Did Stephen Harper’s approach to Quebec accelerate the decline of the sovereignty movement, or was the former prime minister just the accidental beneficiary of a collective desire on the part of Quebecers to move on from the deadlock over the province’s political future?
In a text published in the magazine L’actualité on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Parti Québécois’ short-lived 2012 victory, former Harper adviser Carl Vallée argues the Conservatives deserve significant credit for having contributed with their policies to bring the Quebec conversation in line with that of the rest of Canada.
There is no doubt that the Harper decade was not a good one for the sovereignty cause.
By the time the Conservatives lost power in 2015, support for Quebec leaving the federation had fallen to its lowest level since the early 1980s.
The Bloc Québécois was a spent parliamentary force, having failed in two consecutive elections to win the 12 seats required to qualify for official party status in the House of Commons.
The Parti Québécois was back in opposition in the national assembly after premier Pauline Marois’ bid to trade a minority mandate for a governing majority after 18 months in power backfired.
The party has yet to recover from that defeat.
This weekend, its rank and file will hold a vote of confidence in its latest leader. The upcoming first year anniversary of Jean-François Lisée’s leadership victory next month will be no cause for celebrations.
With a year to go to the next Quebec election, the PQ is in third place in voting intentions, well behind the ruling Liberals and the second-place Coalition Avenir Québec.
According to Vallée, Harper contributed actively to this steady deterioration of sovereigntist prospects by practicing a less-invasive form of federalism than his Liberal predecessors and by systematically refusing to engage in rhetorical debates with his sovereigntist foes.
After the PQ formed a minority government in 2012, Vallée said Harper was urged by the civil service to become more proactive in showcasing Canada and the federal government in Quebec.
But the then-prime minister was wary of strategies that he found reminiscent of the failed Liberal sponsorship program. Instead, he opted to decline to take whatever bait premier Marois threw his way.
In doing all of the above, Vallée argues, Harper had a major hand in shifting the Quebec conversation from federalism-versus-sovereignty to a left-versus-right axis more aligned with that of the rest of the country.
It is possible to agree that Harper’s net impact on the standing of federalism in Quebec was positive and to also find that it was not as much the product of a deliberate strategy as a case of unintended consequences.
Harper’s hands-off approach to the federation’s social union for instance had as much to do with the former prime minister’s ideological distaste for government activism on the social policy front as with a Quebec strategy.
For the record, it was Liberal prime minister Paul Martin – not his Conservative successor – who updated the template for asymmetrical federalism by spelling out Quebec’s right to determine its own health spending priorities in the 2004 Health Accord.
No recent prime minister was as unpopular in Quebec as Harper. That went a long way to make the virtue of not engaging in battles of words with his sovereigntist counterpart a necessity.
These were fights he would have had little chance of winning in Quebec public opinion.
Elsewhere in the country, they would have drawn attention to his limited capacity to champion Canada effectively in a referendum
Harper’s decade in power was a game-changer in Quebec but maybe not in ways he necessarily intended.
In presenting Quebecers with a version of conservatism that was alien to the majority that make up its progressive mainstream, he provided them with an incentive to reconnect with national parties liable to oust his party from power.
A critical number of Quebec voters did accept the sovereigntist premise that the values that underpinned Harper’s policies at home and abroad were at odds with theirs. But most of them rejected the conclusion that leaving the federation was their only remedial option.
From that perspective, Harper was not only an architect of the demise of the Bloc Québécois but also a driving force behind the 2011 orange wave and the 2015 Liberal revival in Quebec.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.