The greatest opportunity in the ongoing Parliamentary circus is the very thing we are being told to fear — engagement with the Bloc.
For my entire adult life, I have lived with the reality that a large segment of the population in one of our biggest provinces wants to separate, and in the process, risk tearing Canada apart.
There are a ton of fears and myths and oversimplifications in that last paragraph, but unfortunately, it is fear and myth and oversimplification that has dominated the separatism debate my entire life.
For the first time, I see a different route.
For the first time, I see an opportunity to engage separatists in a way that requires respectful dialogue and honest brokering.
Of course, you wouldn’t know that from the deluge of spin that is being pumped out of Ottawa on all sides.
To the average Canadian, it appears that the coalition is making a deal with the devil for power.
The reality is that all parties have worked with the Bloc over the years to get what they want. The Bloc has supported every government at one time or another, including Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in 2006.
So, let’s all put away the indignation and have a real discussion.
What the coalition offers is chance at a form of rapprochement with the Bloc.
It’s an approach we use in international affairs all the time.
We don’t like the human rights record of many countries, so we engage them economically to gradually push them towards better policies.
We don’t like the autocratic military rule of some countries, so we tie them to economic and social aid in an effort to cajole them towards a different approach.
In other words, when other political entities act in a way we have strong disagreement with, we engage them in larger institutions and agreements, like international banks or trade partnerships.
So, why can’t we do that at home?
I recognize the impulse to dismiss what I’m suggesting as naïve, and at any other time, I might agree.
But in this one moment, we have a tangible opportunity to pull this one off. We have the potential for a coalition government that relies on the Bloc, in some measure, to survive.
Failing to take up that opportunity would be a huge error.
And most of us have personal memories that illustrate how big an error we are talking about.
I have lived most of my life in Canada and at several points, I have been afraid that this country was on the cusp of being torn apart.
I can remember being on a bus in 1995, headed home along with 40 or so other anonymous souls. The packed bus was late and stuck in traffic. I desperately wanted to get home to watch the results from the referendum in Quebec, but I was stuck on the Richmond side of the Arthur Lang Bridge.
So, at the end of the bridge, I asked the bus driver to let me off. I jumped down and ran all the way to a pub on the waterfront below the bridge.
This pub, full of TVs that usually show nothing but hockey games and beer ads, were all turned to the referendum results. So I sat there, at the bar, sipping a beer, watching the number tick back and forth from 49 per cent to 50 per cent, wondering if it was my last beer in a united Canada.
Today, the pub is long gone, but the country is not.
And yet, nearly 15 years later, we’ve done precious little to address the problem.
The Clarity Act is great for setting a process to secede, but it doesn’t touch on the core issue of more fully bringing Quebec into a greater Canada.
Instead, we send some dollars and pass some motions and expect to undermine a long-standing linguistic, religious and social disconnect.
From what I can tell, the only real impact of our efforts to date has been to sow discord and resentment in Ontario and the West.
It certainly hasn’t diminished the Bloc or its role.
So why don’t we use the potential coalition as a rapprochement opportunity here at home.
Let’s do as the French word suggests and “bring together” our nation.
Let’s invite the Bloc into our institutions more fully and let Quebecers see the actual value of Canada.
Let’s share more than funding and platitudes about “nation within a nation.”
Let’s share power.
It’s harder to separate from something or someone when you have a vested interest in that something’s or someone’s ongoing cohesion.
There is no trigger in cabinet that allows the Bloc to force secession. There is no magic button in Ottawa that can be pressed to break up the country.
Having the Bloc in our national government does nothing except “bring together” our elected leaders.
Maybe in the process Canada will begin to understand the centuries-old grievances Quebec harbours about how it has been treated by the rest of Canada.
Maybe Quebecers will come to better understand the rest of Canada’s views on why barring English signs is such an affront.
Maybe we’ll actually get down to talking about the infinite similarities we all share.
And maybe, just maybe, separatist and federalist leaders will get beyond their own talking points and deal with each other as they should — as our elected leaders put in place to find workable solutions to tough problems.
Michael Hale is a