Losing in Quebec

So. Quebeckers saw Harper’s cuts to cultural programs as an attack on their identity. The polls and pundits said that the Conservatives would win twenty-five seats in Quebec. Or more. They got just ten, the number they had in the last Parliament.

What’s the lesson? The federal government should keep its hands off “identity” issues.

That was the decision at the Quebec Conference of 1864. That was the decision at Confederation. Matters having to do with “race” – to use the old term – would be left to the provinces. The Parliament of Canada would be neutral; it would ignore “race,” identity, country of origin, religion, particularity.  Remember George-Etienne Cartier: “[when] we were united together, if union were attained, we would form a political nationality with which neither the national origin, nor the religion of any individual would interfere.” He was speaking in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada in 1865. Here’s George Brown, in the same debate: “We [the men who drafted the Quebec Resolutions] have thrown over on the localities [the provinces] all the questions which experience has shown lead directly to local jealousy and discord.”

Let me set the issue in the larger context. Parliamentary government is famous for tolerance of political differences. In the ordinary way of things, the parliamentary majority sets aside time in the legislative schedule to hear the opposition’s arguments; the official records of a parliamentary session includes speeches from both sides of the House. The opposition, for its part, agrees to abide by majority decisions but is free to organize to repeal or amend them in a subsequent vote or a subsequent session. As the constitutional lawyers say, one parliament can’t bind another. It’s this fact, that a parliament’s edicts can be revisited that secures tolerance. Political losers live in hope. There’s grumbling and resentment. But also tolerance. “Our day will come.”

Tolerance is threatened when the legislature considers matters that once enacted cannot be revisited, matters like the making of a federation and the making of a legislature. (The stakes at the Quebec Conference and in the ratifying debates were sky high.) And – this is the point of particular interest for Canadians contemplating the results of the general election of 2008 – it is threatened when the issue before the legislature touches a people’s sense of identity. It breaks down in the face of intransigent arguments that say, “We are who we are and we always will be and we want what we want, and we shall not be moved.”

Madison used the term “faction” to designate intransigent issues. Few political leaders at Confederation used it; but all knew the problem. It is perennial; it is the Achilles heel of liberal democracies. Hope of future political success does not persuade a faction to abide by majority decisions; promise of future rewards, the chance of attaining objectives under a new parliament does not mollify its leaders. To realize its demands a faction may take to the streets, mount an armed rebellion, or invite the intervention of a foreign power.

The arts cuts looked to voters in Quebec like a move by the anglo-saxonizing majority to modify conditions supporting their particular way of life. Heck. Mr. Harper got off lightly. Just rap on the knuckles.

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