'Nation' resolution marks the beginning of the Bloc's decline

Party is struggling to remain relevant while being squeezed by the Tories and NDP

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In November 2006, Gilles Duceppe served notice of a motion to recognize "the Quebec nation." His intent was clearly mischievous - to sow discord among Liberals on an issue they would be debating at their leadership convention the following week, and to embarrass the Conservatives into voting against it on the floor of the House of Commons.

It was purely a tactical manoeuvre. What Duceppe didn't count on was that Stephen Harper loves tactics. It's the part of the game, the chessboard part, he loves above all. The very next day, Nov. 22, the prime minister introduced his own motion, recognizing that Quebecers "form a nation within a united Canada."

When he explained it to his caucus that Wednesday morning, there wasn't a dissenting voice - and this in the party of John Diefenbaker's One Canada and Preston Manning's western Reform movement. Harper's Quebec MPs and senators were jubilant, as was Jean Charest when the premier was consulted by phone. Over the lunch hour that day, Harper worked on the language of the resolution with interim Liberal leader Bill Graham, and also obtained the agreement of the NDP's Jack Layton.

When Harper spoke to his resolution later that same afternoon, there was agreement among the federalist parties, and the Bloc Québécois was isolated on an issue its own leader had raised only the day before. Two days later, Duceppe capitulated, announcing all-party support of Harper's motion. Everybody won except the guy who started it.

Duceppe must regret the resolution. since the recognition of Quebecers as a nation has deprived the Bloc, a party founded on grievance, of its greatest grievance - a sense of rejection of Quebec by the rest of Canada, the very raison d'être for the creation of the Bloc after the death of Meech Lake.

Two years later, wherever Harper goes in Quebec, his strongest applause line is always his reference to the Québécois nation resolution. When he drops it in, invariably at the end of a boring recitation of achievements, the dozing audience always wakes up and breaks into applause.

It's not a constitutional amendment. It's not in the preamble of the constitution. It's not even statute law. It's just a resolution of the House. As Harper himself said then: "It's not a legal text. It's simply a declaration of recognition and reconciliation."

It has turned out to be just that, for French- and English-speaking Quebecers alike, a kind of permission slip to close the books on the wounds and slights of another era. To the immense relief of all.

That Harper did this, as an Albertan, was a kind of Nixon in China thing. No prime minister from Quebec could ever have proposed it, knowing the furor it would have caused in the rest of Canada.

This was the first of three very negative events for the Bloc in the House. The second was the February 2007 budget, in which Harper dealt with the vertical fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces, whose very existence the new Liberal leader, Stéphane Dion, always denied even as the Bloc made it top priority for supporting the government. With $2.3 billion in new transfer payments to Quebec, including $700 million in topped up equalization money, Duceppe had no alternative but to support it. How was he going to oppose more money for Quebec in the middle of a provincial election campaign?

The third bad thing for Duceppe and the Bloc occurred in May 2007, when he announced on a Friday he would be leaving Ottawa for the leadership of the Parti Québécois, then folded his hand the next day when it became clear that Pauline Marois would not be bluffed out of the game. "I don't know what I was thinking," Duceppe later admitted.

But the damage to his leadership was instant and permanent. Ever since, the Bloc has been led by a lame-duck leader, who previously announced his intention to leave, and hasn't since given one good reason for staying.

And the Bloc, which has always been a one-trick pony - sovereignty in its first three elections and sponsorship in its next two - is a very lame one in this race.

Duceppe, running his fifth race as leader, clearly doesn't have his heart in it. In the first 10 days of the campaign, he's tested as many themes, none of which resonates. Re-open the constitution? Sure. Another referendum? Why not? Protect the French language? Absolutely. Decry the cuts to federal cultural programs? From every rooftop. Solidarity? Forever. Vote Bloc to prevent a Conservative majority? At all costs. A vote for the NDP is a vote for the Conservatives? Now, there's a new one.

It's indicative of the Bloc's slide from grace that it is not only bleeding votes to the Conservatives on the right, but the NDP on the left. The same NDP of which a former PQ cabinet minister says the Bloc has become a clone. Another former Bloc MP, accusing it of becoming an interest group for trade unions, says it has become "the Senate of the CSN." Ouf! Ça fait mal!

It is too early to say where this will end on election day, but it clearly has the Bloc headed in the wrong direction. And when this chapter is written, it will begin with the resolution on the Quebecois nation, as a turning point in our political history.

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