Sunday, March 04, 2007

Chantal Hébert, French Kiss: Stephen Harper's Blind Date with Quebec

Back in the fall, when Chantal Hébert columns ceased appearing on the Toronto Star's website, and a notice went up that she was on leave while writing a book, I became very excited. After all, Hébert is one of the few columnists in Canadian political journalism that I felt I could usually turn to for insightful analysis that wasn't overtly partisan. Indeed, friends of mine who work in media relations have complained (with grudging admiration), that she could not be "spun". And what better time for a book on the surprising revival of the Conservative party in Quebec – released mere days after the provincial election campaign had begun, a campaign which was witnessing some surprising strength from the right-leaning Action Démocratique du Québec. Here, I thought, would be a book that would couple the experience of a long-time observer of Canadian and Quebec politics to an analysis of more recent developments in the province.

Hébert's recent vitriol towards the recently-crowned Liberal leader Stéphane Dion should have tipped me off that I'd be in for some disappointment with her first book-length work. French Kiss does not live up to expectations, whether in terms of the subject matter promised by the title, in logical organization, or in clear-headed analysis. This is not to say that the book is without its merits. Hébert provides some interesting anecdotes of behind-the-scenes negotiations among Liberal cabinet ministers about how to address the social policy front. She is prescient in foretelling that André Boisclair's "Montrealness" might pose problems for him among the rank-and-file PQ membership in rural areas. And, like Paul Wells, she sees the randomness of Paul Martin's legislative agenda and his ill-thought-out plan to launch the Gomery commission as key reasons why his party was decimated in Quebec. Dotted throughout her narrative are other key nuggets of insight into the failure of Canadian politics to address the underrepresentation of women, and the failure of the NDP to grow beyond its base (as well as its delusions of completely supplanting the Liberals).

In other respects, the book was a major disappointment. To begin with its title (which authors are often unable to select for themselves, but let's work on the assumption that she did pick it), there is a serious lack of analysis of its announced subject matter - Harper's success in Quebec. I would have expected Hébert to delve more deeply into the nature of Quebec's electorate in order to explain the "surprise" victories of Conservative MPs. Indeed, there is a long strain of fiscal and social conservatism in Quebec, which explains the past successes of the Union Nationale, the Créditistes, the Mulroney Conservatives, and even the ADQ. This vote is concentrated around Quebec city, in smaller towns and in rural Quebec. Quebec is not a monolith of left-wing voters – it has just often appeared that way, because the sovereignist/federalist axis has overwhelmingly defined Quebec political parties, and the sovereignists also tended to line up with left-wing politics.

Hébert does not, however, look at this long-standing dynamic, and prefers to explain away the election of Conservative MPs as the result of Harper's endorsement of decentralized federalism. This may be one element of his popularity in some circles in Quebec, but it is certainly not the only key factor, and Hébert does her readers a disservice in implying that it is. Indeed, there is very little analysis of the Harper Conservatives' campaign in Quebec, their election promises, or his performance in the leadership debates in this book, all of which might have proven fodder for analysis as to why his government pulled out some wins. The fact that Josée Verner, Stephen Harper's extra-parliamentary Quebec lieutenant during his years in opposition, fails to appear at all in this book is shocking.

Organizationally, the book is a dog's breakfast. Hébert notes in her acknowledgements that not a line of her manuscript was shown to anyone before she submitted it to Knopf. I would not have advertised that fact. Apparently she didn't let her editors do much with it either, or perhaps they were rushing the book into print to make it out in time for the election. For one example of the chaotic organization, Chapter 20 "Spinning Wheels" begins with a discussion of the HRDC scandal, jumps to the role of MPs in minority parliaments, segues into a tribute to the good work being done by the Senate, with a brief diversion to mention that the body needs to be reformed, and ends up with a discussion of the need to move beyond partisanship to discuss euthanasia and other moral issues – all in eight pages. This reflects the overall structure of the book, which leaps from topic to topic, without any obvious chronological or thematic structure. It makes it very difficult to follow Hébert's argument, such as it is.

As for the argument, it is much more in line with Hébert's job as a columnist for the nationalist daily Le Devoir. As I mentioned in my previous post, this book is primarily a lament for the demise of the Meech Lake Accord. Hébert's book has villains, and they are the people who failed to see the beauty and elegance of the Meech Lake Accord, which would have given voice to the long-downtrodden government of Quebec, which was so brutally overlooked by Pierre Trudeau when he patriated the constitution. (I exaggerate a bit, for emphasis.) In her version, Jean Chrétien, Elijah Harper, Clyde Wells and others were short-sighted when they opposed the Accord, seemingly for no good reason, and then went on to help pass the Clarity Act, which was also an affront to all proper-thinking individuals, and which (she claims) had no traction whatsoever in Quebec. Harper's success, she argues, is due to the fact that finally a federalist leader is reaching out to Quebec, a province that had been ignored for a decade by federal leaders who refused to engage its aspirations. Worse still, the Chrétien and Martin Liberals blindly trundled into the sacred realm of social programs, where they had no business, when they should have stayed within their constitutional jurisdiction to deal with income-support programs like EI, Old Age Pensions and equalization.

You'll forgive me if I, unlike Hébert, opt not to swallow the nationalist Kool-Aid. Nowhere in her book does she mention some of the key factors which turned Canadian public opinion against Meech – most notably the inept way in which Premier Bourassa handled the introduction of Bill 178 (the sign laws) in such a way as to lead Canadians to think that the distinct society clause meant a blank cheque to trample on the rights of the anglophone minority in the province. Nor does she seem to think that part of the reason why the demise of Meech caused such outrage could have something to do with the inflammatory rhetoric used by Bourassa (and other leaders) when it failed to be adopted. And that is without getting into the potential dynamics of an amending formula which would have required unanimous approval by the provinces of almost all constitutional changes.

