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View From The North
December 23, 2008

Canadian Crisis Continues: Liberals Energized, Conservative Ouster Likely
by Mark Wegierski

On September 7, 2008, Stephen Harper, the Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, requested the Governor-General (the representative of the Monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, in Canada), to dissolve the federal Parliament, with the subsequent election to be held in October. The Conservatives strengthened their minority government but failed to win a majority of the 308 seats up for grabs in the federal Parliament. Harper expected to continue to govern with a minority government as had happened from 2006 to 2008.

Harper’s lack of willingness to provide a massive “fiscal stimulus” in the face of the onrushing recession, as well as his proposal to cut the funding that all parties receive from the federal government to zero, gave the opposition parties the pretext to launch their coalition initiative that they had apparently been discussing in secret for at least several months.

The Liberal Party, the New Democratic Party (Canada’s socialist third party), and the Bloc Quebecois have formally agreed to form a coalition in the federal Parliament. The government had been expected to face a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons on December 8, but the Governor-General (at Harper’s request) suspended the session of Parliament until late January 2009, when the Conservatives are committed to bring in the federal budget.

Substantial shifts in the Liberal Party have occurred. Stephane Dion, who had essentially failed as Liberal leader in the October 14 election, has resigned. Because of the extraordinary circumstances, the party reached a consensus among senior members to give the leadership to Michael Ignatieff. Michael Ignatieff had been away from Canada as a prominent international academic for over 30 years before his recent return to Canadian politics and now his triumphal acclamation to the Liberal Party leadership. The other main candidate for the leadership, Bob Rae, a former university roommate of Michael’s, graciously withdrew his candidacy.

Thus, Michael Ignatieff will have a wide variety of options in late January, and Stephen Harper will have to work inordinately hard to craft a budget that might be pleasing to the new Liberal leader.

The stage has likely been set for Michael Ignatieff to accede to the Prime Ministership after late January if he wishes, unless the Governor-General decides that an election should be called immediately after the no-confidence vote. There is some suggestion that Ignatieff could become Prime Minister without the formal enactment of the coalition after the Conservative government falls. Ignatieff may instead decide that it would be more prudent for him to stay on as Opposition Leader in the hope that a later overturning of a floundering Conservative government will lead to an election where the Liberals by themselves will win an outright majority in Parliament.

On December 8, there was also a provincial election in Quebec. In order to defend his federal government against the Liberal-socialist-separatist coalition, Harper had to express sharp criticism of the Quebec separatists. Partly as a consequence of Harper’s anti-separatist statements (seen by some as “anti-Quebec”), the support for the Action democratique du Quebec (ADQ), which previously held 41 seats in the Quebec provincial parliament, collapsed to 7 seats (with 16 percent of the popular vote). The ADQ was somewhat friendly to the federal Conservatives. The Parti Quebecois surged to 51 seats (with 35 percent of the vote); the provincial Liberals jumped to a majority, with 66 seats or 42 percent of the vote (having previously had only a minority government). Also, a very left-wing party, Quebec solidaire (4 percent), was able to win one seat.

The Bloc Quebecois (the wing of the separatist movement running candidates for the federal Parliament) had been able to maintain a majority from Quebec since it contested its first federal election in 1993.

This stubborn persistence of the Bloc Quebecois and Parti Quebecois vote may suggest that the Canada-Quebec conflict will drag on in perpetuity. Nevertheless, there have been some interesting suggestions as to the future of Canada-Quebec. Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the BQ, had once pointed to the earlier vision of the European Community as “an economic union of sovereign states” as a possible model.

The fact is that today greater possibility exists for ambiguities in defining sovereignty; such ambiguities that might offer a more successful future relationship between Canada and Quebec. What is ironic is that some separatists have argued that the armed forces would be left under Canadian jurisdiction in a sovereign Quebec, a proposal that indeed suggests a curiously post-modern view of sovereignty.

Following failure in the June 2004 and January 2006 elections, Harper’s third attempt to win a majority in the House of Commons has come so close, and yet so far.

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View From The North is copyright © 2008 by Mark Wegierski and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved. Please forward this copyright info and links when sending to friends and colleagues.

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer, social critic, and historical researcher and is published in major Canadian newspapers, as well as in U.S. scholarly journals such as Humanitas, Review of Metaphysics, and Telos, and in U.S. magazines such as Chronicles and The World & I. His writing has also appeared in Polish, British, and German publications.

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