Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Andrew Coyne: Hmmm ... haven't I heard this before?

Wednesday, January 24, 2001
Hmmm ... haven't I heard this before?
Question 1: Who said, over the weekend, "we won't separate tomorrow, or next year.

Perhaps we can negotiate a new union with Canada ... but I'm not here to be soft. We're separatists." Was it a) Bernard Landry, candidate for leader of the Parti Quebecois, somehow managing to present himself as both a hard-line sovereigntist and an advocate of continued membership in a "confederal union," or b) Cory Morgan, a Calgary surveyor and interim leader of the fledgling Alberta Independence Party?

Question 2: Who said, in response to the foregoing, "this is the unfortunate outcome of years of Chretien federalism ... It is understandable that movements like [this] exist because of what is being offered by the national government, which plays one part of the nation against each other." Was it a) Joe Clark, deploring, yet again, Ottawa's failure to appease separatist sentiment with new constitutional offers, while neglecting to say a word against separatism itself, or b) Phil von Finckenstein, spokesman for the Canadian Alliance?

Question 3: Who said, "if this is a way to wake up [the federal] government and strengthen the provincial powers that should be in place, then [it] might have some value to it." Was it a) the late Robert Bourassa, former premier of Quebec, explaining his strategy of federalisme rentable and how the threat of separatism could be exploited to that end, or b) Myron Thompson, Canadian Alliance MP, after attending last week's founding meeting of the Alberta Independence Party?

Question 4: Who said, to which gathering of which separatist party, "I wish you every success." Was it a) Lucien Bouchard, then a minister in the federal government, in a telegram to the Parti Quebecois in 1990, or b) Bert Brown, member of the Canadian Alliance and "Senator-elect" for the province of Alberta, addressing the same Alberta Independence Party meeting that Mr. Thompson attended?

The answer to each, in case you were in any doubt, is b). Which raises a further query: What on earth were Mr. Thompson and Mr. Brown, as well as Darrel Stinson, MP, and Ted Morton, Alberta's other "Senator-elect," doing at a meeting of a party dedicated to the dismantling of Canada?

Were they there, as a senior Alliance official insisted, "to convince them that this is not the way to go"? Did they use the occasion, more robustly, to denounce separatism as illegitimate in principle and impossible in practice? They did not. Their presence seemed rather aimed, if not at encouraging the nascent movement, as in Mr. Brown's example, then at least at exploiting it.

And Stockwell Day? The Alliance leader took the opportunity of a nationally televised speech Monday, billed as a statement on "national unity," to issue a limp appeal to Western separatists to please, please, give Canada another chance. "I have met with some of these upset and alienated people myself," he disclosed, "and I am asking them to channel their energy of frustration into the hope of transformation." If you closed your eyes, you could swear it was Mr. Clark talking.

No one is suggesting that Mr. Day or his party are separatists, or even crypto-separatists.

But they seem quite willing to play that ancient game of Quebec federalists, separatist blackmail. There's a difference, of course: unlike Quebec, the West has some decent grievances. The National Energy Program may be ancient history, but there are any number of reforms to Parliament and its institutions -- Senate reform, free votes, and the rest -- that would be in the West's interests -- and more important, the country's. But the very worst reason to introduce such reforms is in response to separatist threats. In fact, it's a good reason not to.

This all may seem a bit of a fuss to be making over a "movement" that represents perhaps 3% of Western voters. But the Alliance will pay a heavy price for indulging them. It was one thing for the party to set up shop, more or less explicitly, as the wholly owned subsidiary of the provinces. But canoodling with separatists, in Quebec or the West -- the Canadian Dalliance? -- is hardly the way to win over Ontario voters.

It certainly won't do to threaten them. Yet, incredibly, that is what some Alliance supporters have taken to doing. This is perhaps the strangest version of separatist blackmail yet: After blaming the rise in Western separatism on Ontario's "rejection" of the Alliance in the recent election, they then invoke the separatist spectre to frighten Ontarians into voting Alliance next time. "Today the number of disillusioned Alliance members going to the AIP is a trickle," Mr. Morton warned yesterday in these pages.

"But another electoral shutout in Ontario in 2004 could turn that into a torrent." Now there's a catchy slogan: Vote for us, or we blow the place up. Vote for us or else.

Sounds like a government in waiting to me.