Who really lost Quebec?

More critical for Canada today than weakness of the Liberals in Quebec is the weakness of the Conservatives in Quebec.

Québec face à Ottawa - JJC sans le Bloc

By Andrew Cohen, Citizen Special - In 1949, after the Communists defeated the Nationalists and established the People's Republic of China, there was much hand-wringing in the United States. Critics anguished over how a friend had become an enemy, looked for culprits in the State Department and asked the question that resonated for a generation: Who lost China?
In 2011, after the New Democrats virtually wiped out all the other parties in Quebec, there is much finger-pointing, of a different nature, in different circles. The question: Who lost Quebec?
It is one the Liberals are pondering in Purgatory. After all, for much of 's history, Quebec was the seat of the Liberal party. This was never truer than in 1980, when Pierre Trudeau won 74 of 75 seats and 68 per cent of the vote in Quebec. In his own riding of Mount Royal, Trudeau won every poll.
Two weeks ago the Liberals won seven seats in Quebec on 14 per cent of the vote. Their fortress is in ruins. Reclaiming Quebec is critical to their survival as a national party.
In their self-examination, though, the Liberals would be unwise to reject their past in Quebec. They should ignore the contemporary cant that disparages their historic commitment to a strong central government and its champion, Pierre Trudeau.
To L. Ian MacDonald of the Montreal Gazette, the decline of the Liberals in Quebec began when Trudeau "hijacked" the rejection of sovereignty in the referendum of 1980 with his commitment to patriate the British North America Act with a Charter of Rights.
MacDonald, a veteran observer of Quebec, argues that it all went bad for the Liberals when René Lévesque's government rejected the Constitution Act of 1982. The alienation eventually gave birth, in 1993, to the Bloc Québécois.
It's the story of Quebec and Trudeau that the secessionists, nationalists and revisionists have peddled for years, with some success, even if it's wrong.
As author William Johnson has persuasively argued in these pages, Trudeau didn't "hijack" the referendum with his constitutional reform package which was sealed in the "failed" intergovernmental conference of 1981 and the fabled "Night of the Long Knives." In fact, after long negotiation, Ottawa and nine provinces agreed to free Canada's founding document from British trusteeship and entrench a charter that protects language, among other rights, across the country.
It was a grand act of nation-building. Thirty years later, a generation of Canadians sees the charter as the soul of our citizenship.
In his fine new book, The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada, Ron Graham revisits the negotiation and confirms this enduring truth: that the Parti Québécois would have rejected any arrangement that would strengthen the federation. And while Quebec's signature would certainly have been desirable, patriation was legal, constitutional and approved by all parties in Parliament, including Joe Clark's Conservatives.
MacDonald denies all that, as does Brian Mulroney. Indeed, MacDonald argues flatly that patriation killed the Liberals in Quebec.
True, John Turner's Liberals were reduced to 17 seats (35 per cent popular vote) in Quebec in 1984 and 12 seats (30 per cent popular vote) in 1988.
But they revived under Jean Chrétien. In 1993, the Liberals won 19 seats (33 per cent popular vote); in 1997, they took 26 seats (36 per cent popular vote), which was the same as the Bloc, though it won 44 seats.
Most important, in 2000, Chrétien won 36 seats (44 per cent popular vote). The BQ won 39 per cent of the popular vote and 38 seats.
In other words, while the Liberals no longer owned the province, they controlled a third to half of the seats in Quebec in the 1990s. By 1997 and 2000, they were getting more votes than the BQ, which is when the secessionists realized they couldn't win a third referendum. Attaining sovereignty would also become more difficult because of the Clarity Act, Chrétien's greatest legislative achievement.
Dead? Hardly.
In fact, despite mismanaging his government's response to the sponsorship scandal, Paul Martin still won a respectable 21 seats (33 per cent of the popular vote) in Quebec in 2004.
The more relevant question we might consider is the collapse of the Conservatives in Quebec twice over the last half century and what that has meant for the unity of the country.
Why, for example, did John Diefenbaker's Conservatives lose Quebec in 1963? Why were the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, those Conservative creations, both rejected in Quebec? And why were Mulroney's Conservatives wiped out in 1993 by the Bloc Québécois?
While the Liberals lost Quebec, it was not they who were in power in Ottawa when the province embraced the BQ. More critical for Canada today than weakness of the Liberals in Quebec is the weakness of the Conservatives in Quebec.
With five seats in the province, Stephen Harper leads the first government in our history with no meaningful representation in Quebec -a reality that will become more dangerous when the Parti Québécois returns to power next year.
Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University. E-mail: andrewzcohen@yahoo.ca

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