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Edmonton Journal, April 29, 2005

Harper playing dangerous political game with Quebec wild card

Conservative-Bloc minority government won't serve Canada well
by David Orchard

While the sponsorship affair rages across the country, it is in Quebec where it burns the hottest – threatening far more than the Liberal party.

The opposition parties, particularly the Conservatives, appear prepared to play with this fire for their own ends.

Polls in Quebec show support for sovereignty at over 50 per cent -- its highest level since the Meech Lake Accord. The Charest government is very low in the polls and has been for months. Waiting impatiently in the wings is the PQ, with its promise of another referendum "as soon as possible in the next mandate."

Yet the Conservative party under Stephen Harper is not worried. It is ready to damn the torpedoes and join with the Bloc to trigger an election. A national news item, reporting on the lack of concern in the Conservative party about the dramatic rise in separatist momentum in Quebec, quoted a top Conservative: "We have a philosophy of federalism that is more in tune with how Quebecers see a federal state operating." What exactly does this mean and of which Quebecers is the Conservative party speaking?

Everyone can understand the Bloc's eagerness for an election. They and the separatist movement in Quebec are going to be the big winners in any early vote. But why would the Conservatives be prepared to take this risk with Canada?

The Conservative party is nowhere on the radar in Quebec and stands virtually no chance of taking any seats there; nor does the NDP. Like it or not, it is the federal Liberal party that has fought -- and is seen to have fought -- to keep Canada intact and it is the only force on the ground in Quebec capable of doing so. Harper's claim that Quebecers can or will vote for his new party as an alternative to Liberal corruption is a pipe dream. The Conservative party's weakness at the riding level,
its support of joining the U.S. missile project and the war on Iraq, its opposition to the Kyoto agreement, and its positions in stark disagreement with the vast majority of Quebec voters on a number of other issues, doom the party utterly within the province in any near- term election. Harper's frantic attempt to recruit separatist candidates to run under his banner does nothing to change this reality.

As has been the case for years, the fight in Quebec is between les rouges, the Liberals, and les independantistes, the separatists.

By triggering an election at this time, well in advance of any process of sorting the wheat from the chaff via Gomery, Harper's Conservatives hope to improve their strength in Parliament. However, if they win a minority government, they will be able to govern only through the same method they used to get the election -- namely in alliance with the Bloc.

It's not hard to imagine the bargain a resurgent, reinvigorated Bloc will drive for their support of the Conservatives to weaken the federal ability to govern and set the stage for a winning referendum.

Some Canadians have taken to calling radio open line shows to say that if Quebec wants to leave, so be it.

The consequences for those of us who love this country would be not only the loss of Canada's largest province and the great geographic and strategic gateway to the continent, but the loss of the very heart of the nation, with its culture, language, dynamism, and four hundred years of shared history -- and would be a near-fatal blow to any hope of keeping the rest of the country intact.

Those in a rush "to throw the bums out" would do well to reflect on the scenario of a minority Conservative government propped up by a powerful Bloc Quebecois facing a coming Quebec referendum.

A Bloc controlling 60-odd federal Quebec seats, and a newly elected PQ with a majority of the provincial seats will be on one side. Who will be on the other side? Who will speak for Canada this time? Who will fight and win this battle for the hearts and minds of Quebecers? Pierre Trudeau did it in 1980, Jean Chretien in 1995. Both were leaders of majority governments with substantial support in Quebec. If Harper imagines that his words will motivate Quebecers to remain in Canada, he doesn't know the province very well.

These are the stakes that Harper is prepared to gamble with, in a manner remarkably similar to Brian Mulroney's famous "roll of the dice" with the country's future over a dozen years ago. Now, as then, only a strong outpouring of opposition from Canadians will stop Harper's dangerous game.

David Orchard is the author of the bestseller, The Fight for Canada - Four Centuries of Resistance to American Expansionism, and ran for the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative Party in 1998 and 2003. He farms at Borden, SK and can be reached at tel (306) 652-7095, E-mail:

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