Thursday, October 23, 2008

"Reconquering Canada"

Down last night to the Monk Centre in Toronto, one of those swish branded playpens that our universities are abundantly provided with nowadays, for a "debate" between André Pratte and Andrew Coyne on the subject of the essay collection edited by Pratte entitled Reconquering Canada: Quebec Federalists Speak up for Change.

As a debate, it stank. Pratte, editorial director of La Presse, is quiet, modest, and soft-spoken (at least in English, though he speaks it perfectly), and he presented his book quite diffidently, noting several times that each of the contributors has his or her own views. Andrew Coyne, not diffident at all, did not engage with the book or Pratte at all, but launched into his own vision for a reconquest of Canada. Now Coyne is interesting, fluent and provocative, but the non-exchange recapitulated that old situation of English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians talking right past each other in the same room on the same subject.

So what is the reconquest that Pratte and his regroupement want? It is an argument that Quebecers should re-engage in federal politics and become serious players in the Canadian polity, rather than being disengaged, isolated spectators, concerned only with Quebec issues. "We, Quebecers, have succeeded in too many fields, overcome too many obstacles, to remain trapped in a victimist and isolationist political culture," Pratte writes in his summing up. "The federal idea... is the exact opposite of the status quo."

I found myself thinking of Lucien Bouchard and the contempt he produced in me every time he launched into his trademark "Nous sommes opprimés, nous sommes humiliés, on veut nous assimillés." If Pratte and his colleagues can bring on a debate in which claims of victim and victimizer are no longer central, they will have done everyone much good.

Apparently the book in its French-language original (this translation is by Patrick Watson, and its publication was engineered by John Ralston Saul) created no small buzz in Quebec last year. But Pratte noted last night that there was effectively no federalist position presented in Quebec in the recent federal election, and it was easy for Quebec voters (38% of them anyway, the Bloc supporters) to fall back into an ourselves-alone posture at the merest hint that the Harper government was not in fact vraiment de chez nous. That rang true to me; I don't think rural and small town Quebecers are really so passionate for the arts or for the rights of teen-aged offenders, just that they saw those policies as evidence the Conservatives were really western/alien/domineering outsiders, and retreated back to the isolationist position.

One small debate did flare. Coyne asserted that Quebec independence is impossible under any circumstances and that at some point Canada should declare itself indivisible. Pratte demurred; not that he favoured it or predicted it, but with a strong majority on a clear question, it would happen. Pratte seemed to me to have that one right.
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