John Ibbitson’s summer barbecue : what if Mr. Harper and M. Duceppe really were friends?

Jun 18th, 2005 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

The politicians are apparently still wrangling on Parliament Hill. But already we have been told that Stephen Harper will be humanizing his image on the barbecue circuit this summer. Out in the wider countrysides and cityscapes beyond, it is time to worship the sun – and seek its wisdom on just what has been going on during the past two-and-a-half months in Canadian federal politics. Anyone off on holiday right away might find it useful to take two quite recent newspaper columns along – by John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail in Toronto. Like everyone else, Mr. Ibbitson is not always right about everything. (As in his recent prediction that Gilles Duceppe would run for the Parti Quebecois leadership.) But he continues to come up with uniquely penetrating insights, that illuminate the depths of the turbulent Ottawa scene.

The unholy alliance

John Ibbitson’s columns for June 14 (on what Gilles Duceppe actually did) and June 15 (on Stephen Harper’s “Conservative conundrum”) are cases in point. Mr. Ibbitson may be the best friend Mr. Harper’s Conservatives have in the much-abused central Canadian media elite. And these two columns capture key parts of Mr. Harper’s present dilemma. (Even if those who do not share the exact Ibbitsonian leanings might interpret his findings differently than he does himself.)

The point of departure for the June 14 column was Gilles Duceppe’s decision not to run for the PQ leadership, and stay in Ottawa instead. John Ibbitson neatly summarized his and no doubt many others’ reaction to this particular surprise in his very first sentence: “Gilles Duceppe made the right decision, for those who share his goal of destroying Canada.”

Right off the bat this does capture one key part of Stephen Harper’s dilemma (even if, again, Mr. Ibbitson himself would at least say he does not agree). Given what all the surprising stories of the past two-and-a-half months suggest about the current configuration of forces in Canadian federal politics, this is at least logically the wrong point of view for any Conservative leader who seriously aspires to become prime minister of Canada in any near future.

Since the start of April, there have been a few moments when it seemed that the electorate’s adverse reaction to the governing Liberal Party’s role in the “Adscam” sponsorship scandal was big enough to give the Harper Conservatives a majority of parliamentary seats in a fresh election, even if they won no seats at all in Quebec. But these moments have been fleeting and rather few and far between. On the more likely scenario arising from the great Canadian soap opera, now in its final episodes of the season, the best the Conservatives can probably hope for is to replace the Liberals’ current status as the party with the single largest number of MPs.

To actually govern Canada in any near future, that is to say, the Harper Conservatives would most likely be dependent in some serious enough degree on the same “unholy alliance” with Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Quebecois that finally gave them the muscle to almost defeat the government on May 19.

And it probably does not make a great deal of sense to characterize your key strategic partner in such an enterprise as someone who has a “goal of destroying Canada.” It only aids and abets the cause of your slick Liberal opponents, who have already invented the “unholy alliance” spin, and are quite visibly warming it up for the next election, early in 2006 or whenever.

A certain idea of Canada

John Ibbitson’s June 14 column does get close to this reading of the current Canadian political logic. But some stubborn fragments from an aging “certain idea of Canada” (also associated with both John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau?) finally get in his way.

Coming from the rural Canada of Muskoka-Parry Sound, in the exotic no-man’s land between Northern and Southern Ontario, Mr. Ibbitson has his particular reasons for appreciating that: “if the Conservatives cannot convince at least some French-Canadians that their party’s decentralized brand of federalism offers an intelligent compromise between centrism and sovereignty, then that party has no right to form a government.” And good political reporter that he is, he also allows that “the hope of Conservative gains” in Quebec is “bleak at best.”

John Ibbitson puts a deft finger as well on two related key problems: “With its province-by-province, ad hoc agreements, Mr. Martin’s government has wasted the opportunity to fashion a comprehensive and intelligent rebalancing of fiscal federalism. Mr. Harper’s party, which for too long preached the corrosive message that it was time to stop pandering to Quebec, understandably gets no traction in that province.”

Yet in the end Mr. Ibbitson’s continuing attachment to his “certain idea of Canada” prompts him to draw back from the brink. No doubt, many would still say wisely enough. Yet as the Parliamentary summer recess of 2005 draws in view, the logical question does somehow remain.

At some point in his imminent cross-Canada tour of barbecue pits, why doesn’t Stephen Harper take a few days off and go on a short canoe trip with Gilles Duceppe? (Following the ancient fur trade route in John Ibbitson’s old youthful stomping ground, say – across the Mattawa and French rivers, from the Ottawa River to Georgian Bay? Or if they feel really ambitious, how about the “marathon, twelve-mile Methye Portage,” from Lac la Loche to the Clearwater River, close to the border between northern Saskatchewan and northern Alberta?)

