In a just-published book titled Open & Shut: Why America Has Barack Obama and Canada Has Stephen Harper, columnist John Ibbitson of The Globe and Mail has a suggestion for the many Canadians who, like him, dream of a day when the House of Commons will be free of the Bloc Quebecois.
If Canada replaced the monarchy with the Constitution in the oath of allegiance MPs must swear prior to taking their seats in Parliament, he argues that future bloquistes might well fade into the night – quietly or otherwise – rather than pledge to uphold a document no Quebec government has agreed to sign.
There is at least one major hitch with his proposal and it is that it is perfectly possible to swear to uphold the Constitution while pursuing Quebec sovereignty.
Nowhere in the Constitution does it state that the Canadian federation is indivisible. On the contrary, in answer to a federal reference on Quebec secession a decade ago, the Supreme Court concluded that Quebec could constitutionally pursue secession from Canada, as long as it met certain conditions. (A key one would be the winning of a clear mandate from Quebecers to engage in negotiations.)
Quebec’s estrangement from the Constitution is also overrated.
There is not a single disposition of the current language regime of the province that is at odds with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And among the few post-patriation amendments to the Constitution, one of the most significant – dealing with religious education – was negotiated by current PQ Leader Pauline Marois on Lucien Bouchard’s watch and adopted in the Commons with the support of the Bloc.
Ibbitson is part of a group of observers who feel the Bloc has perverted the federal system. These days, their ranks are swelling.
It may seem odd that the debate over the existence of the federal sovereignist party is resurfacing some 20 years after its advent but then, the Bloc’s full impact on the makeup of Parliament was blunted by the division of the Conservative movement for at least half of that time.
If the Progressive Conservative and Reform parties had not split the conservative vote for the duration of the Jean Chretien era, the former prime minister would almost certainly not have enjoyed a decade of majority governments.
It is no accident that Canada entered an open-ended cycle of minority rule the moment the right reunited. And the fact is that, for as long as the Bloc dominates Quebec, it will be hard to break out of that cycle.
These days, despair over the capacity of the federalist parties to beat back the Bloc has prompted a search for a shortcut to return Parliament to majority rule.
Ever since Quebec, through the Bloc, killed hopes for a Conservative majority last fall, that search has become nowhere more intense than on the right of the ideological spectrum.
But leaving aside Ibbitson’s contention that Canada could only operate effectively if it managed to disenfranchise a significant number of its citizens, it should be noted that, in their quest for a Bloc-free Parliament, conservative commentators are very much on a fool’s errand.
The sovereignist party is primarily a repository for progressive votes. It takes more votes away from the NDP and the Liberals than from the Conservatives. In its absence, the Liberals would be immensely more likely to reassert their dominance of the province than a Conservative party that has excised its progressive label.
When all is said and done, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the Harper Conservatives and their dream of a governing majority is not the Bloc but rather Quebec itself, along with its stubborn progressive streak.
Chantal Hebert writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.