As for the Clarity Act, Hébert is unable to square her argumentative circle of why if indeed this Act was the nail in the Liberal coffin in the province (as she claims), Jean Chrétien's best election performance in Quebec (and that includes francophone Quebec), was the election after the Act was passed, and after Stéphane Dion had begun his campaign of debunking secessionist rhetoric. A history lesson is also needed in terms of federal involvement in EI and Old Age Pensions, which both required a constitutional amendment in order for Ottawa to assume jurisdiction over these formerly provincial fields. There is nothing more inherently provincial about medicare as opposed to these other jurisdictions. The shape of Canadian federalism has changed over time, and some jurisdictions have changed hands. That the federal government established a poor track record with the provinces in the 90s in these sectors is true enough, but one could argue (counterfactually, but that doesn't stop Hébert), that if the federal government had not clawed back funding to those sectors, many Canadians (including Quebecers) would have been just as happy today to see a constitutional amendment making health care a federal jurisdiction.

Hébert may think that the "distinct society" clause is harmless, and that classical federalism is the only way to move forward in Quebec. I would argue, however, that there are several blind spots to her argument. Without a clear understanding of the legal meaning of a "distinct society", or a "Quebec nation", there will rightfully be concerns from the minority communities in the province about what sorts of constitutional powers this confers on the provincial government, particularly where language and culture are concerned. Hébert's lauding of Quebec's social safety net, which she thinks can only continue to grow and thrive without interference from Ottawa, also reveals some tunnel vision. Unlike smaller provinces, such as New Brunswick, PEI, or Manitoba, Quebec benefits from a fairly large population and industrial base that can partially fund these services, and make them viable in terms of economies of scale. Smaller, poorer provinces tend to accept an activist role from Ottawa in social policy since this provides the capital and coordination to make these new initiatives viable. Hébert also forgets that a significant part of Quebec's social security net is funded by equalization payments – drawn mainly from Ontario and Alberta (and Saskatchewan these days). With current rhetoric coming out of those provinces, I am starting to wonder how long it will be before those provinces get tired of funding boutique social programs in Quebec, when that province shows little interest in participating in a national dialogue, and fights against new national social programs. I am increasingly suspecting that willingness to support national equalization is tied to willingness to support national social programs. If this linkage continues to fray, Canada may be in for some very hostile intergovernmental relations indeed.

I continue to consider Chantal Hébert one of Canada's top political journalists, and my disappointment with this book will not prevent me from continuing to read her work (or link to her columns from this blog). However, I think that Knopf did her reputation a disservice by releasing this book onto the market without more rigorous editing. This could have been one of the most important pieces of political writing released this year, and instead it is a disjointed exercise in "what-if"s, which fails to even fulfill the mandate of its title. Hopefully her next effort will be better.

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At 2:11 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thx for the review Matt. So as a book it is "organizationally idosyncratic" shall we say. Is it worth the read?

She is, to my mind, one of the best political observers in Canada today but I sense you are saying she lets us down with this work?

Do I get it?

At 2:27 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boy oh boy. Great review and an editorial in itself. My reading started with a disappointment as I intended to read the book asap, but now I want o read it even more. I can see your understanding of the “two solitudes” of Canada is way above your average Canadian (of all regions). But in some of your critiques of Hebert you miss a little bit of understanding of the French Quebecers weird politic sailings.

For example the fact that Chrétien received his strongest mandate from the French Quebecers had nothing to do with the “Clarity Act”, but rather from the fact that once the referendum lost, Quebecers goes “full federalist” for at least two mandates. Even Rene Lévesque went for the “Beau Risque”. Since independence is not an option let’s try to make changes from within. The Bloc is not an option in this regard, and the Conservative was scaring Quebecers. Liberals was the only choice.

I could continue, but this is not the place, nor do I have the right, this is your Blog and I should start mine ;)

In any case I loved reading you; I will go dig into your history. I hope I have the time to follow your writings. Thanks for the intellectual entertainment.

At 11:42 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lévesque went "soft federalist" because he was seen as having obstructed the patriation of the constitution; not being involved at the end on purpose to try and sabotage it. History has been re-written since then.

At 5:52 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"... this book is primarily a lament for the demise of the Meech Lake Accord."

Sorry Matt, but I must disagree.

Ms Hebert does discuss the context of Meech and how it impacted the times and events leading up to today. Chantal also makes plenty of points that the Quebec separation movement has been losing momentum. She provides many insights into how the presence of the Bloc in the House of Commons has inadvertantly led to Quebecers feeling more involved in the federation.

In fact, the strongest case Chantal makes for a region being disenfranchised in the federation is Alberta's. A net contributor to the other provinces, Alberta under represented in the commons and in the upper chamber. The four Atlantic provinces with lower populations have two more seats. Before the current gov't, there had been only one MP in the ruling gov't of the previous 14 years. Chretien did not even visit the province's most populous city during the 2000 election. Chretien also insulted politicians from Alberta in that same campaign. Despite spending more on social programs than any other province, NDP leader Jack Layton shows up in Edmonton and declares that Albertans are out to dismantle medicare.

I found that Ms Hebert did a great job recounting the factors leading to the 2006 election result and she revealed to me much of what has transpired behind the scenes.


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