About the Author

Chantal Hebert

In the fall of 2007, Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hébert, came from Montreal thinking about new politics in Quebec from the perspective of one who spent a career writing about sovereignty: "What if you spent the best part of your life living next to a mountain only to wake up one morning to find it gone?" She is a guest columnist for L'Actualité and a weekly participant on the political panel "At Issue" on CBC's The National as well as Radio-Canada's "Les Coulisses du pouvoir." She has served as parliamentary bureau chief for Le Devoir and La Presse. She knows that to understand Canada we must also know the story of Quebec. No one tells that story more coherently than Hébert.

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French Kiss

French Kiss

Stephen Harper's Blind Date with Quebec
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Chapter One
A Perfect Day for an Eclipse

In Canada, the stars align in such a way as to let the Conservative moon block out the Liberal sun about once in a generation. If every forecast were to be believed, January 23, 2006, was going to be such a ­day.

For weeks, Canada’s top pollsters had charted the capricious course of public opinion, and they all concurred. Change of a magnitude that few had imagined when Canada’s ­thirty-­ninth federal election had been called, back in November of the previous year, was in the offing. One of Canada’s longest electoral campaigns was poised to deliver an unexpected prime minister, Stephen Harper, about whom little was known and much was feared. For weeks, Liberals had been warning voters about an ominous hidden Conservative agenda and a sharp turn to the right in federal ­politics.

With political observers calling for clear blue skies over much of the country, the Conservatives who converged on the Calgary Convention Centre to watch the election results were as certain of victory as they had been in ­decades.

In the past, episodes of Tory rule had usually been exciting but unsettling times, periods of uncertain duration ruled primarily by the law of unintended ­consequences.

The 1979 victory of Conservative prime minister Joe Clark had turned out to be a ­short-­lived distraction. His minority government never reached its first-year anniversary. It was defeated on its first budget vote a few months after the election. Clark was only in office long enough to allow the Liberals to recoup and Pierre Trudeau to get a second wind. That second wind would sweep the country into an era of dramatic change, as he reshaped the Canadian constitutional landscape according to his own designs, and then retired. “French power will always exist. No Canada can exist without the support of this province,” the Liberal prime minister told the Quebec wing of his party in March 1984, only a few months before his ­retirement.

Trudeau’s declaration was a prescient one. While Canadians have not had occasion to find out whether their country can exist without Quebec, they certainly had occasion, after he stepped down, to find that it was next to impossible for a party to make it to power without Quebec’s ­support.

Along with Jean Marchand and Gérard Pelletier, Trudeau had come to Parliament Hill at the invitation of Lester B. Pearson in 1965. Over the decade and a half that he and his fellow recruits spent in federal politics, Quebecers had carved out an unprecedented place in the running of the affairs of the country. They did not let go of the levers of power after Trudeau’s ­departure.

In 1984, voters stunned many observers by taking Trudeau at his word and electing Brian Mulroney, another Quebec leader, albeit one from a different political party. A prime minister from Quebec prevailed in five subsequent ­elections.

But by January 23, 2006–more than two decades after Brian Mulroney had first demonstrated the truth of Trudeau’s prediction, and in the wake of the turbulent reign of Jean Chrétien and the aborted first mandate of Paul Martin, French power had become a faint shadow of the proud dynasty of the sixties. The line of prime ministers from Quebec was expected to run out on that voting day. And many Quebecers were expected to take a willing hand in bypassing two of their own to hand power over to a leader from ­Alberta.

All weekend, Conservative strategists had crunched their numbers. In their ­best-­case scenario, they would break through to a majority and sail on to four years of unfettered federal power. Their ­worst-­case scenario would leave them about a dozen seats short of the safety zone, with MPs in every province, and in a comfortable enough zone that they could show Canadians their mettle for as long as they needed to make the case for a majority next ­time.

Except that, over the course of the final weekend of the campaign, clouds moved in on their horizon. Not for the first time in the history of the party, did the Conservative math not add up. Urban and Ontario voters were suspicious of Harper, and the floor that Tory strategists had seen as rock bottom would break under the weight of their residual fears. Were it not for Quebecers, the first Conservative government of the ­twenty-­first century would have been ­stillborn.

For the first time in decades, the decks were no longer stacked in favour of the Liberals. The most elementary assumptions of the sovereignty movement were found wanting. Sovereignist strategists had never imagined that Quebec voters would punish the Liberals by supporting the Conservatives rather than rallying to the Bloc Québécois. And the Canadian left seemed more dangerously divided than it had ever been. By splitting the progressive vote, the NDP and the Liberals had helped Stephen Harper elect enough MPs to form a ­government.

Like many of Canada’s defining struggles, this battle for the soul of the country would take place primarily on Quebec soil. Unlike previous ones, it would not be fought exclusively between Quebec ­generals.

Back in the Calgary hall where Conservatives had gathered on election night 2006, Ontario was ­clearly the party-pooper.

The evening had got off to a fine start. The Quebec Tory breakthrough that had seemed so improbable at the beginning of the campaign had materialized early. In short order, the party had claimed seats in ridings as diverse as Pontiac in federalist Outaouais, ­Louis-­Saint-­Laurent in the provincial capital of Quebec City, Beauce in the entrepreneurial heartland of Quebec and ­Jonquière—Alma in the nationalist bedrock of the ­Saguenay.

Six more Quebec seats were to come, for a total of ten, many of them won with the kind of big majorities that usually attend landslide victories. In Beauce, Maxime Bernier, whose father, Gilles, had once presided over Brian Mulroney’s Quebec ­caucus, had won 67 percent of the vote. In ­Jonquière—­Alma, ­Jean-­Pierre Blackburn, the Tory MP who had tearfully taken down the Canadian flag from his backyard pole on the day the Meech Lake Accord died in June 1990, was sent back to the federal ­capital after a ­thirteen-­year absence, by 52 percent of the voters of his nationalist riding. During the interval, Blackburn had paid a steep price for turning down the overtures of the Bloc Québécois and sticking with Mulroney. He had gone down with the Tory ship in 1993, and had then been defeated for mayor of Jonquière in the autumn of the 1995 referendum, a particularly poor time to be a federalist running in any sort of election contest in the ­Saguenay.

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The Morning After

The Morning After

The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was
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