“Separatists” will keep Harper minority government alive (once again, with feeling?)

Sep 15th, 2009 | By | Category: In Brief
Separatists and socialists in charge at last? Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, left, talks with New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton in the foyer of the Canadian House of Commons January 27, 2009.  (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press).

Separatists and socialists in charge at last? Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, left, talks with New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton in the foyer of the Canadian House of Commons January 27, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press).

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2009. 4:30 PM EDT. Well, well, well … Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe has now officially announced that his party will support the Harper minority government’s ways and means budget motion this coming Friday, September 18 — and thus at least avert yet another Canadian federal election in the utterly immediate future.

Jack Layton’s New Democrats will apparently wait until the government’s new employment insurance legislation is tabled tomorrow, before deciding whether they will also support the motion this Friday. But as long the Bloc votes yes the government is safe. (It takes 155 votes for a bare majority  in the current 308-member House. The Conservatives have 143, Liberals 77, Bloc Québécois 48, and NDP 36. There is one Independent and three vacancies.)

So … the Harper minority government now seems safe until at least the end of the month. Parliament does not sit next week, and thus the Conservatives will likely not have to face another confidence test until either the last week of September or early October, when the Liberals will have an opportunity to move their own motion of no confidence in the government. (And the great question remains, if that happens what will the Bloc and the NDP do then?)

Meanwhile, various Ottawa wags have quipped that if both the Bloc and the New Democrats wind up supporting the government motion this Friday, Mr. Harper will be saved (?) by the same “coalition” of “separatists and socialists” that he “attacked Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff for seeking in a speech … earlier this month in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.” Even if only the Bloc does the trick this Friday, some very long-term counterweights readers may have a sense of deja vu all over again — as they recall our headline on February 21, 2006: “Now we know .. the new government in Ottawa will be a Conservative-Bloc Québécois alliance after all.”

For an update on Canadian federal politics as of Friday, September 18, 2009, see L. Frank Bunting’s In Brief report: “All fired up and ready to go in Canada?”

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  1. In order for that “Conservative-BQ” alliance to actually be an alliance there would have to be some kind of long-term accord between the two.

    Other than that the BQ has decided that they may not necessarily want an election, there doesn’t seem to be any such accord at all — not like a signed coalition accord. But, hey. Details, right?

  2. Do you suppose you could reconsider your choice of terms?

    An alliance presupposes negotiations, agreements, etc., not merely the coincidence of Party B voting “yea” (or, in this case, “oui”) to Party A’s motion.

    I am aware that there are a number of commentators out there desperate to give life to this meme, but it’s merely making all those other authors look foolish. Perhaps you should consider what it would do to your reputations to join them in this?

  3. That’s not even the silliest part. Notice how “separatists” is in quotation marks?

    In 1995, they were identified as the lead negotiators of any Quebec “sovereignty association” deal with the federal government.

    But apparently we can’t call them separatists without quotation marks.

  4. The Counterweights Editors have asked me to reply, on their behalf, to the points raised by Mr. Ross and Mr. Stewart above.

    We are answering them together, since they raise the same objection to the term “alliance” in connection with the Conservative Party of Canada and the Bloc Québécois.

    We used the term in the headline to a February 2006 article about the early days of the Harper minority government`s first term in office. If Mr. Ross and Mr. Stewart click on the link above and look at the article in question, they will see that back then Michel Gauthier, House leader of the Bloc Québécois, told Bill Curry of the Globe and Mail that his party “intends to keep the Conservative minority government in office for a good while,’ encouraged by the Tories’ openness toward Quebec.”

    This seems to us quite in keeping with the ordinary dictionary meaning of the word “alliance”: e.g., “combination for a common object” (Shorter Oxford) — which does not specify any “signed coalition accord” or even “negotiations, agreements, etc.” Mr. Harper`s party made the first more informal move, by showing a special “openness toward Quebec” (which culminated, some will remember, late in 2006 with the parliamentary resolution that the Québécois constitute a nation within a united Canada: a concept that both Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff agreed on at that point). In response to this openness, the Bloc kept Mr. Harper`s government in office for some considerable time. That qualifies as an alliance as far as we`re concerned — an informal rather than a formal one, no doubt, but an alliance nonetheless.

