The week before the 1995 referendum on Quebec sov- ereignty, two very different political rallies were held. On Tuesday night, a large crowd of No sup- porters gathered at an auditorium in Montreal’s working- class neighbourhood of Verdun. They were clearly devoted to Canada and to the federalist cause, clutching Canadian flags like a buoy in a storm, but strangely constrained in their passion (as were the political personalities on stage, with the exception of then leader of the Conservative Party, Jean Charest, who put on a bravura performance that night). On Wednesday, the same venue was alive and elec- tric as Yes supporters gathered in overflow capacity. The enthusiasm was obvious, the energy incredible, as they min- gled with breathless journalists from around the world who reported on what was described as one helluva party.
Looking back, what is best remembered of that federal- ist rally, and even more so of the love-in that followed in the streets of Montreal, were the flags: maple leafs as far as the eye could see, small, medium, large and gigantic. The Canadian flag was clearly the central point of attention and the symbol of the federalist cause. But on the sovereignist side, it wasn’t waving the fleur-de-lis alone that was making the most impact. It was the hip, positive, edgy campaign (”œVote yes, and everything is possible”), the sense of cama- raderie and anticipation about Quebec’s future, and the pal- pable excitement of Yes supporters as they gathered in venues big and small.
Apparently surprised by the relative surface calm that ensued after the close vote, baffled journalists returned to other political crises (”œWhy, we see more reaction by partisans after a soccer match!” confided one clearly disappointed Swiss television reporter) and federal strategists tried to make up for the lost time that had led Canada so perilously close to losing Quebec on that October night. It was time to come up with a new strategy…fast. What would that strategy be? To try to understand the reasons why Quebecers seemed recep- tive to the sovereignty idea? To try to figure out what it was about Canada that could be meaningful to them? To present some sort of projet de société that might create a sense of enthusiasm and belonging for a place called Canada?
No, the strategy was about flags: more flags, bigger flags, lots and lots of maple leaf flags. Fluttering in the wind. Waving at parades. Stuck to professional football players’ helmets. Prominently displayed at sporting events, at trade shows, on men’s ties, golf balls, and anything else worth imprinting with the distinctive Canada logo.
The strategy was flawed from the get-go because it misrepresented the two fundamental logics that under- pinned it. First, is the use of flags and logos as part of the toolkit of symbolic politics. Before leaving the academy to become a federal cabinet minister, Stéphane Dion wrote in scholarly jour- nals about the importance of empha- sizing ”œconfidence” in the union and ”œfear” of secession as reasons why Quebecers would want to stay in Canada. The solution was to impose a form of conditional love on Quebecers: yes, Canadians love you but only to the extent that you agree to remain Canadian, not ask for much and love them back. The blunt instruments of conditional love that became Plan A (make them love Canada) and Plan B (punish them if they won’t) of the post-referendum federal strategy are direct derivatives of these arguments.
But Dion also warned that using ”œabstractions like ”˜distinct society’ can easily set one population against another by presenting simple symbols and leaving little room for compro- mise” (”œWhy is Secession Difficult in Well-Established Democracies? Lessons from Quebec,” British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 26, No. 2, April, 1996). In other words, it was impor- tant to avoid another Meech Lake situ- ation that would actually involve dealing with complicated issues about identity and representation. Somehow, this message was transmogrified into the narrowing down of Canada’s essential meaning into a flag and a logo, and in making these as visible as possible throughout Quebec by virtue of sponsorship programs and the ubiq- uitous maple leaf.
This procedure was undoubtedly inspired by the consultants’ idea and marketers’ practice of ”œbranding” the product to sell it. Just as Jean Chrétien resolved to brand the Liberals as ”œCanada’s party”, so too would his government brand Canada to reap its just rewards in Quebec. Here again, there was a fatal flaw in the branding strategy and its deployment in the context of a sponsorship program in post-referendum Quebec. As a business strategy, branding is associated with corporate efforts to secure a global reach for a product. But, as business guru Jim Gregory reminds us in Branding Across Borders: A Guide to Global Brand Marketing, the strategy has to be ”œwell-devised,” because the brand is ”œan asset that, like any other of great value, requires constant, pru- dent management.”
