2012 Québec Election: Just the Numbers First

The Québec Liberals were tossed out of office last Tuesday, but in a surprisingly gentle manner. In fact, I think Québec voters made a wise decision on September 4th: they changed the governing party but put the PQ on a very short leach; they got rid of the negative figurehead Premier Jean Charest had become but didn’t convict his Liberals before knowing more from the Charbonneau Inquiry on corruption in the construction industry and collusion with said industry and political parties, and they told the new up-start CAQ that it needs some fine tuning before it can aspire for prime time. In short, instead of swinging wildly as they’re often known for, they wrote a sensible prescription for Québec:

  • one (1) weak minority government for 18 to 24 months;
  • one (1) party rendered leaderless to ensure an 18- to 24-month government since said party won’t want an election without a leader;
  • one (1) party given a lesson in humility and left with little cash to jump too quickly into another election, thus also ensuring an 18- to 24-month governement, and
  • one (1) party given a bit more representation in the National Assembly [a] to hear more about its ideas and [b] to make us feel good for voting for a progressive party.

Many polls prior to the election predicted that the Liberals would find themselves as the second opposition party in Québec City, with virtually no support among francophones (translation: outside Montréal). However, they did end up forming the official opposition, and not only that, a very strong one at that (alternate interpretation: The Parti Québécois has formed the weakest minority government in Québec history). Perhaps the high percentage of undecided voters that persisted until the last opinion poll at the eve of the election was “hiding” closet Liberals who didn’t want to openly say that they were leaning toward the party at the helm of a highly unpopular government.

Here’s a table of the raw data, which shows just how close the popular vote was. I drew these results from Le Directeur général des élections du Québec website, which I carefully entered into my personal database of election results.

2012 Quebec Raw Results

Let me summarize the most striking points from this table. First, do consider just how close the results were among the top-three parties.

Closeness of the Popular Vote

  • # of votes between the winning PQ and 2nd-place Liberals: 31,922
  • % difference between the winning PQ and 2nd-place Liberals: 0.73
  • # of votes between 2nd-place Liberals and 3rd-place CAQ: 180,860
  • % difference between 2nd-place Liberals and 3rd-place CAQ: 4.15
  • # of votes between 1st-place PQ and 3rd-place CAQ: 212,782
  • % difference between 1st-place and 3rd-place CAQ: 4.88

In other words, 96.21% of the votes were shared by the four parties attaining more than 5% of the overall popular vote, while 90.18% of the vote was split among the top three parties.

These results, at least correctly on the surface, have led some analysts to claim that Québec has almost evenly split into three camps. However, as expected, many are also looking at how the seat count doesn’t reflect that reality:

  • 0.73% more votes gave the PQ 4 more seats than the Liberals, thus the government;
  • 4.15% fewer votes gave the CAQ 31 fewer seats than the Liberals, and
  • 4.88% fewer votes gave the CAQ 35 fewer seats than the PQ.

So once again, the first-past-the-post electoral system did not correctly translate into seats the prescription voters attempted to write (see more below).

Growth Potential
It could be argued that the Liberal vote is the strongest, especially on the Island of Montréal, since it has the largest number of “safe” ridings where it doesn’t need to grow. Out of 125 ridings, only 27 were won with a real plurality of votes (i.e., 50% + 1 votes), and of those 27, the Liberals took more than half:

  • Liberals: 14 ridings
  • PQ: 8 ridings
  • CAQ: 5 ridings

On the other hand, if it can be argued that second-place finishes are a gauge of growth potential, then the CAQ is clearly in the lead, indicating that its support is more evenly distributed across Québec. However, in a first-past-the-post, single-member-plurality system like ours, seats are earned when support is concentrated within ridings (think Québec Solidaire’s Françoise David in Gouin), with the perverse effect that the excess votes for a party winning a true majority within a riding are lost to the whole (think the Liberals’ habitual landslides in D’Arcy-McGee and see also the discussion on unused votes below). Nonetheless, in this election, the second-place finishes were as follows:

  • CAQ: 53 ridings
  • PQ: 39 ridings
  • Liberals: 30 ridings
  • Québec Solidaire: 2 ridings
  • Option Nationale: 1 riding

