The sponsorship program was defended by Jean Chrétien as a key element in the pursuit of national unity. This approach took what was for Quebec a very profound existential issue involving its status as a nation, its very place in the world and many years of debate and deliberation about the fundamentals of its relationship with the rest of Canada -- and reduced all this to a secretive and publicly funded advertising campaign.
Those who blame Quebec for the fiasco that led to Gomery, or believe that this is simply the way politics has always been done in Quebec, should consider this: The anger such corruption provokes in Quebeckers is compounded many times over by the offensive assumption that 150 years of effort to find a just and acceptable relationship between Quebec and Canada was interpreted as little more than a problem of exposure to Canadian symbols -- that Canada as a "brand" was not seeping into Quebec's collective consciousness. That there were individuals in Quebec willing to play along with this scheme for their own benefit is not the point. The larger issue is this: Ottawa assumed that the discontents of Quebeckers were so superficial, they could be treated through the infantile blandishments of commercial advertising's flashy colours and slogans.
Both the program's logic and the process put in place to rectify its deficiencies reveal the illegitimacy of the federal government's actions vis-à-vis Quebec. The Gomery commission does little to reconcile the fundamental flaws in Ottawa's approach.
In terms of substance, the program's aims were put in place in lieu of genuine dialogue with Quebec. Following the failed constitutional rounds of the early 1990s and the close referendum result in 1995, the best that the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien could come up with was to stifle any constructive attempts to reconcile relations with Quebec. The sponsorship program is just another feature of a growing list of cynical and irresponsible approaches to the politics of federalism that includes the Clarity Act, national standards in the provision of social programs, and a domineering attitude toward use of the federal spending power in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. All the while, even as federal surpluses mount, Ottawa refuses to acknowledge the existence of a fiscal imbalance.
In terms of process, the establishment of the Gomery commission is admirable; political corruption should rightly preoccupy all Canadians. It is not surprising, therefore, that recent polls show that a solid majority of citizens, including Quebeckers, are pleased with the Liberal government's efforts to address the flaws in the machinery of government that led to the scandal in the first place. The Gomery commission hearings, which received much media attention, have sullied the reputations of several almost iconic Canadian institutions -- Via Rail, Canada Post, the RCMP, and the Business Development Bank. In this regard, the Gomery commission will at the very least make Canadians more aware and vigilant about political corruption and perhaps restrain such developments in the future.
But there also is a malaise with regards to the Gomery commission, especially from Quebec's perspective. This is related specifically to the feeling that the commission seems to represent an extension of the political spin coming out of the Prime Minister's Office.
We interpret the scandal as a political act -- as an explicit attempt by the Government of Canada to illegitimately address the problem of Quebec (the question of its legality will be determined by the courts). The Gomery commission proceeds as an enterprise whose mandate is to correct systemic flaws in the machinery of government, as though this is but another area of public policy where some tinkering can increase administrative efficiency and transparency.
As such, it dovetails nicely with the federal government's party line that the scandal was the result of a small group of rogue bureaucrats and their private-sector clients who exploited loopholes in accountability procedures. The commission's limited mandate does very little to address larger questions and more profound problems that have emerged with the revelation of the scandal.
Indeed, the final Gomery report will include various consultative exercises for generating recommendations that could be plucked right out of a basic text on the policy process. Several of those selected to make recommendations have been past members of the PMO's entourage in various capacities, including Marc Lalonde, Donald Savoie and Paul Tellier. Moreover, allowing the government to see the report before it was shown to other parties in the House creates the impression that the commission is serving the government's interests -- an impression reinforced by the opportune delay in the proposed release of the final report, effectively allowing Paul Martin to postpone his promised election call.
By framing the issues as a generic, systemic problem to be resolved through adjustments to administrative procedures, the commission's analysis and recommendations will serve to diffuse the blame. But this will not satisfy Quebec's deeper concerns, nor should it sit well with other Canadians, whose appeasement is the primary object of this exercise. In effect, the federal government, in a somewhat covert fashion, is once again employing the subtle manipulation of majority nationalism to address a problem that essentially concerns Quebec.
Federal advertising campaigns that shamelessly flaunt Canadian symbols in an attempt to achieve the government's political objectives in Quebec are insulting not only to Quebeckers but to all Canadians.
Nor is the highly publicized federal attempt to clean house and curb government corruption, though commendable in itself, nearly enough.
Neither the insulting ad campaign nor the worthy investigative campaign fundamentally addresses Quebec's continuing bitterness and alienation. This charade has tried to frame the federal government's approach to Quebec's legitimate and long-standing concerns about recognition as a largely technical problem that can be remedied simply by tinkering with the machinery of government.
Alain G. Gagnon is Canada Research Chair on Quebec and Canadian Studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Raffaele Iacovino is research associate with the Canada Research Chair at UQAM.