There are differences of opinion as to whether the branding concept can be transplanted from selling widgets to promoting countries (like Tony Blair’s vision of ”œCool Britannia”). And there are plenty of arguments to be made about the futility of trying to sell Canada to Quebecers as if it were the lat- est fashionable gizmo or a repackaged brand of beer. Nevertheless, if the feder- al government had been serious about creating the same kind of enthusiasm for ”œbrand Canada” as many Quebecers seem to show for ”œbrand Quebec”, they would have done well to think deeply about what that valuable brand could mean and how to parlay that meaning into a sophisticated and well-managed strategy. Instead, it was reduced to a sponsorship program that ignored sensitivity and sensi- bility, and essentially used the flag and the Canada logo as wallpaper to cover over the important and complex issues that bedeviled then, as now, Quebec’s rela- tionship with the rest of Canada.
At best, the sponsorship program was poorly conceived and impru- dently deployed. At worst, much worse, as the auditor general’s report by Sheila Fraser and the commission of inquiry presided by Justice John Gomery are revealing, it was a scandal waiting to happen.
The spirit behind the sponsorship program was one of blind panic about Quebec. The sense of urgency that gripped Ottawa in the aftermath of the referendum (one that was bitterly observed by some federalists in Quebec after the benign neglect of the previous years) led political strategists to con- struct the mission to ”œsave Canada” as one of such fundamental " and press- ing " importance that caution could be thrown to the wind. In effect, to observers now, it seems to be a classic case of believing that the ends justified the means, although Machiavelli him- self was careful to point out that real virtue lies in the justness of the means rather than the ends. (He also goes on to say that a corrupt political system is one in which corrupt leaders have held power for so long that corruption per- vades the entire system).
The real problem is that it remains unclear as to what the precise ends (or ”œdeliverables,” in the new managerial- ist bureaucratic jargon) were, how they could be measured, and how exactly the means were to be expend- ed to achieve them. The conception of the sponsorship program was so trans- fixed on the ”œnoble cause” that it failed to answer the essential ques- tions of any publicly funded program or policy: For what purpose? To whose benefit? With what means? Under whose authority? Ultimately, also, one would be led to ask: how could a pro- gram whose aims were so public and whose reach was so omnipresent remain so shrouded in secrecy? And who could be so naïve as to believe that it would remain that way?
In this kind of an environment, anything could happen, and it seems as though it did. From the accounts that are emerging before Justice Gomery, the other spirit (or skeleton) of the sponsor- ship program was one of blind service to the Liberal Party of Canada in Quebec. The wheels and deals of Liberal opera- tors in Quebec " whether a rogue group or party insiders " show that there were serious irregularities, to say the least, with the party’s financial situation in certain parts of the province. The atti- tude of the party was one of benevo- lence toward ”œorphan ridings” deprived of a Liberal MP that needed financial help (as in the 1997 election), combined with a desperate search for money to pay ”œvolunteers” on the party rolls. If the allegations flying in the Gomery Commission are confirmed, then this search for money leads directly to the scandal in the sponsorship program. It is unclear that the program was respon- sible for ”œsaving” Quebec in Canada, but the allegations suggest that it likely did contribute to saving the Liberal Party of Canada in Quebec, at least in some measure in the 1997 and 2000 elections.
Of course, everything in politics has a price, and the price of the spon- sorship program is a hefty one. In dol- lar terms, it cost taxpayers dearly in the late 1990s during the very years when Canadians were being asked to tighten their belts while facing cuts in practically every government program that actually provided services. Even more expensive in political terms is the scandal emerging from the spon- sorship programme. It is costing the reputation of civil servants up and down the bureaucratic hierarchy and casting doubt on the entire operations of government advertising and com- munications. It is costing the reputa- tion of business people and casting doubt on the entire industry of politi- cal advertising. It cost the Liberal Party over a dozen seats in Quebec and its majority status in the House of Commons in the 2004 election. It is costing Paul Martin what had been predicted to be a brilliant political future and casting the darkest of shad- ows on Jean Chrétien’s political past.