A more polished gauge of growth potential would subtract the number of ridings in which the winner earned a real plurality. Just a few examples:

  • As previously alluded to, in the riding of D’Arcy-McGee, Liberal Lawrence Bergman won with 84.72% of the vote against the CAQ candidate’s 7.37%.
  • In the less extreme case of LaSalle, Robert Poeti gave the Liberals the riding with 56.88% of the votes against the PQ candidate’s 19.76%.
  • The Liberals took Saint-Laurent with Jean-Marc Fournier’s 65.69% of the vote compared to only 14.32% for the CAQ.
  • For an outside-of-Montréal, non-Liberal example, consider how Alexandre Cloutier won Lac-Saint-Jean for the PQ with 53.15% against the CAQ’s 24.12%.
  • Finally, for an example of a more traditional PQ/Liberal contest in the PQ stronghold of René Lévesque, Marjolain Dufour kept the riding for the PQ with 59.68% against the Liberal’s tiny 18.21%.

In short, as long as our current electoral and multi-party system persists, all three main parties need to put a bit of water in their wine when looking at their second-place finishes. However, for Québec Solidaire, by winning two seats but neither with a real plurality, its two second-place finishes, both in the east end of Montréal close to the “conquered” Gouin and Mercier ridings, could point to its true growth potential.

Correctly Translating the Voters’ Prescription
While I personally do not like the new centre-right upstart CAQ, if only on the basis that it IS centre-right (and that its proposed solutions to “clean up” government and bureaucracy seem unrealistic or inhumane or too anti-union or all of the above), I have to admit that an important number of my concitoyens québécois felt that the CAQ’s proposals had merit. Conversely, a much smaller but significant number also felt that Québec Solidaire had something to bring to the table. Yet both parties obtained a smaller proportion of seats in the National Assembly than indicated in the popular vote (-11.85% for the CAQ and -4.43% for QS), while the top-two parties got a larger proportion of seats compared to the popular vote (+11.27% for the PQ and +8.80% for the Liberals).

One reform of the electoral system would give voters two ballots: one for a local member and one for a regional member. Proponents of this format argue that greater proportionality can be achieved due to voters being able to split their support between two parties. In fact, more than ever before in this election, had I been given one vote for my local MNA and one for my regional MNA, I may have split my votes. For instance, I discovered that there’s an upstart left-of-centre but non-sovereignist party called the Quebec Citizens’ Union. Given that I live in the part of Montréal that has gone Liberal for decades, I could have voted “left” locally while ignoring that party’s sovereignist plank but QCU regionally since it currently holds little chance of winning a local seat yet could gradually grow to become a regional player.

Another form would maintain a single ballot but for fewer local ridings and grouping those locals into a small number of regions with roughly the same number of locals in each. If the total number of ridings in Québec was maintained at 125, two-thirds (or 83) would be local ridings in which first-past-the-post would remain, and one-third (or 42) would be filled based ONLY on the popular vote. In that case, knowing that voting for a fringe party might not be the equivalent of throwing away my vote, I might consider a party like the QCU.

To achieve near-perfect proportionality, the common denominator that would be used would be that of the entire territory, namely 42. However, deciding which region would get members of a given party could be tricky. Say the QCP mentioned above were to earn one of those 42 seats, it would make no sense to assign that seat in a region where the party earned little to no support. Distributing regional seats by regions could alleviate that problem, but reducing the common denominator from 42 to 10 or 11 could result in a far less perfect proportionality, though certainly much closer than FPTP can ever achieve.

This is strictly a mathematical problem, however. With computers making complex mathematical calculations quick and easy, the total number of regional seats could be calculated with the larger denominator of 42, but distributed by regions with at least 5% support. Say Québec Solidaire earned 5 regional seats overall but got less than 5% in one region, 6% in each of two other regions and 15% in the Montréal region, 3 regionals would likely end up representing the Montréal region while 1 would go to each of the other two “eligible” regions in order to bring the QS’s representation as close as possible to the regional popular vote. This idea may sound complicated, but remember: it’s only maths which a computer can tabulate in less than a second and the dust would settle as soon as all the results are in.

Caution must be taken when trying to “re-count” results yielded from a first-past-the-post election to project what the results may have looked like in mixed-member proportional (MMP) system.

