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Dan Delmar: The CAQ turns 10 — can the nationalist party withstand a federalist future?

Commentary

Looking back one decade to the founding of Quebec’s most transformational political party in a generation, it is safe to conclude the Coalition Avenir was not, as many fellow anglophone critics feared, meant to be a crypto-sovereignist movement.

We did however expect its leaders to behave similarly to the Parti Québécois with its quarrelsome ethnocentric nationalism. In that sense, the politically-ambiguous centre-right CAQ has already in its short lifespan usurped the PQ, becoming the vehicle for the province’s anti-federalist forces and pushing Canada toward a series of constitutional crises.

Launched in Montreal at a chic Lachine Canal loft in November 2011 as a diverse, reform-oriented coalition, the CAQ was vague on national unity since differing views within the party comprised of federalists and sovereignists were, and continue to be, irreconcilable.

Even before the party unveiled a policy it was already obvious which of the forces—federalist or nationalist—would be more influential. The somewhat amusing pronunciation of the party’s acronym in English was an early sign, media observers mused, that the CAQ’s more federalist-leaning English-speakers would be politically impotent.

While it never put a third sovereignty referendum on the table, the party eventually made a hard turn away from federalism and toward a brazen, décomplexé nationalism; the strategic compromise at the root of today’s brewing crises.

It took seven years and two third-place election losses for CAQ founder and now-Premier François Legault to drop all ambiguity about a third referendum. Ahead of the 2018 vote, the former PQ minister made the clear promise, even directly to me on Twitter after years of my persistent trolling on the issue since the party’s inception:

“A CAQ government would never hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty,” he promised.

The crypto-sovereignist charge had mostly been made in jest but, in the end, the joke would be on me as the premier doesn’t appear to need a referendum in order to separate Quebec from Canada, at least in a few key areas of interest for nationalists. All he needs are disengaged federalist opponents.

This Petit Compromis between Quebec and Canada became apparent in late 2018 following Legault’s win over former Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard, weighed down by years of vague corruption smears and nationalist panic over “austerity” even as government spending continued to rise. An imploding PQ was even less popular than the besieged Couillard government, and Legault quite aptly chose the path of least resistance to becoming premier.

Legault can’t have his Canada and eat it, too, I wrote in my final weekly column for The Montreal Gazette then. While I applaud those who take a genuine interest in Quebec politics and the future of French in Canada, this Petit Compromis epoch means basic policy issues of interest to cosmopolitan democrats will barely advance until principled federalists return to government, or at least opposition in Quebec City and Ottawa.

Refusing to engage Legault on federalism and human rights—specifically on bills that attempt to rewrite Canada’s constitution to erase minority language rights in Quebec and ban civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols—is morally wrong and legally dubious but also a cultural timebomb for establishment parties when pollsters who bother to measure the phenomenon point to overwhelming support for federalism among young Quebecers (70 percent according to international polling firm IPSOS).

A clear majority of Quebecers are permanently closed to the idea of sovereignism.

A generation of Canadian political leaders, including the prime minister, federal opposition leaders, and even the provincial Liberal opposition leader Dominque Anglade, have effectively given up on the Charter and principled federalism in Quebec when a clear majority of Quebecers are permanently closed to the idea of sovereignism.

Federalism is not the hard sell much of Quebec’s nationalist-leaning commentariat makes it out to be, and that this point needs emphasizing is an indication of the level of strategic incompetence that is currently plaguing Canada’s political establishment.

Despite the miscalculations, a growing federalist constituency exists—the much-maligned pro-bilingualism, pro-Canada Couillard proved that with his decisive 2014 win—and it will be served one way or another.

In Montreal’s municipal elections last week, a hastily-organized diversity-focused party emerged as a third option amid debate of special status for Montreal to shield it from the CAQ’s ethnocentric policies. If the unpopular Anglade Liberals do not dramatically change course, they risk eroding their federalist base and perhaps even losing Montreal strongholds next year for the first time in a generation.

The chaos that Legault has fomented isn’t even limited to Quebec, with premiers in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Ontario mimicking the sort of constitutional subversion that had previously been contained to sovereignist movements—just without the moral legitimacy of actual, committed sovereignists.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe even flaunted his nationalism last week, proclaiming the province “needs to be a nation within a nation.”

The short-term outlook for federalists is bleak as sincere efforts are required to restore interest in the Canadian project.

Looking further ahead, even if the CAQ finishes off the sovereignist PQ next year and becomes Quebec’s clearinghouse for ethnocentric politics, the good news for federalists is that Legault’s victory will be short-lived as a demographic tidal wave of cosmopolitan Québécois millennials (including the “wokes” the premier fears) will come crashing down on nationalists of all stripes.

Despite being morally flexible on human rights issues related to freedoms of expression, Legault will be remembered as a transitional figure in Quebec politics, not unlike René Lévesque. And like Lévesque, some of his core values are incompatible with Canada’s in the long run. At an impasse, the non-sovereignist nationalist with a one-decade plan to change Quebec has settled into the role of caretaker for Lévesque’s movement, one its own leading philosophers describe as dying.

Many will view the CAQ’s Petit Compromis as a necessary transitory period following the Quiet Revolution, an uncomfortable middle ground en route toward a more multicultural francophone society. Time will tell how unfavourably the constitutional compromises will be seen.

