Think back to 1995, when Canada was in the throes of a national unity crisis. The "Yes" side in the Quebec referendum was fast gaining momentum on the eve of the vote. Brian Tobin and Sheila Copps decided to organize a Montreal "love-in" to show Quebeckers that Canadians cared deeply about Quebec and its place in the Canadian family.
Air Canada, Canadian Pacific and Via Rail offered deep discounts, in some cases up to 90 per cent of the cost, for Canadians to make their way to Montreal. Every available bus in Ontario was conscripted and 75 packed buses left New Brunswick to make their way to Montreal.
What if Quebec once again plunges Canada into a national unity crisis? The prospect is hardly far-fetched given that the Parti Québécois appears poised to win the next provincial election. A PQ government would spare no effort, through a referendum or a manufactured crisis, to put Quebec's sovereignty at the top of its political agenda.
I was recently asked how many Canadians from outside Quebec would now rush to a Montreal "love-in" for national unity? In my view, not many. This time, I suspect, one would be hard-pressed to fill more than a few buses from New Brunswick. I also suspect that many Canadians would sit back, cross their arms and say, "Over to you Quebeckers – you decide."
Times have changed. Western Canada is more confident today than in 1995 that it could fly solo, if it had to. Ontario appears to have lost interest in national unity, the provincial government and Ontario-based think tanks seemingly focused on the message that Ontario is not getting its fair share of federal government spending. Ontario is now no different from the other regions in believing it is being shortchanged by Ottawa. John Robarts, Bill Davis and David Peterson would not approve.
Many in Atlantic Canada are increasingly aware that national political institutions and national policies have, over the years, hurt their region's economy. Ottawa recognized years ago that national policies inherently favoured Central Canada and started to send guilt money our way in the form of transfer payments. These payments served to make our region economically dependent on them. Atlantic Canadians also know that Ottawa has, since the mid-1990s, been slowly but surely closing its transfer payment tap to the region. Disheartened Atlantic Canadians now seem inclined to say, "Who cares? If Quebec wants to go, let it." Oh! If only things could be that simple.
The political landscape, both nationally and in Quebec, has also changed. Who in Quebec would now lead the "No" side? Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien were all Quebec native sons willing to step up to the plate in defence of a united Canada. If the PQ should win power, the provincial Liberals would very likely begin the search for a new leader. However, even a cursory look at Quebec's political scene reveals few credible voices on the horizon able or willing to speak strongly for Canada.
For many Canadians, the Quebec brand is hurting. The provincial government is running a huge deficit and trying to cope with a crippling debt. However, it is unable to stare down a group of university students fighting for lower university tuition rates, despite the fact that they already enjoy the lowest rates in Canada.
Many Canadians are baffled at the social unrest generated by a small group of students. Why are there so few voices from the political, business, academic and artistic communities speaking out? Jacques Villeneuve did just that recently and reported a few days later that he had "received a pack of injurious and insulting e-mails"and that he was castigated by many on social media sites in the name of democracy – go figure. I was surprised to see Mr. Villeneuve left dangling in the wind by Quebec's elites.
We may well be sleepwalking into a perfect storm. Canadians are not where they were in 1995 on national unity. More than ever, Quebec federalists will find themselves alone in pleading the merits of a united country, all the while knowing that the rest of Canada has lost interest in their cause. Yet, the "No" side appears bereft of such leaders in Quebec in the event of a new national unity crisis in the form of another Quebec referendum on sovereignty or a manufactured incident.
The other important point is that although we may have grown tired of a Quebec-focused national unity debate, seeing different regions heading off in different directions is not without significant consequences. Untangling Canada's various political and economic arrangements would hardly be a simple matter. Current developments in the European Union and its member states, which have less demanding institutional arrangements than Canada, offer important lessons that we should heed.
For my part, I remain firmly convinced that a united Canada is worth fighting for and better than any alternative. I also believe that those Canadians who argue that we would all be better off without Quebec gloss over the huge political and economic costs of getting there. That said, new leaders are needed in Quebec willing to stand up for a united Canada.
Donald J. Savoie is the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the University of Moncton.