    Subsequently the Tories’ openness toward Quebec faltered, for reasons Mr. Ross and Mr. Stewart might enlighten us about further. And the Liberals had to pick up the burden of ensuring that it was not necessary to hold yet another Canadian federal election every month or so. They have now said that they have carried this particular can long enough — and the burden has fallen back on the Bloc and the New Democrats.

    We did not use the term “alliance” in the headline to our article here, dealing with Canadian federal politics in the middle of September 2009. That would be inappropriate for what the Bloc has chosen to do this coming Friday. And so we have just said “‘Separatists’ will keep Harper minority government alive.” As far as what “alliances” may or may not unfold, informally or otherwise, among the current collection of conservatives, “separatists,” and “socialists” who wind up supporting the present Harper minority government — it is too early to speculate about that, of course.

    As for the bullying tone of Mr. Stewart’s “Perhaps you should consider what it would do to your reputations to join them in this?”, this is rather like the bullying tone of a bit too much that the present minority government has put forward — and that continues to land the Canadian people in circumstances where yet another federal election is the only sensible way out! In any case, we do not fear for our reputations. We just think Mr. Stewart should read more carefully and buy himself a dictionary.

    Finally, on Mr. Ross’s second comment about putting separatists in quotation marks: The trouble Mr. Ross is that you don’t understand the difference between “sovereignty association” and “separation.” Alas, you aren’t entirely alone. Which is why Jean Chretien gave us the Clarity Act. Those of us who, for one reason or another, feel a little closer to la belle province, without actually living there, don’t see M. Duceppe as all that scary, or troublesome. If he and his colleagues really were “separatists,” they wouldn’t be spending so much time in the federal Parliament at Ottawa.

  5. Sweet. This will be fun.

    First off, usually alliances are mutual, and are a matter of agreement between the two parties.

    What the editors have apparently described as an “alliance” is actually better described as an “alignment”. According to the comments cited, the Bloc intended to align themselves with the Conservatives. This doesn’t mean that the feeling is at all mutual. Considering the Conservative party’s disinclination to pander to the Bloc Quebecois in particular — the question of whether or not they pander to Quebec is a much different question — “alignment” could very well be the right word. “Alliance” would not.

    Now, as it regards the difference between “separation” and “sovereignty association”:

    The difference is fictional, and always has been. “Sovereignty association” was a term dreamed up by the Bloc and Parti Quebecois in order to obscure the issue of their sovereingty referenda and confuse Quebeckers into potentially voting for sovereignty — separation from Canada.

    At best, “sovereignty association” entailed the continued use of Canadian currency (a matter that, by its very definition, is off the table when dealing with a sovereign country), and automatic admission into NAFTA — something Canada could not unilaterally negotiate.

    But all of that still entailed making Quebec a separate country.

    As for Bruce’s comments regarding Counterweight and their reputation, I’m sorry to have to be the one to point out that they don’t have one, so it’s not that big a loss.

  6. Well, let’s have a little more fun then Mr. Ross.

    The original “alliance” between the Conservatives and the Bloc was mutual. Mr. Harper showed what many at the time took to be a fresh openness toward Quebec, to kick things off. The Bloc reciprocated by supporting his government for a significant period.

    If it somehow makes you feel better about your own allegiances to call this an “alignment” rather than an “alliance,” go ahead. Others will just see it as semantics. The practical point is that there was a relationship between the two parties back in 2006. Conservatives who now pretend that there is something unpatriotic about having a relationship with the Bloc are being disingenuous at best. Some of us thought the early relationship the Conservatives had with the Bloc — which finally culminated with the nation within a united Canada resolution — was quite constructive, and one of Mr. Harper’s best moments. Too bad he turned his back on this.

    As far as the difference between separation and sovereignty association goes, there certainly is one. Separation means Quebec would be a separate country from Canada, as the United States is, e.g. “Sovereignty” by itself does not mean separation. It is a longstanding doctrine of Canadian federalism that, within the division of powers prescribed by the Constitution Act 1867, every province is sovereign. Sovereignty association is about redefining the relationship between Quebec, which has always claimed that it is not a province like the others, and the rest of Canada.

    As a practical matter Quebec has already achieved a degree of sovereignty association, since its quest to be maitres chez nous began in the 1960s: the practical question now is how much. But some of us will have to get our heads out of the sand before we can make much progress on that front. Mr. Harper’s late 2006 resolution on the nation within a united Canada was at least a constructive step in some right direction.