  • First, some political pundits don’t believe that strategic voting exists in the current FPTP system, but while I believe its existence may be overstated, I do think it exists. Had I believed the CAQ stood of a good chance of taking my riding of Outremont, I would have strategically voted Liberal — no doubt about it. But where Outremont has been Liberal since its creation in 1966 and it would take a heck of a lot more than the CAQ to end this dynasty, I voted with my heart.
  • Second, these numbers were the result of 125 individual races. If there had only been 83 such races, each riding would have been considerably bigger and would have included a wider array of political views. For instance, if my Outremont riding went much further east, it would take in a lot more PQ or QS sympatizers, so it wouldn’t necessarily be a Liberal stronghold.

Still, using real election results is the soundest indicator of alternate results at our disposal.

Distribution of Regional Seats by “Unused Votes”
The basic idea is that some parties need fewer votes to win a seat while others need many more votes. If one party’s support is more concentrated in a set of ridings, its vote is more efficient than that of a party whose vote is more evenly distributed (i.e., not as concentrated). The most dramatic example of this notion is the 1993 federal election, when 2,189,067 votes (15.97% of the popular vote) spread nationwide gave the Progressive Conservatives only 2 seats, while 1,851,835 votes (13.51% of the popular vote) coming only from Québec gave the Bloc Québécois 54 seats and the official opposition. Thus arises the notion of “unused votes” — votes that are virtually “thrown out” and don’t earn a seat for a given party. Therefore, this number of unused votes should be brought down to compensate for a party’s inefficient vote.

Independant candidates and parties that don’t achieve a certain percentage in the whole territory would be immediately excluded from this compensatory redistribution. I chose 5% as the threshhold, but it could be as little as 2% or as high as 10%. However, my experiments with dozens of election results has shown me that 5% achieves a good proportionality while excluding truly marginal or dying parties.

The first table in this post already shows how many seats each party won, but here’s the simplication.

Parti Québécois
Parti Libéral du Québec
Coalition Avenir Québec
Québec Solidaire
Option Nationale
54 50 19 2 0

Understandably, the number of unused votes for the winning party is always the lowest. In this election, the PQ’s number of unused votes was 25,337, calculated as:

Total number of votes (1,393,540)
Total number of seats won + 1 (54 + 1)

Using this formula:

  • the Liberals’ unused vote number was close at 26,698;
  • the CAQ’s unused votes number was 59,038 (2.3 times higher than the PQ’s);
  • Québec Solidaire’s was 87,744 (almost 3.5 times higher than the PQ’s), and
  • Option Nationale’s, having earned no seat, was its whole take, or 82,857 (almost 3.2 times the PQ’s), but its poor overall showing in the popular vote would exclude it from receiving regional seats.

Invariably, as this table shows, parties whose vote is more efficient took more than their fair share of the seats in the National Assembly. Note that the “Votes/Seats” row should really be labelled “Unused Votes.”

What Really Happened

I suppose the good news in this election is that, unlike in other elections, no party achieving at least 5% of the overall popular vote was shut out (i.e., didn’t earn at least one seat), and with only 1.9% of the popular vote, Option Nationale wouldn’t qualify for regional representation. Therefore, whether by FPTP or MMP, 165,576 votes (or 3.79%) still wouldn’t serve to elect a particular party. That wasn’t the case in New Brunswick’s last provincial election on September 27, 2010, where the NDP was shut out despite earning 10.4% of the popular vote. In fact, when one thinks about it as much as I do, it seems that the FPTP system almost always gets it wrong: in Newfoundland and Labrador’s last election on October 11, 2011, FPTP gave the official opposition to the third party in the popular vote despite it getting 7% fewer votes than the second-place finisher.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that each party received the number of votes they did on September 4, but that there had only been 83 local races. Thus, the next table shows how many local seats each party would have won, proportionally, then how many regional seats each party would have received, the percentage of over- or under-presentation of each party, and each party’s final, more even number of unused votes.

2012 Quebec Redistribution

Although it didn’t happen this time, independant candidates or parties not getting 5% of the popular vote could win one or more local seat, and they would retain such seats. In fact, in the previous Québec election on December 8, 2008, Québec Solidaire did win a seat through FPTP, but by virtue of only getting 3,78% of the overall vote, it would not have received any of the 42 regional seats.

