Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Whimpy Kid of Confederation

Once again, I’m late on an issue, but it came back across my computer screen and hence my mind today, so here goes:

Michael Ignatieff just can’t buy any respect. Last month journalists and commentators heaped scorn on his comment  that  Quebec separation was a logical outcome of the way things had gone in federal provincial relations over the last several decades.

How could Ignatieff say these kinds of things? Doesn’t he care about Canada? And doesn’t he know that support for sovereignty is lower now than in a long time? These were the kinds of responses he got – gut reaction anger, indignation, etc, etc. (for criticisms, see here and here)

Yet what really did Ignatieff say? He said what many historians of modern Canada have shown – that the process of continuing to devolve powers to the provincial level, to continue to give up national control over all kinds of programs, is exactly what the sovereigntists want. He suggests that this continual denial of national responsibility for all kinds of issues, has allowed Quebec to achieve  virtual sovereignty. Canada and Quebec, he said, are already practically two different countries.

Is this assessment wrong?

This may hurt, but surely it’s also a pretty fair assessment of reality. When I heard the comments, I thought, ‘Oh, finally, Ignatieff is back on form.’ He’s no longer a politician, so he can finally start to call a spade a spade.

I recall having a conversation over drinks with a PQ strategist at a conference in London several years ago. He essentially gave me the same line. They were going to go for one tiny point after another. Nothing, on its own, would be big. But in the end, the province would be essentially separate. It is only a continuation of Quebec strategy since the 50s (from health insurance and old age pensions to foreign policy and childcare). Ultimately, the risk of actually separating, once all this was achieved, would be minimal. He said this with the most irritatingly, smug smile on his face, as if I was an idiot for thinking that a) the plan wouldn’t work and b) this wasn’t a good and inevitable idea.

So what does everyone do? They jump on Ignatieff for telling it like it is. What should we really be doing, if we really want Canada to survive intact? We should be demanding that the national government actually act like a national government, that it actually take on policy for the whole country. But then, of course, the target would not be Ignatieff. It would be the current government in Ottawa that, despite is ‘tough’ reputation, is in actuality acting like the whimpy kid of Confederation: refusing responsibility, giving up powers, withdrawing from areas it could arguably claim to control, and giving away tax powers and resources with which it could do things on a national level.

This is the issue that some opposition party ought to grab hold of: the ‘whimpyness’, for lack of a better term, of the Harper government. It constantly backs away from fights with the provinces, withdraws from any responsibility, and refuses to actually speak up for Canada.

Alas, though, with the NDP now courting Quebec and the Liberals in nowhere land, we truly are left without a national political party.

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