Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Quebec: Stay, go, I don't care

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VANCOUVER -- It was one week before Quebecers went to the polls that I realized I had not, up until then, given the Quebec election a thought. It hadn't entered my mind, such as it is.

It was not always so. In the 1980s and 1990s, I was like everybody else: Nothing focused the nation's attention like Quebec's inexhaustible pique.

The hand-wringing that went on during those years! And, oh, the lovelorn pleas of the Rest of Canada to, please, baby, don't leave, we can still work this out. Remember that? Remember those days before the 1995 referendum? Nearly 100,000 Anglos made the trip to Montreal and delivered that same heart-on-the-sleeve message. Je t'adore!

It was maudlin stuff, with the usually phlegmatic English Canada prostrating itself to appeal to the volatile Gallic temperament. I bet more than a few bemused separatists were made gleeful at the sight. Finally, the French had brought the English to their knees.

The Vancouver Sun sent me on a tour of La Belle Province during that time, and all the Quebecers I met were unfailingly friendly and gracious. This included the most ardent of separatists, who always were kind enough to speak English during our interviews, and also included, memorably, the teenage girl working the cash register at a McDonald's in the Gaspé, who gently corrected my high school French after she informed me that, in ordering, I had just asked to have sex with a Big Mac.

At the time, the Québécois demands for protective measures and dominance of the French language did not seem unreasonable to me, nor did their need to redress the historical wrong of a francophone majority dominated by an English minority.

What did seem unreasonable -- or more precisely, adolescent and impractical -- was the separatists' insistence that this could only be accomplished with nationhood.

This, in a nation as pliable and accommodating as Canada? It was dumb and needless. A slim majority of Quebecers thought so, too, and the separatist movement lost its momentum.

Since then, Canada and Quebec have got on with the business of business. Globalism forced all of the provinces to become less provincial. And the cold shower of the Great Recession drove home the point that Canada, relative to much of the rest of the industrialized world, worked. Here we all were with no mass foreclosures, no Greek tragedies and a stable social welfare state. Surely, Quebecers must have noticed. Why leave a good thing?

That's a rational question to ask: Who can ever be sure if Quebec will provide a rational answer? Passion and practicality seem to exist side by side there, and you never know which of the two you're going to get.

Not long ago, that volatility kept the Rest of Canada's gaze fixed on Quebec. It had a kind of dangerous charm you couldn't take your eyes off.

No longer. There are greater issues preoccupying the nation now. Global warming. A persistent U.S. recession. Default in Europe. The rise of China. Environmental degradation. Arctic sovereignty. These are huge problems, ones that will preoccupy our future for decades. The 250-year-old yearning for a new New France feels old hat and small by comparison.

The Sun reported Wednesday that an Ipsos Reid poll found a majority of Canadians outside of Quebec feel if Quebecers do eventually vote for sovereignty, the breakup should be "outright," with no political or economic ties.

To me, that's more than just an expression of the usual anti-Quebec crowd out there. French on cereal boxes does not ignite debate like it used to.

To me, the poll result says more about the Rest of Canada than it does Quebec. It says the Rest of Canada no longer feels sovereignty is the threat it once was, it now feels confident it could survive politically and economically without Quebec.

I believe a majority of Canadians hope Quebec stays in Confederation, and they wouldn't want to help usher in its separation.

But Canadians have been emotionally drained by the issue.

It's like that old boyfriend or girlfriend you used to date who felt they had to make a big scene every week or so -- you know the kind -- and they were just so much work. They were exhausting.

And that's why I hadn't given the Quebec election a thought until last week. I was like:

Baby, you can stay or you can go, but either way, I don't care anymore. Those days when I got down on my knees and begged you to stay? They're gone. I've moved on.


Pete McMartin is a columnist for the Vancouver Sun.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2012 J1

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