As counterintuitive as this argu- ment may sound, Stephen Harper, the former Reformist from Alberta, has the potential to win over Quebec’s pragmatic sovereignists, thereby weakening the independence movement in the province.
There are two types of sovereignists. Unconditional sovereignists think of sovereignty as an end in itself and as the only path to cultural security. These people want a country of their own and no other less dramatic changes will make them change their mind. There are also pragmatic sovereignists. To these people, sovereignty is just one option for addressing Quebec’s national concerns; they support it when they are persuaded that the situation calls for it and no other viable solution is on offer. A good proportion of Québécois who voted ”œyes” in the 1995 referendum belong to this second group.
Pragmatic sovereignists voted yes in the 1995 referendum because they felt humiliated. The national unity drama in Canada has come to rest large- ly on symbolic politics. The 1982 con- stitutional amendments, unanimously rejected by the National Assembly, were widely understood as humiliating in Quebec. The defeat of the Meech Lake Accord only added to this humiliation.
These events, however, are increas- ingly distant in the minds of many Québécois, who, just like most Canadians, have short historical memories. To be sure, the sense of humiliation is still present, but it becomes increasingly difficult for Québécois to trace it back to specific events. With more precise reasons for humiliation fading away, the space for compromises that might be rea- sonable to pragmatic sovereignists widens. For Stephen Harper, this opening is a real opportunity that can be seized upon.
To seize the opportunity, Harper’s Conservatives should construct their ”œfederalism of openness” in ways that address and put an end to Quebec’s humiliation. Historically, such actions have meant amending the Constitution, a difficult exercise as Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord have shown.
Surprisingly, there are important steps that Harper can take without constitutional change. Indeed, many pragmatic sovereignists can be per- suaded that the following measures would go a long way toward satisfying the historical demands of Quebec: 1) legally preventing the intervention of the federal government into areas of provincial jurisdiction, 2) curbing the fiscal imbalance by limiting the spending power of the federal govern- ment, and 3) enabling and expanding provincial participation in interna- tional organizations.
In addition, Paul Martin’s sugges- tion to abolish the notwithstanding clause provides Harper with the oppor- tunity to talk about the Constitution in ways that would not be as shocking to pragmatic sovereignists as the Trudeauist court-centred version. Indeed, Harper could seek to rehabili- tate the notwithstanding clause by arguing that many cases involve com- peting sets of rights, and that legisla- tures’ views on how to make that balance are just as legitimate as those of judges. Such a step would be seen as supportive of the National Assembly and thus as a measure of openness toward Quebec.
Unconditional sovereignists will try to deconstruct and thereby under- mine the symbolic meaning Harper’s Conservatives might try to attach to their federalism of openness. However, their capacity to do so successfully is limited. There are several theories that are currently popular in some sover- eignist circles. These rest on the idea that sovereignty will occur automati- cally, without sovereignists having to change or even promote any of their basic positions.
For example, they note that new generations of Québécois, who typical- ly support sovereignty, are replacing older, less committed ones; they suggest that numerous failures of federalism undermine the federalist option over time; they point to an ascending 15-year cycle (1980-1995- 2010) that will bring the sovereignist option well above 50 percent by 2010, etc. In other words, Quebec is inevitably marching toward sovereign- ty and the polls of past months, show- ing support for sovereignty around 50 percent, comfort them in their beliefs.
Therefore, many unconditional sov- ereignists have preferred debating the timing of the next referendum and such procedural issues instead of developing ideas that would convince the Québécois to support sovereignty, as the PQ’s lack- lustre ”œsaison des idées” illustrated. If unconditional sovereignists continue just to propose sovereignty as an end in itself, pragmatic sovereignists are likely to be more and more interested in Harper’s federalism of openness as a solution for eliminating their feelings of humiliation. Of course, such an important change in their views will not happen automatical- ly any more than will the expected his- torical path of the unconditional sovereignists. Harper’s Conservatives will have to make it happen.