The Liberal Party told Canadians that, thanks to the Clarity Act, all was safe, and that Paul Martin would easily sweep Quebec in the last federal election. They said that this, on top of federalist Jean Charest's victory in the Quebec election of 2003, would set to rest any problems on the Quebec constitutional front. Despite their arguments for provincial rights, the Conservatives proved unable to get a decent electoral showing in Quebec. The NDP, as well, has been powerless to improve its fortunes with the Quebec electorate.
It's now clear that federal parties and institutions will have to pay closer attention to two strong messages from the Quebec electorate -- messages that could threaten to haunt them in the years ahead.
First, in the ethno-culturally diverse Montreal ridings of Papineau and Ahuntsic, the June federal election saw Pierre Pettigrew and Eleni Bakopanos lose huge chunks of their majorities to the Bloc Québécois.
The second message was the resounding victory of the Parti Québécois in Monday's provincial by-election in Laurier-Dorion -- which overlaps with significant segments of the just-mentioned federal ridings.
These ridings, the home of large cultural communities usually thought to vote massively for the Liberals, federally and provincially, have clearly seen a change of attitude.
Of course, a massive change of attitude toward Quebec in federal-provincial relations might also be seen in the Sept. 15 health accord. But let's not forget that this is just an administrative document pertaining to health, a jurisdiction that, since 1867, has fallen under provincial responsibility. Canada still seems to be asleep on the broader issue of Quebec's place within the federation.
Such an attitude in the rest of Canada rests largely on a false assumption: that the vote for the Bloc in the federal election boiled down to a protest vote against the sponsorship scandal. This seems to be the way that commentators and even most Canadian politicians want to depict it, letting themselves off the hook of having to go a little deeper into the Quebec ethos.
It's true that Quebeckers are angry and frustrated about the scandal, and that this was part of the reason for the Bloc's renewed political fortunes. But what is forgotten in all the Adscam hubbub is that the scandal stems directly from a political strategy that took for granted Quebeckers' will to stay in the federation.
Has Jean Chrétien's strategy worked? If after nine years of this blind strategy, roughly 45 per cent of Quebeckers continue to seriously consider sovereignty for Quebec as a viable and realistic option, it's clear that the Clarity Act and the attempt to hoist the Canadian flag on every possible Quebec billboard, building and festival are miserable failures.
Moreover, the startling recent results of the Bloc and the PQ in multicultural ridings on the island of Montreal signal fundamental shifts within the Quebec electorate. The sovereigntist base is diversifying, raising hopes that, if there were to be another referendum, the results might be very different.
By refusing to see the fundamental failures of Mr. Chrétien's strategies, Canadian federalists confirm that they have no serious alternative to offer. Convinced by the popularity of the Clarity Act with the rest of Canada, they continue to think that abolishing the sponsorship program and catering to minimalist Quebec demands will be more than enough.
But as we all know, or all should know, such strategies are bound to fail in the long run. Asymmetrical federalism in an exclusive provincial jurisdiction supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution is still a very long way from the true place that most Quebeckers seek within the federation.
So, like it or not, we're back to constitutional fundamentals.
Because of a big loss of appetite for anything touching on constitutional matters, Quebec's refusal to sign the Constitution in 1982 has become a Canadian non-event. Much has happened in the intervening 22 years, but Quebeckers are the ones who must continuously remind their Canadian partners that 1982 -- a "dangerous deed" as late Canadian constitutionalist Donald Smiley so aptly described it -- remains the litmus test for understanding the way Quebec sees its link to the Canadian federation.
For federalist and sovereigntist Quebeckers, both political options remain closely affiliated with patriation. On one hand, Quebec federalists, even though they do not wish to raise the subject at the moment, cannot envisage signing the Constitution before some basic criteria have been met. On the other hand, Quebec sovereigntists have a very different understanding of how a signing ceremony would take place: It would entail the presence of two sovereign states.
Jean Charest's Liberals and Mario Dumont's Action Démocratique du Québec have said on many occasions that, for Quebec to hold that symbolic pen, the rest of Canada would have to meet fundamental demands of constitutional change that differ little from those put forth by Robert Bourassa almost 20 years ago.
There is no other country among advanced liberal democracies that has such a flawed fundamental political contract, coupled with a federal political class that chooses to ignore the problem completely.
June 28 saw the election of a majority of sovereigntists occupying Quebec's seats in Parliament for the fourth time in a row.
Yet all the federal parties have said over the past four elections is that they understand Quebec's aspirations within the federal framework. Clearly, this posturing has not been enough to gain Quebec's trust. These parties have failed truly to examine their shortcomings with respect to Quebec over the years, and therefore have kept the rest of Canada blinded to one of its greatest challenges.
Sooner or later, Canadians must ask themselves when they will be ready to face this challenge -- either at the constitutional table or within the concert of nations.
Alain Gagnon holds the Canada Research Chair in Quebec and Canadian Studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Jacques Hérivault is co-ordinator of Quebec and Canadian Studies.