Canada: Charest flexing his nationalist muscles

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Sep 18 14:14:37 UTC 2008

Charest flexing his nationalist muscles
It remains to be seen whether his party will follow his line

The Gazette

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Once could be an isolated incident. Twice starts to look like a trend,
or a campaign. And twice now in the early stages of the federal
election campaign, Premier Jean Charest has distanced himself from the
probable head of the next government in Ottawa, Stephen Harper. This
week, he put pressure on the Conservatives to accept stricter emission
standards for motor vehicles manufactured in Canada. Previously, he
had complained about cuts by the Harper government in funding for
Quebec artists and in subsidies for economic-development agencies.

He might not be done. Before the federal campaign debates in two
weeks, Charest is to make public a list of priorities addressed to the
federal leaders. And at a meeting the weekend before the debates, his
party is to adopt a policy on Quebec's place in Canada.
Charest is taking a certain risk, since his own prestige would suffer
if his interventions have little apparent impact on the election

But he might be less concerned with influencing the election results
than using the federal campaign to establish his independence from
Ottawa, and strengthen his credentials as a nationalist and a defender
of Quebec's interests. Those have been Charest's weaknesses since he
was conscripted from federal politics in 1998 as leader of the Quebec
Liberal Party to save Canada from Lucien Bouchard.

Along with complaining about the Conservatives' cuts to culture
programs, Charest has called for provincial government control over
public spending and policy on culture. And the former separatist
fighter does not shy away from the term "cultural sovereignty," coined
in the mid-1970s by Liberal premier Robert Bourassa, to describe his

Charest's position would be re-inforced by a show of strong support
from his party at its meeting in two weeks. But the Liberals have
recently appeared uncomfortable with expressions of nationalism. After
losing francophone votes and nearly power to Mario Dumont's Action
démocratique du Québec last year, Charest tried to steer his party in
a nationalist direction. He announced the creation of a party task
force on identity, which called for measures to strengthen the French
language and Quebec as a nation.

But delegates at a party meeting last September were overwhelmingly
critical of the task force's preliminary report for being too
nationalist and thereby playing into the hands of their adversaries.
So the report was rewritten for the party's policy convention last
March. A proposal to give Quebec a veto over broadcast licensing
decisions in the province (which could be used to deny licences to
English-language stations) was added. But references to Quebec as a
nation, its duty to protect and promote French and a call for
"concrete follow-up" to Parliament's recognition of "the Québécois" as
a nation were dropped.

That was still too much for delegates to the policy convention. Their
discomfort with nationalist positions was apparent in discussions at
the preliminary workshop stage. In one workshop, delegates appeared to
prefer relaxing present language restrictions to tightening their
enforcement. That was not the message that Charest wanted to send. And
that was with Charest at the height of his authority. At the same
convention, the party announced that 97.2 per cent of delegates
participating in a secret-ballot vote had expressed confidence in
Charest's leadership, a record for such votes in Quebec parties.

So, perhaps intentionally, the convention's final, plenary session was
allowed to run so far behind schedule that it ran out of time before
there could be potentially divisive debates on the identity questions.
That left the Quebec Liberal Party without official policies on
language and Quebec's place in Canada until the convention resolutions
could be disposed of at the party's next general council meeting, the
one to be held in two weeks. That's when we'll see whether the Quebec
Liberal Party is as nationalist as its leader is trying to appear.

dmacpher at

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