Had the 83 local seats been distributed as shown above, the disparity in the number of unused votes by party would have been striking, particularly for Québec Solidaire.

Parti Québécois
Parti Libéral du Québec
Coalition Avenir Québec
Québec Solidaire
37,663 40,048 84,340 131,617

In other words, the gap in the number of unused votes between the PQ and QS would have been a whopping 93,954. Thus, with its meager 1 seat and the highest number of unused votes, QS would get Regional Seat #1, and then its number of unused votes would be recalculated by taking into account its new seat count, as follows:

Total number of votes (263,233)
Total number of seats won + 1 (2 + 1)

This exercise would be repeated 41 more times, each time assigning the next regional seat to the party with the highest number of unused votes.

Unused Seats Redistribution

Thus the Liberals would only get their first regional seat at #22 and the PQ at #27, with the CAQ earning the most regional seats (22 in all). By the end of this exercise, the gap between the highest and lowest number of unused votes would be reduced to a mere 3,768 from 93,954. And the only reason that perfect proportionality wouldn’t be achieved is because 3.79% of the votes went to parties not meeting the 5% overall popular vote requirement, so truly “popular” parties would share the spoils.

I know some might gasp upon considering a such a weak minority government:

Parti Québécois
Parti Libéral du Québec
Coalition Avenir Québec
Québec Solidaire
42 41 35 7

But wouldn’t that be the equivalent of saying that the citizens of a healthy democracy like Québec’s can’t write the right prescription for itself? For surely, if you ask the third of voters who supported either the CAQ and QS, something got lost in translation under the current FPTP system.

Electoral Coup de Coeur

Françoise DavidThis week’s election campaign led to four televised debates, and if there were any surprises, few stood out quite as much as the performance Québec Solidaire’s co-spokesperson Françoise David delivered during the first debate, the only one in which she participated.

Everybody knows, including David and her co-spokesperson, Amar Khadir, that Québec Solidaire has no chance of forming the next government. However, with her performance, David may have ensured that the joke of calling QS “Québec Solitaire” due to having only member in the National Assembly could be naught in the next assembly.

Choosing David over Khadir to participate in the debate was a coup for QS. Although David is no less hard-line in her lefty and sovereignist positions than Khadir, she is far less acerbic and moralistic than he is. She held her own during the debate against the other three seasoned politicians, and was even commended by none other than incumbent Liberal premier Jean Charest.

Granted, she had nothing to lose and everything to gain, not to mention that she never held a seat in the Assembly which spared her from attacks from the other three. “L’effet David” in the debate may be that, this time, she received the exposure she needed in her own riding of Gouin to unseat the sitting Parti Québécois (PQ) MNA.

I don’t know if QS has a real chance in other ridings in Montréal’s east end aside from Mercier which is currently held by Khadir, but I certainly don’t expect that QS will make any significant headway in my own riding of Outremont, which has always been Liberal since its creation in 1966. If there is a challenge in my riding, it will likely come from François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), although that depends if the students, of which there are many in this riding, do indeed come out to vote AND choose to vote in this riding rather than their home riding.

Indeed, despite having Québec-wide aspirations, QS’s appeal is concentrated on the Island of Montréal and maybe Gatineau across the river from Ottawa. In fact, there are undeniably trends among the regions of Québec. The Québec City area, for instance, tends to lean more on the conservative side, the Island of Montréal on the progressive side, and everywhere else …well, it’s all over the map ranging from centre to centre-right (à la Québécoise, which now tends to be more like the rest of Canada’s centre). What will be interesting to watch on election day is how the CAQ will attract disappointed Liberals in the “450,” which is the telephone area code surrounding the Island of Montréal. Much of it surprisingly turned to the ADQ in 2007, although it reverted to its usual Liberal/PQ mix in the election held the next year.