    You needn’t be sorry either Mr. Ross about pointing out counterweights’ lack of reputation. We’ve never claimed to have anything more of this sort than you or Bruce. But it was Bruce and not us who brought the matter up — which must imply something. (And why have you spent so much time here attacking us today yourself, if you don’t think anyone else is listening?) Regards and best wishes in any case, in some kind of free and democratic multipartisan spirit.

  7. Oh. My. Dear. Lord.

    “Openness to Quebec” is what federalist politicians in Canada do in regards to Quebec as a matter of course. Pandering to the Bloc Quebecois is not.

    If you could provide some examples of the Conservative party pandering specifically to the Bloc Quebecois that would be one thing. But all of Canada’s federalist parties keep themselves “open to Quebec”. Thus, by your own argument, the Bloc Quebecois would be allied to all of them.

    But the Bloc Quebecois also wants to help lead Quebec out of Canada. Clearly the Bloc Quebecois could not reasonably be said to be allied with any political party that holds as one of its goals the unity of all Canada (including Quebec). At least not in the absence of an agreement in which (in writing at least) sovereignty is said to be off of the agenda.

    The Conservatives have not signed such a deal with the Bloc Quebecois. The Liberals and NDP have.

    There’s nothing semantic about noting the difference between an alignment — in which one party unilaterally grants its support to another — and an alliance, in which two or more parties multilaterally grant their support to one another. This is not a matter of semantics, this is not a matter of attempting to describe matters in a manner that grants one a rhetorical advantage (as you, by the way, very much have attempted here).

    This is a matter of describing things properly in the first place. You unequivocally failed to do that.

    For example, you’re making the error of conflating the jurisdiction that Quebec has been granted over its provincial and cultural affairs as outright sovereignty.

    The last time I checked, the province of Quebec is still subject to the Constitution of Canada, as well as the laws of Canada as legislated by the federal government.

    The kind of “sovereignty association” you’re describing is a universe away from the sovereignty association that the Bloc Quebecois has pursued for Quebec. You know it, and everyone here knows it. I suggest you stop being disingenuous.

  8. I think this would be a more interesting and illuminating discussion, Mr. Ross, if you focused on the real issues at stake in the relevant public debate, rather than the superficial rhetoric. There is not a lot of point in continuing our exchanges here. But I can’t resist one last stab at setting you straight.

    First, if you go back and look through the newspapers of early 2006 you will see that many observers, especially in Quebec, and especially among so-called soft nationalists in Quebec, believed the new Harper minority government was potentially offering a more decentralized view of the Canadian federal system, within which at least various degrees of Quebec’s traditional nationalist aspirations would be able to find more breathing room. Mr. Harper even gave speeches in Quebec on this subject — and they were quite different from the related speeches of, e.g., Pierre Trudeau or Jean Chretien or Paul Martin. I could get into many more details here, but that would take up more space than is really available in this context.

    At the time, as well, the emerging relationship between the Conservatives and the Bloc was described in some quarters as an “Unholy Alliance.” Most of us involved in this website then did not sympathize with this rhetoric. We saw what seemed to be unfolding as at least a potentially healthy alliance. And I do quite seriously think that your pains to distinguish between an alliance and an alignment here are largely an exercise in semantics. Whether a piece of paper is signed or not is not crucial in political relationships (or again as the Shorter Oxford suggests, in the dictionary definition of an alliance either). I think this is the way the wider public will see the issue too, if the matter ever finally surfaces in that context.

    I also think you have a much more black-and-white and highly abstract conception of what Quebec and French Canadian nationalism is all about than I or the others involved here do. And to me you are quite mistaken about the essential character of both the current Quebec sovereignty issue and the Bloc Quebecois. I think it was Chantal Hebert, e.g., who recently urged that the presence of the Bloc in the federal Parliament has strengthened federalism and not the sovereigntist movement in Quebec.

    Similarly, the kind of sovereignty association I alluded to is far from a universe away from what the BQ and PQ have variously proposed, starting with Rene Levesque in the late 1960s. Just take a careful look at the two referendum questions, e.g. And the current laws of Canada, to take just one case in point, include a Quebec Pension Plan separate from the Canada Pension Plan that applies to the rest of the country — a development that dates back to a time just before the organized sovereignty movement we know today.

