It took David Cameron’s emotional speech at the start of the Olympic Games to begin to lift the British public out of their complacency on the potential impact of a break-up of the United Kingdom. Most polls show a narrowing of the gap in the debate on Scottish independence, with nationalist sentiment quietly growing. Just last week, the leaders of the major parties joined forces to say that a common currency would not happen with a vote for independence, drawing the inevitable reaction from Scottish nationalists that people were being “frightened” to vote No in next fall’s vote.
As things heat up in Scotland, so too in Quebec, where the Parti Québécois government is setting the stage for an election, to be followed by a white paper, with a referendum soon after if “winning conditions” are in place. The report of the Charbonneau Commission and the unpopularity of the federal Conservatives could threaten to create if not a perfect storm, then certainly brisk high winds, as most English Canadians are enveloped in a cloud of complacency.
These referendums are strange beasts, as we have come to know only too well. From the 60’s to the mid 90’s, the country’s leadership was seized by the unity issue, and a broad network of concerned Canadians, inside and outside Quebec, joined together to build the case for Canada.
That network has been pretty much disbanded, in part by neglect, but in good measure by deliberate Conservative decision since 2006. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s orthodoxy has been that institutions like the Canadian Unity Council were just Liberal fronts, and there was no need for a sustained case for Canada and federalism in Quebec.
Mr. Harper now leads the most unpopular national government in Quebec in living memory, and would appear to have no clue how to join the debate. But every prime minister of modern times has had to come to terms with the fact that the unity of the country can never be taken for granted, and that the case for Canada has to be made every day, every week, every month, for the simple reason that separatism and a PQ government’s propaganda machine never sleep. If not prepared to lead publicly, at the very least Mr. Harper needs to be doing what he can to allow the forces of unity to come together and create an effective strategy.
Mr. Harper would be wise to pay attention to a cloud that at the moment may seem no larger than a man’s hand. A British public servant told a Canadian counterpart not too long ago that the emotional case for Scottish independence would be met by hard, economic facts. Any read of the referendum in 1995 would teach us that this is not a winning strategy, and that the wild card of a romantic campaign can have far more success than bankers might think possible. The case for Canada, as it is for the United Kingdom, has to be as much about heart as it is about the economy. David Cameron’s emotional plea for unity seems to indicate that this argument is being understood in London. Let’s hope it finds more resonance in Ottawa.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario. The Globe and Mail Special