Chantal Hébert. French Kiss: Stephen Harper’s Blind Date with Quebec
The Conservative Party of Canada today is the product of a merger between the Western-based Reform party and the much older Progressive Conservative Party that contested for power with the Liberals for most of the life of the country. (The merger, when it was first proposed, was very briefly called the Conservative Reform Alliance Party until someone worked out the acronym.) Although the merger with the Progressive Conservative Party softened the edges of the Reform portion of the new party, much of the party remains rooted in Reform’s culture of Western alienation, fiscal conservatism, and an often jaundiced view of Quebec’s aspirations. This legacy is hardly an asset when the Conservative Party comes calling in socially progressive Quebec, or the often-economically troubled Eastern provinces.
And yet, in the 2006 federal election, the Conservative Party managed to pull out a surprisingly strong show of support within Quebec. In the same election, the NDP, the left-most leaning party in Parliament, managed to continue its miserable showing in Quebec, the most socially progressive province in the country. Meanwhile, Bloc Québécois (BQ), the Federal wing of the province’s separatist movement, had to face the fact that the Conservatives, rather than their own party, had picked up many of the votes that the Liberals lost. Had the decade and a half of participation by the BQ in Federal politics led, paradoxically, to a greater level of engagement on the part of Quebecers with the rest of the country?
These and other mysteries of Canadian politics are the subject of Chantal Hébert’s French Kiss. It’s a good, insightful book, and I learned a great deal from it about the country that I’ve been slowly drifting out of touch with over the last ten years of living in the United States.
Hébert examines the carefully laid groundwork that preceded Harper’s 2006 breakthrough in Quebec. Enough wooing preceded Harper’s breakthrough to call into question the appropriateness of the book’s subtitle. As for the basis of the attraction, Hébert argues against much of the conventional wisdom about Quebec in relation to the rest of the country: that patronage politics is the royal road to electoral prosperity in the province; that Quebecers would reject a Prime Minister who didn’t hail from the province; that the socially progressive province would never be a match for a federal right-leaning party.
Hébert points out how poorly supported many of these conventional assumptions are. In fact, Harper’s pledge to stick to federal responsibilities found a receptive hearing in Quebec, which was never keen on Federal meddling. And Quebecers may be socially progressive, but they tend to look to the provincial government for the realization of their progressive values. And no wonder. It’s not just a separatist impulse that is responsible for this tendency. After the federal budget slashing of the 90s, the federal government’s fondness for agenda setting in matters of provincial jurisdiction has not been consistently matched with funding to support those priorities.
This last point is part (though only a part) of the story, Hébert argues, behind the NDP’s poor showing in Quebec. The NDP’s fixation with the notion that social justice is best realized (and enforced) at the federal level is an irritant in a province that prefers to run its own programs its own way.
So, very interesting stuff. Two reservations—well, ok, one and a half—about the book. First, French Kiss is clearly written for politically informed Canadians. If you’re not informed about Canadian politics but this blog post has suddenly filled you with a lust for knowledge, I think you’re going to have to look elsewhere for an introduction to the subject. Hébert often alludes in passing to facts, events, controversies and so on without explaining them in a way that would allow outsiders into the conversation. It’s too bad, because not only do I think Canada is a fascinating country, but I think I would find Canada a fascinating country even if I weren’t Canadian. And perhaps you would too, outsider.
That was the half-reservation. The other reservation, the one which I have no reservation calling a full reservation, is that very often the quality of Hébert’s writing fails to match the high quality of her analysis. Sometimes we get not only prose weighed down by cliches and stale images, but a series of jarringly different stale images in rapid succession:
. . . the federal Liberals were about to fly blind into the perfect storm of the sponsorship scandal with only a skeleton crew on board, and endure a barrage of sovereigntist flak. . . The sponsorship scandal was the poison pill of Paul Martin’s prime ministership, but it need not have been fatal. A mouse of an affair got the better of a political elephant.
So in the space of a few lines the scandal morphs in the reader’s imagination from a storm to a pill to a mouse. Or rather, it would morph in the reader’s imagination but by this point most readers, realizing that Hébert herself doesn’t have a clear image in her mind, will have stopped assuming that she intends to produce one in them. In this way prose is drained of its vivacity. Here is Hébert describing the effect of Buzz Hargrove’s appearance at a Liberal rally:
It was a shot across the bow of the NDP and its leader, Jack Layton, that would reverberate until voting day.
That does not, strictly speaking, make sense, does it? A shot across a bow flies past the bow. If anything reverberates after a shot across the bow—does it?—it isn’t the shot, it’s the bow. But never mind whether this makes sense, since in a few lines we’re about to be too grossed out to care:
At the tail end of the campaign, Buzz Hargrove hit the panic button—and it virtually blew his finger off, showering Paul Martin with debris in the process.
Ew! Paul Martin standing on the still-reverberating bow of a ship covered in Hargrove-bits!
It’s interesting to consider how far Canadian politics has already moved since Hébert’s book was published in 2007. Since the 2006 election, we’ve had another election (in October 2008) in which Harper managed match his 10 seat showing in Quebec from the 2006 vote, but dipped in the popular vote in the province from 24.6% to 21.7%, while the Liberals picked up a seat and a good part of the popular vote that the Conservatives lost. Returned to Parliament with a slightly strengthened minority government, Harper then badly blundered, all but forcing the Liberals, NDP and BQ into an informal coalition that threatened to topple him. Harper appears to have survived the crisis, but in the meantime his public relations strategy was heavy on vilification of the BQ. Whether this will hurt him in the long run in the province remains to be seen. But it is clear that he will have a difficult, if not impossible time, governing Canada without Quebec. My hope is that Quebec has seen enough at this point to toss Harper to the curb, hit the panic button, turn the plane around, and ride the elephant of good sense past the mouse of the federal Conservatives on to a brighter Canadian future.
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