I mentioned in my previous post about this election that, despite my reservations with Khadir and QS, I might vote for QS given that I’m in a hopelessly Liberal riding so it won’t make much difference in the end. However, David’s performance during the debate will bring me not to pinch my nose quite as hard when I do vote QS on September 4. I always knew that I would end up voting for a sovereignist party because all Québec parties on the left are sovereignist, but this will be my first time actually doing so …for indeed, I did manage to get on the voters’ list last Monday night. Maybe a PQ minority government with QS holding the real balance of power wouldn’t be such a bad thing as long as sterile talk of sovereignty doesn’t hijack the political discourse.

I say “sterile” because that’s the only point on which I agree with François Legault’s CAQ: there’s no appetite for it right now. However, this campaign has brought me to think a lot about something that isn’t on the radar, namely an “in-between” solution that I’ll timidly call autonomy. I have no idea how that would work or how it should be set up. All I can think of is that the Netherlands has actual autonomous countries within its own country, but then those are small and distant Caribeean islands while Québec has a population of 8 million…

What Am I Gonna Do?

Ballot BoxEveryone in Québec will be willing to eat their shirt on August 1 if Premier Jean Charest doesn’t call a general election for September 4. All the tell-tale signs are there and, as bad as it is, it’s probably the best the political climate will be for his governing Liberals.

That’s not saying much, though. Charest in particular and the Liberals in general have been extremely unpopular since their majority re-election in December 2008. The government finally gave in to a public inquiry to look into allegations of corruption in the construction industry, and while its handling of the on-going student protests has been largely criticized, it probably believes that the findings of the Charbonneau commission will have the same effect as the Gomery inquiry had on the federal Liberals back in 2006. So, next week, the Liberals will be betting that they will somehow manage to form their fourth consecutive government by calling an election sooner than later, even if it’ll likely be with minority status in the National Assembly (that’s what Québec calls its provincial legislature).

Because I moved to Québec in April 2008, I didn’t manage to get on the voters’ list for the December 2008 election, making it the first election I ever sat out. So, for this election, I need to get on the voters’ list, no fail. However, this is the first election that I’ll be entering as a categorically undecided voter. Here’s why.

Parti Libéral du Québec Québec Liberal Party (QLP)
Provincial Liberal parties have no formal association with their federal counterpart. Therefore, while the federal Liberals are essentially centrist, often campaigning from the left-of-centre but governing from the right-of-centre, the Liberals in each province vary from centre-left, centre, and centre-right. And, although the political spectrum in Québec is more left-leaning than in the rest of Canada, the Québec Liberals under Charest, a former Progressive Conservative at the federal level, are generally viewed as more centre-right …but certainly not as much as those in British Columbia.

Right there, that should make the QLP a non-option for me, and the corruption allegations against it and the student protest debacle provide me further reason not to vote for it. The only thing that could draw me to it is that it is the only provincial party with an unambiguous non-sovereignist stance. That’s not much.

Parti Québécois Parti Québecois (PQ)
The Parti Québécois is obviously the main sovereignist party. It is traditionally a left-leaning or centre-left party and still officially declares itself as adhering to social-democratic principles, but it has had forays on the centre-right with leaders (and Premiers) like Lucien Bouchard, Bernard Landry and, I’d argue, Jacques Parizeau.

The problem for me and the PQ is its main plank: Québec sovereignty. However, my discomfort with sovereignty has less to do with a pro-Canada stance and more to do with a feeling that Québec would be far worse off economically as an independant nation. I think I feel more that way now in view of how this place has managed to succumb to corruption scandals after cleaning up its act in the early 1970s. What’s more, as a result of neglect and lack of maintenance, practically all our infrastructure is literally falling apart, and I find it hard to conceive that a province currently on the “have-not” side of the ledger among provinces could manage to fix this problem without mass infusions of cash from a higher, federal level.

However, even if PQ leader Pauline Marois were able to stay off the hardline sovereignists in her ranks if she did form the next government, the PQ in general has consistently managed to annoy me with its constant cheap shots against federal Canada and its tendency, despite itself, to lapse into low-grade xenophobic rhetoric. But if I were to ignore this (very significant) problem, I’d have to admit that, otherwise, the PQ should be my natural political home for being essentially left-of-centre under Marois.

