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An Election Night I Will Never Forget

or Why Oranges Grow Blue in Québec

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Nearly two months past the May 2 federal election, Canadian Dimension is still getting articles commenting on how this election has shaken up the political landscape of this country. Here’s one by Hans Modlich, a longtime political activist whose political roots go back to the early 1970s.

There have been three abortive attempts so far in my political lifetime to find a proper home for the Québécois nation inside in a pan-Canadian framework.

In 1958, the year after I had stepped off the boat in Québec City at the age of fourteen, Diefenbaker swept la “belle provence”. He could hardly pronounce the words “deux nations” let alone fathom the implications. Less than 10 years later, not to be outdone, Pearson had brought in the Maple Leaf after the heated “flag debate” finally got rid of the Union Jack.

Then came the anti-nationalist intellectual Trudeau, who put relations into a deep freeze in October 1970. After a decade of jingoism he outfoxed Lévesque. The latter had set May 1980 as his referendum deadline falsely assuming Mr “Just watch me” had retired from the political arena. Claude Morin, René’s intergovernmental minister was eventually unmasked as an RCMP operative. So much for the broken promise of a federal renewal–which had carried the first referendum.

When I lived in Québec, I had voted for sovereign but associated statehood, having returned from a two-year engineering stint in Europe, where an economic union of six principal nations was starting to bite into the bi-polar duopoly of the Cold War world.

Yet another decade later, who could forget the Irish crooner Mulroney–and Lévesque’s “beau risque” of supporting the Tories (along with free trade). That all ended with the aborted Charlottetown Accord on Oct. 26, 1992. Unlike Meech, I opposed it, but the party fell for it. Most of Canada seemed to have thought like me. But the NDP had to pay for this mistake with the emergence of the Reform Party–who just now have bestowed upon us a Harper majority!

Québec also harvested a mixed blessing from the 1993 total collapse of the PC’s. On one hand Lucien Bouchard had formed the Bloc Québécois, but on the other had reaped the svengali Jean Charest, Mulroney’s Meech Lake man on the job. Charest is now on his third term as neo-liberal Québec premier!

And now came the orange tsunami of the May 2nd, 2011 election. What happened? The best analysis I have yet read, was an op-ed by Philippe Bernard Arcand in the May 4 Le Devoir titled “Les Oranges Bleues”. He writes from the vantage point of an ENA student, Europe’s top school of political science in Strasbourg. Arcand’s take is that the NPD overtook the BQ from the left. Fatigue had set in amongst the souverainiste forces after six sweeps of the bulk of 75 seats. Also a protracted leadership crisis in the PQ and a rightward policy drift toward centrist populism away from social democracy had sown cynicism among labour, youth and activist ranks.

Other indicators of this passing on the left or “doublure a gauche” were the NDP’s clear programmatic NON to an Afghan War extension (enjoying an 82% approval rating) and the clear rejection of the F35 fighter purchase.

For me the seminal moment in the debates came in a one-on-one between Duceppe and Layton. Gilles had just declared the certainty that he would never become PM, and had asked Jack to fess up that the same would be the case with Monsieur Layton. At that very point the gears started clicking in the minds of Québec voters from Natashquan to Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

With Québec’s forestry industry in the doldrums, oil and housing prices hitting the roof and a dissident grassroots movement just having forced the Liberal Premier to call off the rapacious fracking exploration for “gas de schiste”, what did they have to lose?

Was it not worth taking a gamble on smiling Jack, swinging his cane Fred Astaire-like, in defiance of hip surgery just weeks earlier (à la Lucien Bouchard who had emerged triumphant after an attack of flesh-eating disease)?

One journalist-pundit reported–after an exit poll in Val d’Or–that the young working-class voter he was certain would have voted Bloquiste had in fact voted NDP while biting his fingernails to the last minute in the booth.

Meanwhile back in my riding on Election Day, I had been pulling the vote in a couple of our staunchest working-class polls. I picked up the last bubble sheets at 9 pm and made a few more voter calls. “If ever in the last 40 years you have considered voting for us–so was my pitch–then this is the time to make your NDP vote count”. And it did. Mathew Kellway had turned the table on perennial Liberal winner Maria Minna with a decisive 4000 vote margin. The orange wave had resonated even in gentrified Beaches-East York!

But I was to find this out only an hour later after crashing before my own TV to watch the results coming in on the French network. Québec’s foremost spin-doctors were at it: Jean-François Lisée–media guru for Lévesque, Liza Frulla–perennial Liberal commentator, Ann Lagacé Dowson–2008 NDP candidate for Westmount, was sparring for the NPD point-de-vue.

My fatigue soon gave way to exhilaration. I had suspected all along that Harper would get his majority, but I had never dreamed that we would become the official opposition! Was this not a near optimal outcome? This time we would be first in the limelight of media spin doctors. This way too there would be no coalition hanky-panky to detract us. (The 1972 Lewis-Trudeau wheeling-dealings had only decimated our votes in the following election).

