Dispatches from the separatist witch hunt
Posted by Joanna Smith, Ottawa Bureau
Last week, the Toronto Star (specifically, political editor Colin MacKenzie, Ottawa bureau chief Bruce Campion-Smith and I) decided to solicit the views of the Quebec NDP caucus on the political future of Quebec and whether they had changed over time and, in particular, provide them with the opportunity to put on the record any past memberships in the Bloc Québécois and other federal or provincial parties.
The goal, as we noted in the questionnaire emailed to the 58 MPs (excluding Interim Leader Nycole Turmel, whose history is now well known), was to gain a better understanding of their perspectives in the hope of sparking a greater discussion on the issue. It was also, obviously, to try and avoid any more surprises like this one.
The exercise resulted in this story, which, to be honest and overly idealistic, was disappointing (although understandable given the heated reaction to the Turmel news, as NDP MP Pat Martin rightfully pointed out). Contrary to what Ottawa-based Le Devoir columnist Manon Corneiller wrote about my story two days before I actually wrote it, I was not on a "witch hunt". I wanted to learn directly from the MPs, and not from some future leak from the Bloc Québécois or some other source with an obvious agenda, where they stood in the past, where they stand now, and hear their explanation for any change of mind.
This is partly because my main issue with Turmel is not that she was a member of a sovereigntist party, or that she was a sovereigntist in the past (especially since, as I discovered while reporting on her role shaping NDP policy on Quebec in the late 1990s, it seems she was not). It is that she did not find that information relevant, even when asked during the election campaign about her 2006 endorsement of Bloc candidates as president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and appears not to understand just how big a deal that is outside Quebec.
But in a broader way, it was because I believe it is time for an adult conversation about this issue. As a native Quebecer (and a proud one, at that), I do have a grasp of how things are different in Quebec. I am also keenly aware of how many people in the rest of Canada know or understand very little about it. I remember meeting a new co-worker on the first day of my new job in Toronto, who a scant three minutes after we exchanged names asked me if I was a "separatist". I also remember hiking in British Columbia when a man who had just moved there from China told me, in a thick, halting accent, that I spoke "English very good for a lady from Quebec". Don't even get me started on how many times I have had to explain what a CEGEP is.
I have had many, many heated debates with friends who see things I would call grey as either black or white. Through talking about it, we have gained a greater understanding of where the other person is coming from. I do believe there are more people like me out there, and more people like my friends.
As the NDP has been quick to point out, the only way to grow a party in Quebec is to attract voters who have supported sovereignty and may continue to support it now. I agree and I wouldn't even call that an opinion. It's called arithmetic. I think part of that conversation should involve the people at the very centre of this shift in the federal political landscape of Quebec (the MP themselves, who are elected officials, after all) taking the time -- and maybe also a leap of faith -- to talk about their own shifts in thought.
As Robert Asselin, assistant director of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, said when I interviewed him for Saturday's story, if the NDP believes it is the new bridge between Quebec and the rest of Canada, then "prove it". Or, at the very least, talk about it.
Even though you passed my deadline and I wrote a story about how you didn't want to talk to me, all is forgiven. Feel free talk about it at any time.
Dear New Democrat MP from Quebec:
The Toronto Star is canvassing the Quebec caucus of the Official Opposition on the issue of national unity and the unique political landscape in the province.
We would like learn about and understand more about your views in the hope of sparking a greater discussion on this topic, so please take some time to answer the following questions:
1. Have you ever been a member of another federal or provincial party? If so, which one?
2. Are you still a member? If so, when did you join? If not, when did you quit?
3. Have you ever voted for the Bloc Québécois? If so, why? If not, why not?
4. Has the Bloc Québécois been good for Quebec?
5. Would you describe yourself as a sovereigntist, a federalist or something else? Please explain your choice. If you have not always described yourself this way, why not?
6. Did you vote in the 1980 and/or 1995 referendums on Quebec sovereignty? How did you vote and why?
7. The Sherbrooke Declaration says the NDP would recognize a majority decision (of 50 per cent plus one) of the Quebec people in the event of a referendum on the political status of Quebec. What do you think this means? Do you agree with it?
Please email your responses to Ottawa Bureau Chief Bruce Campion-Smith and/or reporter Joanna Smith, who covers the NDP in Ottawa.
We would appreciate a response by Wednesday, August 10 at 12 p.m. Eastern Time.
Please feel free to respond in French if you would prefer.
Please do not hesitate to contact either of us with any questions or comments.
I want to give credit to those NDP MPs from Quebec who, in less controversial times, have been candid on this issue when I asked them about it.
One of them is Alexandre Boulerice (Rosemont--La Petite-Patrie), who voted 'yes' in the 1995 referendum but now considers himself an "autonomiste" who is unconcerned with the national question as he focuses on practical issues like Employment Insurance and pensions. He is also a member of Quebec Solidaire, which champions sovereignty, but explained it is because he is a left-wing union guy and he agrees with their other policies.
Then there is Laurin Liu (Rivière-des-Mille-Îles), who I followed around for a while, who I thought showed some moxy when she explained why she is a federalist:
“I’m a federalist mostly because of my age,” says Liu when asked about how she personally viewed the future of Quebec. “I was born in 1990. I didn’t live through those crises, really, and I’ve always seen Canada as a unified country.”