    Finally, our disagreements here relate to essentially political viewpoints, and are not at all “a matter of describing things properly in the first place.” To me you are very much trying to do what you accuse me of trying to do! Of course I don`t expect you to agree with that. What I don’t understand is why you expect me to agree with you?

  9. You’ll find you’ll have a difficult setting someone who is right straight when you yourself are wrong.

    Stephen Harper’s belief in decentralized confederation is no secret.

    Quebec’s preference to decentralism has been no secret either. It hasn’t only been demanded by separatist leaders, but also by federalist leaders like Robert Bourassa, Jean Charest, and Jean Lesage. The demand for decentralism in Quebec has a long history, right up to Henri Bourassa.

    If Harper’s belief in decentralism represented an “unholy alliance” between the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois, it also would have represented an “unholy alliance” between the Conservatives and the Liberal Party of Quebec, and the Conservatives and the Action Democratique du Quebec. Only in one of those cases has any agreement involving mutual support ever truly existed, and it has never involved the Bloc Quebecois.

    As before, to describe your arguments as weak would be granting them far more credit than they are due.

    As for “black and white views of Quebec nationalism”, I don’t pretend that a political party that was founded with the goal of leading Quebec out of Canada isn’t a separatist party. There is some folly I simply will not entertain within my own mind, and I advise you to be in the same practice.

  10. You are no doubt right Mr. Ross, but not as you think. I thank you for your long stream of comments, on behalf of my fellow editors. And I think we might usefully conclude our debate at this point.

    To me your arguments are even weaker than you think mine are (they are not arguments at all, just assertions), and I believe you are quite mistaken and ill-informed in your view of the Quebec sovereignty issue. I have been watching this issue develop for more than half a century now. And I think your view about “a political party that was founded with the goal of leading Quebec out of Canada” is a bit hysterical and overblown in the year 2009. (And in fact the Bloc Quebecois was formed, by the way, in the wake of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, by a former federal Conservative cabinet minister, with rather vague goals at the time.)

    In any event you have rather rudely made your views known, as seems to be the style of people with your opinions. I have made known the views of myself and my fellow editors at this site. I like to think I have at least tried to be a bit more civil and polite (though perhaps unsuccessfully, judging from your heated reactions).

    I think we might now let whatever readers we have managed to keep on this flow of words judge for themselves. Our thanks again.

  11. Just one follow-up question: what did you think of the points raised by Barry Cooper in his “It’s the Regime, Stupid!”? There are many outside of the Central Canadian consensus who do get upset about these issues, and do routinely use terms like separatist when referring to those who do want to break their province out of the rest of the country in exactly the same sense Canadians of all stripes use the word to describe what goes on elsewhere in the world.

  12. Are Bruce and Patrick related somehow? To respond quickly to Mr. Stewart in any event, Robert Meynell has a somewhat interesting review of Barry Cooper’s latest book, back to back with Elizabeth May’s rather different but in some ways similar publication, in the July 2009 issue of Quill and Quire.

    Meynell says Cooper’s book presents “the angry thoughts of a neo-liberal Albertan separatist,” who “argues that outside of Alberta, Canada is a fragmented country of ‘losers’ who would be better off dissolving the federation and freeing themselves from what he calls the Laurentian elite.” I suppose if it’s ok and forward-looking to be an Albertan separatist, then it can’t be all that bad to be a Quebec separatist? (And in both cases nowadays I think myself the “separatism” should be in quotation marks.)

    At the same time, somewhere in between these two kinds of Canadian separatism may lie the constructive and forward-looking middle ground that the Harper Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois experimented with a little in 2006. As noted above, too bad this couldn’t have carried on somehow. At the same time again, I don’t think myself that there is much of a “Laurentian elite” or “Central Canadian consensus” left these days. And Mr. Harper’s now almost four-year-old minority regime in Ottawa can no doubt take some credit for that.

    This website tries to stand up for the notion that a great deal needs changing in Canada, in at least something of the massive spirit that Barry Cooper seems to point to. By this stage of things there are many different articles on many different aspects of this big issue on the site. It doesn’t seem to me, or my fellow editors I’m sure, that arguments about whether the 2006 relationship between the Harper Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois was an alignment or an alliance or a coalition etc. really advance this big Canadian debate in any constructive way. But I certainly agree that there are many reasons for Canadians from all regions (including Quebec) to be upset about many issues nowadays. I suppose my own personal view would also be that we are nonetheless making a little more progress than Barry Cooper seems to suggest.

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