Coalition Avenir Québec Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ)
Recently founded by former PQ heavyweight François Legault, the CAQ is pledging to put the sovereignty debate on the back burner for at least the next 10 years in order to concentrate on cleaning up the province’s public administration. Fundamentally on the centre-right (not to say the outright right), the CAQ has absorbed the right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) and has also drawn former members of both the Liberals and Parti Québécois. Toward its end, the ADQ had evolved into an “autonomist” party, meaning it wanted Québec to remain in Canada but with more autonomy in managing its affairs.

It’s not just the right/centre-right aspect of the CAQ that turns me off; it’s Legault himself. Despite claiming having a plan to “fix” Québec, he remains far too uncommittal with all his “On verra” (“We’ll see”). Plus, I still remember Harper’s 2006 federal pledge for more transparency in government, and here we are, six years later, with the most secretive, non-transparent and frankly unilateral federal government this country has ever seen. Hence, I just can’t trust the right.

Québec Solidaire Québec Solidaire (QC)
I used to love Québec Solidaire until co-leader Amir Khadir got elected to the Assembly in 2008. QS is the hard left, but it’s also staunchly sovereignist. But as I’ve aged, I’ve come to view hard ideologies on either the left or the right to be utopic and unachievable: it’s all too black-and-white for my liking. Khadir, for instance, shows zero subtlety with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian question, choosing to protest in front of a small shop in Montréal that has the audacity of selling a brand (among others) of shoes made in Israel. Just like G.W. Bush’s legendary “You’re either with us or the terrorists” statement, with which many Americans didn’t agree, this simplistic stance has an anti-semitic tone that denies that many Isrealis do not support their current government’s position on Palestine just like many Palestinians aren’t against the idea of a peaceful co-existance.

And while I’m by no means a monarchist, I do recognize that the monarchy is a part of our history and, over the centuries, it has evolved into a mere benign symbol; therefore, I found it distasteful when Khadir publicly ridiculed the monarchy as “parasites” during last year’s visit by Kate and Will. As a lefty, I understand how it’s fundamentally wrong to have people in positions based solely on heredity, but since good ol’ Liz ain’t exactly a blood-sucking tyrant, I do still hold some respect for the position of head of state she occupies.

Option Nationale Option Nationale (ON)
Founded last year by former hardline PQ MNA Jean-Martin Aussant when it looked at though the PQ was imploding, Option Nationale is a centre-left party that states that a vote for it is an electoral mandate for de facto sovereignty, to be followed by a referendum to bring de jure sovereignty.

‘Nuff said. I won’t be voting ON (assuming it will have a candidate running in my Outremont riding — a Liberal bastion provincially — currently held by Finance Minister Raymond Bachand).

Parti Vert du Québec Québec Green Party (QGP)
I don’t know what to say about this party. Given that the upcoming election is going to be a three-way race among the Liberals, the PQ and the CAQ (although the latter is trailing at about 20% and is the least likely of the three to form a government …although last year’s Orange Crush in Québec should swear one off dismissing a dark horse), it seems like voting Green, under our current voting system, is the epitome of throwing away one’s vote. Besides, the Greens are unlikely to make any headway outside the Island of Montréal, which is also the most fertile ground for Québec Solidaire which, with a sitting MNA, stands a better chance of picking up another seat or two.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Like I said, assuming I manage to get on the voters’ list, I have no idea where I’m going to put my X in this election, and it doesn’t help that I’ll be voting in a riding where the result is a foregone conclusion. So far, the options I have categorically dismissed are CAQ and ON, and I’m 99 percent certain I’ll pass on voting Green for the first time on this go. So…

Parti Libéral du Québec Charest has become annoying arrogant, and I can’t see myself pinching my nose and voting Liberal despite all the corruption just because it’s anti-sovereignty.

Parti Québécois Marois has tons of bad history from the days she was a high-profile PQ cabinet minister, plus the PQ manages too often to piss me off. But, otherwise, it’s closest to the NDP that Québec doesn’t have at the provincial level.

Québec Solidaire Québec Solidaire has shown itself to be too far left even for me; however, since it won’t form a government, perhaps positioning it so that it holds the balance of power in the opposition wouldn’t be so bad.

I never before felt so much like I was stuck for voting for the “least bad,” not to mention in a riding where my vote is the least likely to have any impact.

