, which is what federalists ostensibly sell, is beyond the pale of reference – except as something from which secessionists wish to leave. Canada has just sort of drifted away, just as the day-to-day links between francophone Quebeckers and other Canadians, never very tight, have diminished to the point almost of irrelevance.

In most walks of life – in what we might call civil society – the links are thin. And within the political realm, where historically francophones and other Canadians interacted constructively or with conflict, again the links have frayed.

Today, more than at any time in Canadian history, there are almost no federalists in Quebec political life who speak often and with conviction about the merits of the Canadian federal system. There are no federalist champions from Ottawa whose voices resonate in Quebec, and there are few in the realm of provincial politics.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest is certainly a committed federalist, but in the confines of provincial politics, he muffles his enthusiasm for the country, preferring (or being required by the political culture) to portray federalism as an economic calculus only, much the way former premier Robert Bourassa usually did, a ledger sheet running in Quebec's favour.

Mr. Charest appears to have run out his string, and will likely be replaced as premier either by Pauline Maurois of the Parti Québécois who wants out of Canada, or François Legault of the Coalition Avenir Québec who wants to remain because he does not want to leave, at least not just yet.

The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is hugely unpopular, devoid of impressive ministers, led by someone Quebeckers have come to think of as remote and uncaring of their aspirations, driven by an agenda incubated somewhere else.

Indeed, the summer's saddest (or funniest) political spectacle was Mr. Harper's appearance in Quebec. Surrounded by imported ministers – some of them unilingual English-speakers – and his rather feeble Quebec contingent, Harper's team organized a forlorn photo op in the middle of nowhere, really, and presented the entire fabricated affair as a relaunch of Conservative hopes and intentions in Quebec.

Thomas Mulcair and his NDP have become, therefore, federalism's de facto spear carriers in Quebec, but this election might cause some of them to fall upon those spears. Should the PQ win, it plans to present Ottawa with a long list of intransigent demands for power, money and authority.

Some of these demands, designed to stir up antagonism toward Ottawa and make Quebeckers feel badly treated within Canada, will resonate positively with some NDP MPs from Quebec who, if not closet secessionists, are strongly nationalistic. Mr. Mulcair might then have to choose between bowing to his nationalists, thereby aligning himself with the PQ's demands, or resisting those demands, as will be the preference outside Quebec, and causing friction in his caucus.

It might be argued that, given the feeble federal presence in the minds and hearts of Quebeckers, their stubborn resistance to the siren songs of secession is rather remarkable – although if secession did again become serious, the lack of credible federalist voices would be a serious problem.

Without embracing the country of which they remain an integral part, perhaps Quebeckers instinctively know the folly of leaving the G8's most successful economy, with a political structure built to a degree on risk-sharing from which Quebec derives 15 per cent of its provincial budget, with no threat to the French language and culture coming from the rest of Canada.

The linguistic quarrels within Quebec during the last year or so – the coach of the Montreal Canadiens who could not speak French, the language of work at Bombardier, an anglophone heading up the provincial pension fund's investment arm – were all inside-Quebec affairs rather than anything generated elsewhere.

The rest of Canada, for the most part, does not seem to menace or interest Quebeckers. Rather, it barely exists.

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