Whatever else, even the latest pro-sovereignty polls continue to make clear that the great majority of the people of Quebec still do want to remain a part of Canada, in one way or another. Gilles Duceppe, who has been around Ottawa for a while now, does seem the kind of politician who probably listens most to the people of Quebec, as opposed to the tired old ideologues in Quebec City and the east end of Montreal. And, as Prime Minister Martin himself has noted, Gilles Duceppe has just recently shown that, when push comes to shove, he will “choose Canada” in the end (in one way or another again, of course).

Country roads … in English and French

In his June 15 column, which focused more exactly on the broader problems of the Conservatives under Stephen Harper’s leadership, John Ibbitson also presented some sketches of the current Conservative social and economic base in Canada. And these bear at least a few intriguing resemblances to his parallel June 14 sketches of the social and economic base of the Bloc Quebecois inside Quebec.

(It is arguably one of Ibbitson’s journalistic virtues that he cultivates an almost marxist grasp of the social and economic underpinnings of Canadian politics. This probably only goes to show the continuing wisdom of the old adage that marxists and aggressive free-market capitalists often share at least certain kinds of political analysis. And this could give Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe yet another thing to talk about, around the fire at night on their canoe trip.)

The current Conservative base in the rest of Canada, as Ibbitson explained on June 15, is in “the culturally and politically homogeneous parts of the country – Alberta and rural Canada.” The current Bloc Quebecois base in Quebec, as he explained on June 14, is in “the pure laine constituencies: white, Catholic, old stock, old economy (agriculture, resource extraction … ).”

Making various allowances for quite broad brush strokes, it is easy enough to see some fairly striking similarities here. And then as part of the recent political history that ought to be not quite forgotten yet, the Bloc Quebecois itself descends from Lucien Bouchard’s decision to leave Brian Mulroney’s Canadian Conservative Party of the 1980s, in the wake of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, just as the summer of 1990 was about to begin.

John Ibbitson himself would no doubt point out that there remain important social differences between the Harper Conservatives and the Duceppe Bloquistes. Francophone culture is inevitably somewhat different from anglophone culture, in any part of the world. And there seems to be more support among Liberal backbenchers for the Conservatives’ sceptical position on the Liberals’current Bill C-38 gay marriage legislation than there is within the Bloc Quebecois.

Yet it would not be altogether outrageous for Stephen Harper and his Conservatives to quite aggressively challenge the Liberal “unholy alliance” spin on their recurrent strategic partnerships with Gilles Duceppe and his Bloc Quebecois. The French and English Canadian alliance that almost brought the government down on May 19, 2005 might even be cast in the ancient tradition of the “Mowat-Mercier Concordat” between Ontario and Quebec, which gave John A. Macdonald’s original “centralizing” federal regime so much trouble in the late 19th century.

Cultivating the Canadian majority in Quebec

As John Ibbitson no doubt knows much better than anyone who writes on the Internet, none of this is remotely within the realm of current Canadian political possibility, and will never happen – even with the spring 2005 soap opera factored in. And so he just rings the old realistic dumbbells again, and begins his June 14 column with: “Gilles Duceppe made the right decision, for those who share his goal of destroying Canada.”

Apart from anything else, think of what happened the last time a Canadian Conservative Party flirted with “soft nationalism” in Quebec – in Brian Mulroney’s ill-fated Meech Lake Accord, which gave birth to all of the Bloc Quebecois, the ill-fated Charlottetown Accord of 1992, and then the almost-not-so-ill-fated second Quebec sovereignty referendum of 1995.

Yet the sheer logic of the question at least remains. And just a little more practically, there arguably is some progress even in Canadian history.

The 2005 soap opera just may be hinting, in both the rest of Canada and Quebec, that someone ought to be thinking harder about how neither the 1980 nor the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum posed the actual question of Quebec’s “independence.” And how for the past quarter-century opinion polls have shown that there is nothing remotely approaching a popular majority for actual independence in Quebec.

It is probably also true that anything Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe might come up with on a canoe trip up north is not going to look very much like Brian Mulroney’s Meech Lake Accord (the ultimate failed expression of the old tradition of “elite accomodation” in Canada, still ignoring the voices and wills of the rising democratic people?). On the other hand, of course, the very concept of any such canoe trip in the middle of the barbecue season this summer is altogether dreaming in technicolour – and has, say, what is called “heuristic” value alone. John Ibbitson is almost certainly right about that.

And yet a Stephen Harper who did somewhat aggressively challenge the Liberals’ unholy alliance critique of his friendship with Gilles Duceppe – and who was even bold enough to stand up and defend his esteemed strategic colleague from Quebec a bit in public debate (without of course endorsing what M. Duceppe is still calling Quebec’s future as a “sovereign country”) – just might do quite a lot of good for various worthy Canadian causes today. Including the image of Stephen Harper, as someone who really is ready to become prime minister of Canada. That may be dreaming in technicolour too. But it may not be all that bad advice.

Randall White is the author of a number of books, including Voice of Region: The Long Journey to Senate Reform in Canada (Dundurn Press, 1990) and Ontario Since 1985 (eastendbooks, 1998).

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