Despite my scathing remarks on Amir Khadir, though, I think I just talked myself into voting Québec Solidaire.

Time for Some Serious Decisions

The “Harper government” — yes, I’m choosing the term very deliberately — is ordering Canadian embassies around the world to display an image of the Queen. So, which will it be?

The Good Queen   The Evil Queen

Look, I’m neither for nor against the monarchy. The lefty in me doesn’t agree with priviledge bestowed onto someone simply by birth, but in the modern Canadian context, the Queen’s role is so symbolic as to be meaningless — benign, but meaningless. However, I suspect that if Elizabeth weren’t still around and Charles were King, there would be a more unanimous outcry against the Harper government’s degree.

First came John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs, asking to replace modern paintings by a Quebec artist at his department’s headquarters with a portrait Good Old Benign Liz. Then came the reinsertion of the word “Royal” to the Canadian Air Forces and Canadian Navy. And now a portrait of Liz must appear in our embassies.

Quite correctly, I believe, University of Guelph Associate Professor Matt Hayday, quoted in this article of the National Post, sees this attempt at rebranding Canadian identity as a step backward.

“It’s a very deliberate and calculated effort to re-shape Canadian symbolism, Canadian nationalism and Canadian values back to a certain conception of conservative Canada that has very strong roots in Diefenbaker-era Canada where ties to the monarchy, to tradition, to the British world are very important,” said Matthew Hayday……

Canada’s conservatives have long loved the Crown because it plays to the ideas of tradition and respect for authority — namely, the authority of the British empire, he said.

“There’s a certain amount of nostalgia as well for a period where Canada was part of a broader British empire,” said Prof. Hayday, and the mandate plays to a “specific subset” of the Conservatives’ Canadian voter base who have watched as multiculturalism and bilingualism, in their view, overshadowed any nods to Canada’s British heritage.

However, as I commented on Matt’s blog, it occurred to me that maybe all these moves by the Conservatives, but especially this latest one, are a provocation on their part. Sure, on the surface, they’re playing to their base. But in the nearly 20 years since the failed Charlottetown Accord, there’s been agitation on the right for true Senate reform, mention on the left (especially by the late Jack Layton during the last election) of finding the “winning conditions” for Canada and Québec, and for all sides for electoral reform. In other words, could it be that, in public, they’re saying that they don’t want another round of constitutional talks, but in fact they’re itching for one through provocation via successive legislative plans and degrees that most Canadians find distasteful?

I can already hear the cries of protest against constitutional talks when there’s so much uncertainty economically worldwide. And I have grave concerns about having such talks while the current brand of Conservatives is in power. But in my view, the economic argument against such talks is the weakest, for the most significant constitutional changes of the 20th century occurred at times when the economy was precarious. In fact, if the economy were good, there could be arguments along the lines that “the economy is good, so let’s not disrupt it by reopening the constitution.”

Maybe my little “conspiracy theory” is giving the Conservatives too much credit. Maybe this isn’t a bait at all, but it could certainly be turned into one. Maybe the Conservatives really are intent on changing the country through whatever back-handed means their majority affords them. Or maybe the opposition — both in Parliament and the public at large — isn’t alert enough to recognize the bait it’s being handed…

I mean, why not consider having a Governor General as end-of-the-line head of state? Let’s look perhaps at keeping the title of “governor general” out of respect to tradition and heritage instead of seeking a republican president. And why not consider whether or not we want a Senate? And if we do, let’s discuss how it should be constituted and whether its member should be elected or appointed. And while recognizing that, for a vocal minority, the only solution for Québec is full sovereignty, why not try to find among the soft nationalist and federalist majority in Québec what they would deem acceptable for being a solid and equal partner within Canada?

Everybody Remembers

Early Nine-Eleven MemorialThese days the media is, of course, wall-to-wall coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorists attacks on the United States, and it is said that everyone who was alive that day and old enough to understand what was happening remembers exactly where they were when they learned the news. For many, it was intensely personal and tragic, but for the vast majority of people, it was a scene of unspeakable horror being played out live on their TV screen.

Everybody seems to remember that the morning of September 11, 2001, was a beautiful late-summer day on the east coast of North America, including in Halifax where I was living at the time. Ironically, had the attacks not happened on that day, probably few if anyone today would remember this otherwise trivial fact. It would have been just another ordinary day.

