For the Liberal demise in Quebec, blame Pierre Trudeau

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 11, 2011

On Feb. 18, 1980, the Liberals won 68 per cent of the Quebec vote, and 74 of its 75 seats in the House of Commons.

The circumstances were unique, never to be repeated - Quebec was then only three months from the first referendum on sovereignty, and the voters wanted Pierre Trudeau, not Claude Ryan, as the federalist champion. They also wanted Trudeau as prime minister of Canada to say no to separatism in case, by some accident of history, they said yes.

That worked for Trudeau, restored as Liberal leader following the defeat on its budget of the minority Tory government of Joe Clark. This led to Trudeau's finest hour as prime minister, the referendum campaign in which he personified a Canadian Quebec.

But then Trudeau hijacked the results of the referendum for his own ends - the patriation of the Constitution with an entrenched Charter of Rights over the objections of Quebec, principal home to one of Canada's two official language communities. Or in his own words: "le foyer principale du Canada francais."

Two events in the fall of 1980 would have long-term consequences for the Liberals. One was the National Energy Program, which has left the party in the wilderness in the West from that day to this.

And the other was the failed first ministers conference that led to the patriation of the Constitution, which began the decline of the Liberal brand in Quebec, leading to its utter devastation this past May 2.

The party of Laurier, St. Laurent, Trudeau, Chrétien and Martin was reduced to 14 per cent of the vote in Quebec and seven seats, all of them on the island of Montreal, all of them in anglophone and allophone ridings.

Including Papineau, where Justin Trudeau survived the NDP wave thanks to the vote splits between the socialists and separatists, as well as his own impressive retail skills, as someone you want to vote for rather than against.

The compelling aftermath question of this election is this: what happened in the last three decades to bring the Liberals, the most storied franchise in Canadian politics, from domination to ruination?

And who's to blame?

The answer to both questions is one and the same.

Trudeau. Not this Trudeau, that Trudeau.

The patriation of the Constitution in 1981 and 1982 was a historically polarizing event.

In the 1984 federal election, Brian Mulroney won 58 seats and 50 per cent of the vote in Quebec, leading a party that had won 12 per cent of the vote and only one seat in 1980. (Does this sound familiar in terms of last Monday's results for the NDP?)

In the 1984 Mulroney landslide, the Liberals fell to 17 seats and 35 per cent of the Quebec vote under John Turner.

Mulroney's vote surged after his speech a month before the vote when he promised to return Quebec to the constitutional fold "with honour and enthusiasm."

In 1988, Quebecers joined Western Canada in support of free trade, giving Mulroney 53 per cent of the vote and 63 seats, compared to 30 per cent and 12 seats for Turner's Liberals. Quebecers also fervently supported the Meech Lake accord.

And then in June 1990, Meech died. The two principal actors responsible for its demise were Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, who would be remembered for his embrace of Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells on the very day it died, when he said: "Thanks for all your help, Clyde."

Which gave rise to the Bloc Québécois. In the 1993 election, under the charismatic Lucien Bouchard, the Bloc won 49 per cent of the vote and 54 seats. The Liberals positioned themselves as the Block the Bloc party, as they would for the next three elections until 2006, and won 33 per cent of the vote and 19 seats.

And then came the 1995 referendum, payback for patriation and Meech, which resulted in the Canadian flagwaving that led to the sponsorship scandal and Gomery Commission that rekindled the Bloc's narrative of grievance in the 2004 and 2006 elections.

Except that in 2006, the Liberals were no longer the only federalist default party - the Conservatives of Stephen Harper won 25 per cent of the vote and 10 seats, mostly in eastern Quebec, while the Liberals were reduced to 21 per cent and 13 seats, mostly in Montreal. Similar results obtained in the 2008 election.

But in 2011, the result was dramatically different. In his April 17 speech to the Parti Québécois convention, Gilles Duceppe echoed the separatist slogan of the 1995 referendum: "Et tout redevient encore possible." Quebecers spontaneously decided to block the Bloc themselves, without any help from the other parties.

They didn't go to the Conservatives because they didn't like Stephen Harper. They didn't go to the Liberals, because the brand had been ruined over the last 30 years. So they went to Jack Layton, the man with the smile, the cane, and the gallant campaign.

It wouldn't have happened without Pierre Trudeau giving birth to the Bloc in one century and making a return to the Liberals unthinkable in the next. As one of his biographers once famously wrote: "He haunts us still."

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