Antonia Maioni (The Globe and Mail):
As we entered into this election campaign, the main issues of contention seemed to be stability, security and the Senate. And yet sovereignty may also play a role, and not just for Quebec voters.
To be sure, la question nationale has been a frequent guest – wanted or not – in Canadian elections. The Liberals made a political art of raising the spectre of separation, a tradition that passed from Pierre Trudeau to Jean Chrétien and then to Stéphane Dion. But in the past, these leaders spoke to the immediate threat of a referendum debate, a Parti Québécois government in office or the menace of the Bloc Québécois.
In the absence of these clear and present dangers – a PQ decimated in the past provincial election, a Liberal government that sometimes seems more federalist than the Conservatives in Ottawa and a BQ that is literally in tatters – why does Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau still feel it necessary to play the sovereignty card?
We should not be too surprised. Like his father, Mr. Trudeau has no truck or trade with Quebec nationalists of any political stripe. He has often accused the NDP of playing footsie – or fire – with separatists. He built his own political career on ousting a BQ candidate from the Papineau riding. So, kicking up a fuss over this issue may just be part of his political DNA. Or, to use a boxing analogy, he can’t resist kicking the opponents when they’re down.
But it’s curious that Mr. Trudeau has chosen to continue to bang on this drum while campaigning for “real change.” If anything, the wipeout of the BQ and the surge of the NDP revealed that Quebeckers were searching for just that. Neither the Conservatives nor the New Democrats have any problem with courting the nationalist vote on the right or the left of the political spectrum in Quebec. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper recently reiterated that nationalism without a separatist impasse is not a menace to Canada. He has already made it clear he would rather fight this campaign on more pressing matters than the Clarity Act. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair realizes that much of the support for the NDP in Quebec rests in a comfort zone the party has built for francophone Quebeckers, among them nationalists and sovereigntists alike, through the Sherbrooke declaration. Both parties accept that, while most francophone Quebeckers may not want to separate from Canada, they remain attached to a Quebec nation and resist the government of Canada calling the shots on its future.
For Trudeau-style federalists – of either the Pierre or Justin era – this is anathema. And therein lies the reason that Justin Trudeau has put the sovereignty card on the table. The Liberals have had to write off much of francophone Quebec, where antipathy toward les Trudeauistes is still widespread. Instead, the party is focusing on ridings where federalist sentiment is stronger than elsewhere in the province. Most of all, the party is playing to a much larger audience outside of Quebec, and specifically in Ontario, the cradle of Canadian nationalism. Here, in ridings where Liberals have to pull ahead in close races, calling into question the NDP’s curious bedfellows in Quebec may be the fine line that convinces federalist voters elsewhere of Mr. Trudeau’s leadership credentials to take on the separatist dragon whenever it rears its head.
For Quebeckers, this is old, tired news. But because the Liberals have practically nothing left to lose in the province, and so much more to gain elsewhere, the sovereignty card may indeed become a very important one in Mr. Trudeau’s deck.