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What was it all about?

10 Harper Election PhotoWest coast reflections on the 2004 federal election

An exchange between Gordon Gibson and Doug McArthur

We invited Gordon Gibson and Doug McArthur, two seasoned observers of Canadian politics, to reflect on the outcome of last June’s federal election. Gibson is convinced that regionalism and the “urge to democratic reform,” two forces suppressed for a decade under Jean Chrétien’s regime, are about to generate major change in how Canadians govern themselves. McArthur is skeptical. He doubts these forces are as powerful as Gibson claims. Instead, he draws two broad conclusions. First, the success of the Bloc Québécois means that Ottawa will continue to appease Quebec nationalists with subsidies and special deals. Second, values matter. The typical Canadian’s attitude toward the role of government is based on broadly progressive values; if ever the Conservatives are to govern, they must show a greater respect for what the typical Canadian believes.

— The Editors


Two great forces

by Gordon Gibson

The aftermath of the June election has ushered in the most exciting time in Canadian politics since the 1960s. At that time, Lester Pearson’s two minority governments led to an explosion of new social policies, language controversies and federal-provincial cooperation. Those years culminated in the Trudeau election of 1968, and strong federal government reasserted itself.

Another minority government, pushed by the NDP after the election of 1972, adopted an inward-looking economic nationalism. Unlike Pearson’s reforms, that negative dynamic was not to endure. It was smashingly reversed by the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement only 16 years later.

But Trudeau’s policy of centrism – the consolidation of power in Ottawa – was more durable. Centrism was a significant reversal of Pearsonian cooperative federalism. The centrist approach arguably stirred up another, more dangerous, sort of nationalist spirit. It helped elect René Lévesque as Quebec’s first sovereigntist premier in 1976, and provided the energy for the first Quebec referendum in 1980, Meech Lake, Charlottetown and the second referendum with its near-death experience for Canada in 1995. Then all went unnaturally quiet. Jean Chrétien, who came within a whisker of being known as “the Prime Minister who lost Canada,” could think of nothing better than hanging on and maintaining complete control.

Things are about to move again with the forces unleashed by the June election this year. The reinvigorated forces are two: regionalism and the urge to democratic reform. These two forces dramatically invaded the nation’s capital in the election of 1993, when the rise of Reform and the Bloc Québécois signalled a whole new era. But both had been building for a long time. In the case of regionalism that is perhaps obvious, while the urge to democratic reform, in my view, was both signalled and encouraged by the huge victory of the people over the political class in the Charlottetown Accord referendum of 1992.

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About the Author

Henry Milner
Henry Milner is co-publisher of Inroads and a political scientist at the Université de Montréal.


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