By choosing to perpetuate the ethnocentric strain of Quebec nationalism past its natural shelf life, however, we know Legault and his ostensibly federalist enablers have placed themselves on the wrong side of a generational divide, and in the process made us all a little less Canadian, for a time.

Derrick Hunter: We need to be honest about how long the energy transition will take

Commentary

Energy is the economy

This is not hyperbole. For decades, the correlation between energy consumption and GDP has been nearly perfect.

This makes sense if you stop to think about it; after all everything that makes up the stuff of our daily lives—our household furnishings, the iWatch on our wrist, the fast-fashion shirt on your back—has been produced and transported by machinery powered by fossil fuels. In a very real sense, the goods that we benefit from every day are really just transformed energy.

Energy is the backbone of modern life. Energy is life.

It is therefore axiomatic that if our voracious appetite for consumer goods and services were to disappear, so too then would our demand for energy. The loathsome energy companies that supply these essentials of life would disappear due to a lack of customers without any need for emissions caps, pipeline restrictions, or carbon taxes at all.

Except that, for the time being, those companies are sort of important. In total, fossil fuels comprise around 84 percent of all the energy consumed on earth. This is not much of a reduction on a relative basis from the 86 percent that they supplied 20 years ago and in real terms is a considerable increase. Net zero by 2050 might be a laudable dream but it isn’t going to happen without time to implement it and trillions of dollars being spent to upgrade power grids and invent the new technologies that the International Energy Agency says will be necessary. Even then, intermittency of solar and wind combined with physical limitations inherent to battery technology may keep that goal perpetually out of reach.

As citizens in the developed world, we want contradictory things. We want the trappings of modern life but not the guilt of producing the emissions that support that standard of living. We are unwilling to give up bananas in winter or the supercomputer in our pocket (itself dependent on massive, energy-intensive server farms), but according to surveys, Canadians are unwilling to pay very much to address the situation. In short, we want to believe that there is an easy, cost-free, and painless way to make our carbon footprint disappear without reducing our standard of living, and so that’s what we’ve been sold by our politicians. We’ve been told this appealing lie for so long now that we have come to believe their simple nonsense even when it boils down to mostly exporting our carbon footprint to other places or burying the true costs in the supply chain.

We have now reached the stage where investors, bankers, and endowments refuse to put their money into support for domestic oil and gas production while at the same time U.S. President Joe Biden begs OPEC to increase production rates and Europeans worry about freezing in their apartments this winter because they have come to depend on Vladimir Putin continuing to supply them with natural gas.

Energy is life and the developed world has ceded its energy security to nations that are not our allies. This is madness.

It is a strange strategy that purports to “solve” a problem like carbon dioxide emissions by destroying supply without first building its replacement, given the obviously inelastic nature of demand, particularly in a very large, very cold country like Canada. You might think that the apparent hypocrisy of government leaders flying on private jets to distant conferences might cause the veil to slip a little bit, but perhaps these leaders aren’t so different from the self-righteous university student who drives to campus but then lobbies their school’s endowment fund to divest from fossil fuels. Or the flying traveler who buys carbon offsets to assuage their guilt, much like purchasing indulgences from the Catholic Church in a bygone era.

The developed world has ceded its energy security to nations that are not our allies. This is madness.

Simple solutions to complex problems make us feel better because we are “doing” something, even if it is of little practical impact in the real world as long as the costs are negligible.

Which leads us to the simple “solution” that Canada can do its part by reducing the production of Alberta energy. Never mind that oil is Canada’s largest export industry, accounts for 10 percent of our GDP, and Canada has the free world’s largest hydrocarbon deposits which are subject to environmental regulations like nowhere else on earth. In a world with inexorable demand issues, we decide to punish our own economy while the world heads into an entirely foreseeable energy crisis and we watch our allies beg tyrants for more petroleum while refusing our own. They export dollars that could easily end up here to help support our own energy transition. It’s a lose/lose for Canada.

And it gets worse. With the recent announcement at the COP26 conference in Glasgow, upstream oil and gas producers, which have already made substantial improvements in emission-intensity, will be subject not only to a carbon tax, but a hard cap as well. In contrast, transportation which produces a roughly equivalent quantity of emissions, won’t be. This is neither fair nor rational.

A cynic would say that it is because energy is produced in Alberta and Saskatchewan where there are few Liberal votes to be lost whereas automobiles are built in Ontario where there are. In this case the cynic is probably correct. By similar logic, it’s perfectly acceptable that North America’s largest coal export terminal is based in Vancouver, since the coal is burned in China and there are votes to be harvested in British Columbia.

The double standard is particularly troublesome in Canada because it is such a divisive approach to take in a nation where the governing party garnered less than one-third of the recent vote and where there are apparently no federal leaders prepared to stand up and state the obvious: this is insanely hypocritical, will not improve the state of global emissions, will cost the Canadian economy billions of dollars, and will contribute to the continued fracturing of our fragile confederation.

All it will actually do is make some Canadians feel better about themselves while offloading the costs predominantly on the portion of the country which has no voice in its governing.

We need honesty: the energy transition will take time and Canadian energy is the best in the world. Every one of us represents a portion of energy demand. Pointing our fingers in blame at one industry that has done much to reduce its impact, and that generates enormous economic benefits to Canada might make citizens feel like the heavy lifting has been done but won’t solve the problem. A strategy that throws one critical industry under the bus so that the rest of Canada can pretend they have done their part is the very opposite of nation-building.