In fact, I distinctly remember the mild summer-like evening that was September 10, 2001, in Halifax. I went out to enjoy it and I distinctly remember thinking to myself that, the next day, I had to get back to work. I was working mostly as a freelancer at the time — I had finished teaching my last class of “Text-Based Media” at Mount Saint Vincent University a few weeks before — but because I had kept a connection with the academic world, September remained for me, mentally, the beginning of a new year. But in 2001, because summer had extended beyond Labour Day, I had procrastinated at working hard on my then-new brandchild: my TexStyleM web content management system.

The previous July, I had joined Hosting Matters, the web hosting company I still use to this day. My ritual at the time was to get up, make some coffee, and sit at the computer to read HM’s message board, which at the time was not only a technical help line but a virtual social community as well. As soon as I signed on, I noticed new strings with titles like “World Trade Center” as well as one, posted by HM owner Annette, warning of possible disruptions in service due to the day’s unfolding events. I read and read and it all seemed incomprehensible: possibly thousands and thousands dead, planes crashing into buildings…

I pounced out of my chair in my office and ran to the living room to turn on the TV. The first images I saw were of a building in smoke — the Pentagon, the announcer said. It was about 11:30 am in Halifax, therefore 10:30 am in Washington and New York. As I remained seated on the edge of the couch, trying to comprehend the images I was seeing, I thought to myself, “This must be what it felt like when news crossed the Atlantic that Germany had invaded Poland and that Britain and Canada were declaring war.” But in those early moments, it was still unclear in my mind against which country war was going to be declared.

And that’s just it: In 2001, most of us still thought of war as a matter among nation states. But on this first official year of the 21st century emerged the idea that modern wars were no longer going to be that way anymore. The definition of opponents and factions had become more abstract.

By the time I tuned into what was happening, the second twin tower in New York City had fallen already, but planes were still being grounded and it wasn’t known if more attacks were coming. News then came that dozens of planes that were crossing the Atlantic were being diverted not only to Gander, Newfoundland, but Halifax as well. The city where I lived was becoming one of many focal points of the unfolding events.

Obviously, my resolve to “get back to work” was shattered for many days following September 11, 2001. Like many others, I could not peel myself away from the TV screen. I would occasionally leaf through the photos of my one and only trip to New York City in February 1995, and in a few shots appeared those two towers that were no longer — towers I had only seen but never entered, and never would. And I would recall the hightened security that early evening I happened to go to the mostly deserted financial district, as it was the two-year anniversary of the 1993 Trade Center bombing. All I kept thinking is how “ordinary” were all those who had died so brutally in those towers. That day, as any other, they did the most mundane thing: they reported to work to earn their living. But hours later, they went from being “ordinary” to one of thousands of names on a long list now infamous in history.

A few days later, I drove to Moncton as my father had been hospitalized and his birthday was on the 16th. This was the time when doctors finally figured out that his pain was due to having lapsed into depression — the time when a man who would never show his emotions would cry at the drop of a hat. So, knowing this, before going to the hospital with Mom, who confided that she, too, could not stop watching the images coming out of New York and Washington, I asked her how he was reacting to the news of these events. But it turns out that he was so sedated that, although he understood what was happening, he was curiously detached from it all. His own life was fadding; two-and-a-half years later, he would be gone. I don’t recall talking much about the events of 9-11.

I remember as well how, in the first days and weeks that followed this seminal event, the United States had the sympathy of the world, for while many understood that American foreign policy was at the root of the attacks, few believed these attacks could be justified. As much as I hated the thought, I knew that there had to be a response to these attacks and I even agreed with the notion that Canada be alongside the U.S. in this response. Sadly, however, in the months and years that followed, those heading the government of the U.S. at the time themselves hijacked the events to seek avenge on Iraq, a nation that wasn’t involved in 9-11 but “conveniently” happened to be in the neighbourhood.

Ten years later we ask ourselves how the world has changed, and the answer seems to be that everything has become more polarized, not only internationally but also within nations — even in Canada, argues Chantal Hébert. That may not have been the intentions behind the 9-11 attacks, but sadly that seems to have been the consquence.