So after 50 long years of being on the receiving end of Canada’s archaic first-past-the-post polling, Québec had finally rewarded us with a resounding mandate–probationary, yes, and totally out of the blue–but resounding just the same. After half a century of political intercourse of our two solitudes, the NDP had hit the spot and united the left forces in both nations under one banner!

What a lesson for the party brass to absorb! With the weakest ever of electoral machines, we had just won the most splendid breakthrough ever! Confirming that when it comes to election strategy a courageous alternative platform trumps organizational prowess every time!

Around midnight on election night TV coverage came the time to tune in to the Constitution Room at Toronto’s Metro Convention Centre for the Jack Layton-Olivia Chow victory telecast. The anticipation was palpable. Olivia fired up the crowd–as no high school cheerleader could have done better! And then there was Jack. Well, I need not tell you about the smile on his face–it’s probably still etched on yours.

But wait a minute, what was it that you saw in the background spreading over three giant LCD screens? And what was the unanimous crowd waving without exception? A sea of Maple Leaf flags–but not a single Fleur de Lys!

Céline Galipeau’s guests were visibly taken aback, but thankfully neither Ann, Francois or Liza commented on the fact. Woe, I thought, what a slap in the face of Québec? What must our brand new erstwhile BQ voters be thinking? Was this bashing intended, or an accident of some overzealous anglo-Ontarian Trudeau devotee? Were we heading for a political one-night stand–if ever there was one? I asked myself and I resolved I had to do something about this faux-pas sans pareil!

[Ed Note: see below for a copy of the author’s Open letter to Elections director Brad Lavigne.]

Souverainiste governments in Québec have legislated many social-democratic planks such as elecion reforms, anti-scab laws and child-care way before the rest of Canada. Currently a “dying with dignity” commission is touring the province miles ahead of political will in the ROC.

But the PQ has also had its Bob Rae in the person of Lucien Bouchard, who just recently accepted the job of chief lobbyist for the oil and gas industry (on the payroll of Talisman Energy) and is unabashedly promoting shale gas exploration–Québec’s equivalent of the Tar Sands.

However ‘Lucid Lucien’ has met his nemesis in Amir Khadir, co-leader (and sole MLA) for Québec Solidaire, the fledgling party for an independent and socialist Québec. Amir has become the conscience of the Québec legislature and ranks tops amongst Québec’s political figures in popularity ratings. He has supported and has been a key component of the Orange Wave.

I can’t help but make a comparison with the 1970’s Waffle’s stand for an independent and socialist Canada–the realization that for Canada to be truly independent of the corporatist stranglehold–embodied more than ever today by Harper–we must build an independent, that is, a socialist Canada. Québec has given us an opening to so, as we have never had before.

Let us not squander it!

Open letter to BRAD LAVIGNE, NDP Federal Election Campaign Director

May 11/2011

Dear Brad,

For 50 years I have worked for the historic gains achieved by the NDP on May 2 by putting up NDP election signs, pulling the vote on E-day, and contributing handsomely to party coffers.

Being Franco-Canadian, I followed the Election Night coverage on Radio-Canada only to find, as the telecast focused on the Constitution Room at Metro Convention Centre, that our splendid electoral breakthrough was marred by an entirely avoidable visual image.

A sea of Maple Leaf flags–without a single Fleur de Lys in sight–greeted the tide of Québécois voters as a backdrop to Jack Layton’s address as leader-elect of the Official Opposition.

This was an inexcusable faux pas! We presume it happened without the prior knowledge of the Leader. In any case it cannot be ignored–lest our break-through in Quebec turn into a one-night stand.

Brad, while I have received e-mail messages daily from you leading up to May 2, I have waited for over a week for any kind of public acknowledgment of this blunder on election night. It is for this reason that I am addressing this open letter to you.

I have stood up in defense of the Fleur de Lys on several occasions in my life, both as a party member and as a former resident of Québec. For example, at Brockville at the time of the Meech Lake Accord, when reactionaries publicly trampled the Fleur de Lys flag, and the media eagerly transmitted the hateful images of anti-Québec chauvinism in action.

Brad, I believe I have the right to ask that the NDP, starting with you as the federal campaign director, publicly acknowledge the ‘flag error’ and explain how it occurred. The party should apologize for it and pledge that at future NDP/NPD events the Fleur de Lys be accorded equal status with the Maple Leaf.

I wish this acknowledgment and correction be done expeditiously. I am sure that New Democrats would agree that we do not want the flag slap in the face of Québec to mar the proceedings at the upcoming June federal NDP convention in Vancouver. Please respond to this appeal as soon as possible.

Sincerely yours, Hans Modlich

Member of the Federal Steering Committee, NDP Socialist Caucus / Caucus Socialiste du NPD

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