- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

The victory by Jean Charest’s Liberal Party over the separatist Parti Quebecois in Quebec’s recent provincial election raises the important question: Is the province’s nationalist movement dead?Mr. Charest’s win was impressive. The provincial Liberals captured 45 percent of the vote, compared to 33 percent for the Parti Quebecois and 18 percent for the center-right Action Democratique du Quebec. Mr. Charest is an economic conservative, who during the campaign called for tax cuts, balanced budgets and improving the province’s faltering health-care system.His great achievement was that he denied Premier Bernard Landry and the Parti Quebecois a third term in office. A victory by the Quebec separatists would have most likely resulted in another referendum on whether the French-speaking province of 6.7 million should declare independence from Canada. In the last referendum held in 1995, Quebec nationalists came within 1 percentage point of winning a vote on secession.Mr. Charest declared on election night that Quebec had given itself a 21st-century government. “It is a mandate for change that we have received and a mandate for renewal,” he told cheering Liberal supporters.The new federalist premier’s task will be a difficult one. Following 30 years of constitutional wrangling with Ottawa over Quebec’s status within Canada, the province’s economy has plummeted. It has a bloated public sector, the highest tax burden in North America and one of the lowest standards of living in the country. Quebec nationalism has come with a high cost for the province’s citizens.Yet as Mr. Charest tackles Quebec’s economic problems, he will also need to focus on the nationalist question. For the defeat of the Parti Quebecois was in fact the best thing that could have happened to the province’s nationalist movement at this time.After 10 years in power, the party was seen by many Quebecers as complacent and out of touch with the economic trends prevalent in the rest of North America. The leftist Parti Quebecois remained wedded to social democracy, high taxes and strong public spending, while most other English-speaking Canadian provinces made painful decisions to improve their competitiveness in the global economy.The result is that the separatist party lost the confidence of many voters in its ability to manage bread-and-butter issues such as jobs, health care and education. The relentless erosion in Quebec’s standard of living threatened to undermine the nationalist project. Many voters asked themselves if Quebec City cannot get its economic house in order, how then will it forge a viable, French-speaking independent state?The irony is that if Mr. Charest succeeds in passing his sensible economic agenda, it is almost inevitable that a prosperous economy will serve as the basis for the renewal of Quebec nationalism. Canada is not one but two countries, consisting of an English-speaking nation and French Quebec.As an expatriate Canuck from Montreal, I believe in the dream of a binational country from sea to shining sea. Canada is one of the greatest multicultural democracies in the world. Its breakup would be a tragedy for the forces of civilization, signaling the victory of ethnic tribalism and intolerance.Yet the reality is that French Quebec has legitimate grievances that need to be addressed. Prior to the Second World War, most Quebecers had little contact with the federal authorities in Ottawa.However, with the rise of the welfare state — unemployment insurance, old-age pension checks, nationalized health care — the federal government’s influence in Quebec society has increased dramatically. The emergence of a centralized national state in combination with economic globalization, in which English has become the international language, threatens to undermine Quebec’s cultural identity. This is why despite the billions of dollars in federal transfer payments from Ottawa to Quebec over the past several decades, a national policy of official bilingualism and a succession of French prime ministers, the province’s nationalist movement remains strong. Quebec secessionism will continue to haunt the Canadian political landscape until the province is given the full tools it needs to protect its French cultural heritage.Mr. Charest recognizes that Quebec’s constitutional status within Canada must be changed. He has long been a proponent of devolution, ceding more powers from the federal government to the provinces — Quebec in particular Most Quebecers do not want to secede from Canada; independence is a last option. But they do want greater political and cultural autonomy within a decentralized Canadian federation. Ironically, French Quebec’s hostility to the Trudeau liberal vision of a centralized, bureaucratic federal state is also shared by Canadians in the West and most blue Tories in Ontario.If Mr. Charest can secure a new constitutional arrangement for Quebec, he will ensure that Canada remains a unified and viable country for the 21st century. He will also be paving the way for a potential national conservative majority, an alliance of French Quebec, the West and Ontario Tories. This new conservative coalition will be based on lower taxes, small government and a decentralized federation that recognizes the country’s regional differences.Mr. Charest hopes to one day become prime minister. If he can slay the Quebec separatist dragon and propose a bold new national vision, it is only a matter of time before he emerges as Canada’s next great leader. Jeffrey T. Kuhner is an assistant national editor at The Washington Times.

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