Most important, the sponsorship scandal is eroding the public’s confi- dence in Canada’s democratic processes and political leadership and, equally serious, rebuilding the wall between Quebecers, in particular francophone Quebecers, and Canadians outside of Quebec. The first reactions to the whiff of scandal showed the rift: Many Canadians outside of Quebec either saw sponsorship as another indication of pandering to Quebec or as a worthy strategy to keep Quebec in Canada. Most Quebecers, on the other hand, were disgusted with the premise of being ”œsold” Canada through sponsorships and flag-waving. Initial public opinion polls confirmed these sentiments, showing that most Canadians figured that political patronage was more prevalent in Quebec; while most Quebecers were outraged at the slander on their democratic values (”œHow Canadians Perceive Quebec Following the Sponsorship Scandal,” La Presse canadienne, February 2004).
And the rift is widening. For many Quebecers, the reve- lations of the sponsorship program confirm their worst suspicions about federalist parties in general and the federal Liberal Party in particular. After the Gomery Commission moved to Montreal, it began to hear waves of explosive testimony from advertising executives and Liberal party organiz- ers that suggested much more than a whiff of scandal. The French language news network, RDI, televised the testi- mony live to dramatically increased audiences numbers and the Commission hearings have been front page news every day in every major daily in the province. The sovereignist party in federal politics, the Bloc Québécois, is set to literally sweep the province in the next general election, leaving the Liberals with new orphans everywhere but in the staunchest of federalist ridings. Back to back polls from Léger Marketing show that a majority (54 percent overall and 62 percent of francophones) would vote Yes in a referendum on sovereignty. To be sure, sovereignty is a complex issue that reaches far beyond reactions to short-term political issues, and Quebec is several years away from even the possibility of a referendum, but for many sovereignists, the ”œwin- ning conditions” for the vote are beginning to take shape.
By most accounts, meanwhile, the Commission has yet to register the same effect on Liberal Party fortunes in the rest of Canada. While governance is now a top-of-the-mind issue of concern to rival health care, it has yet to become the kind of salient issue that will further change the political landscape outside Quebec. The Liberal Party has been bat- tered in the media and has lost the trust of a substantial number of Canadians, but it has yet to be blown over in terms of its electoral prospects, particularly in Ontario. In last June’s election, as the Canadian Election Study suggests, the Liberal Party was able to rally voters in the last days of the campaign; voters remained angry but not enough to pre- vent them from abandoning the party (Elisabeth Gidengil et al. ”œDown to the Wire,” The Globe and Mail, 15 July 2004). Then, as now, the Liberals played the unity card as a way of deflecting protest votes away from the Conservative alternative and the spectre of a right wing government in cahoots with the separatist enemy in the form of the BQ. In an ironic twist, the party that has lost its credibility as a feder- alist voice inside Quebec is using the message of national unity to win votes outside Quebec. The Liberal strategy of instilling fear about secession and shoring up confidence in the union that was once applied in Quebec is now being applied with brio to the rest of Canada.
As these strategies play themselves out against the back- drop of the power struggles of a minority government and a divided House of Commons, and as we wait for the end of testimo- ny at the commission of inquiry, the criminal trials of some of the witnesses, and the release of the Gomery report this fall, the larg- er question remains: when will real energy be expended on asking why we are in this precarious situation to begin with, how can Canadians and Quebecers identify and address impor- tant issues of confidence in governance and of balance in the federation, and how to do so before the next Quebec ref- erendum. Otherwise, we may be facing a repeat of the same scenario, the same blind panic, and the same desperate flag- waving in the streets of Montreal.