Surprising developments in Canadian politics. In Alberta, traditionally the most conservative province, a relatively progressive politician wins unexpectedly. In the meanwhile, Michael Ignatieff says some true things about Québec (and Scotland) on the BBC and (of course) is forced to apologize.
Start with Alberta. The election to form the provincial government pitted two women against each other. The still unelected Premier of the province, Alison Redford, a “red Tory”, faced Danielle Smith, the leader of a party of the US style right wing. In conservative Alberta, Smith appeared to lead, while Redford seemed to alienate the right-wing majority (?) with her pan-Canadian, pro-education, campaign. . .
In the last week of the campaign, with Smith’s Wildrose Party apparently leading, three things happened to change all of that. 1. Smith herself denied climate change. 2. One of her candidates in Calgary said that as a white man he spoke for all, while Sikhs and Muslims speak only to each other. 3. One of her candidates in Edmonton said that gays would roast forever in a lake of fire. Now, in Louisiana, this might have sewn things up for Wildrose. In Alberta, however, these gaffes led to a massive shift in right-centrist voter intentions. In addition, the centre-left, displaying typical Canadian pragmatism, abandoned their parties and voted Progressive Conservative. The result was that Redford’s party won 62 seats out of 87, leaving Smith with a rump from grain-growing country in the province’s southeast.
Now to Ignatieff. Speaking on BBC Scotland, he recalled Canada’s “near-death” in 1995, when Québeckers nearly opted out. Since then, he said, powers have devolved to Québeckers, who are now really maîtres chez nous. The outcome, Ignatieff said, is a “union of indifference” between Québec and the Rest of Canada (ROC). "Over time the two societies will move ever, ever further apart. That is I think what the Canadian example will tell you,” he said, according to the Globe and Mail. “It’s kind of a way station. You stop there for a while. But I think the logic eventually is independence, full independence . . . The inevitable consequence is independence for Québec." And the same will happen, ultimately, in Scotland.
Was 1995 really near death? What would have happened if the separatists had won the Québec referendum and established “sovereignty-association”? We would have retained a common passport, an economic union with complete freedom of movement and trade and a common currency, a shared defence force, a parliament of the union and (possibly) a single foreign policy. It’s even possible that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Supreme Court of Canada would have persisted.
What would we have lost? The progressive influence of Québec politics? For a time, probably. Clearly ROC is currently more right wing than Québec, but it is also more multicultural, and at least in this way more socially progressive. Immediately after separation, ROC would likely have had a rightward lurch, but (as Monday's election in Alberta illustrates) an equilibrium would have re-established itself. I think ROC might have been more globally oriented than it currently is, even less pre-occupied with its even more boring politics. Certainly, without the constitutional hegemony accorded to French, we’d be more open to other languages, including Spanish.
Economically, we would likely be better off. I’ll discount the fact that Québec is poorer, though undoubtedly this would have been an initial advantage for ROC. Put this aside. Think instead of this: we would also have lost the agricultural protectionism that Québec demands, and without that negotiating obstacle, we would now have free trade with Australasia and much of South America. (Probably an independent Québec would not have had to appease its farmers either.) That would have helped manufacturing, and indeed agriculture, in ROC. And perhaps a more pragmatic post-separation Québec would have become an economic dynamo, strengthening the economic union between the two countries.
Culturally, we would be much the same as we are now, since there is no reason to think that the Québec influence on ROC would be less than it is now. After all, Toronto and Vancouver are natural markets for the Québec cultural industry. Indeed its influence might be greater, since an independent Québec would be less self-absorbed, more outward looking.
Think of 1995 as near birth. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea for ROC to have a referendum now to separate from Québec. And who better to lead the separatists than Michael Ignatieff? Is it time for a Party of the Rest of Canada?