If you ignore the fact (no easy thing to do) they want to rip apart a pretty remarkable country for no compelling reason there has always been much to admire in the Quebec separatist movement. This has been true of both the Parti Québécois and even more of its federal sibling, the Bloc Québécois. The Bloc's platform, for example, is traditionally laden with concepts like social solidarity, social justice and concern for vulnerable peoples at home and abroad, and under the likes of René Lévesque and Gilles Duceppe (a former union leader) they indeed once lived up to admirable progressive ideals.
No more. On a series of issues both important in themselves and emblematic of the worrisome direction Canada and Quebec are taking, the Bloc and PQ have stooped to embracing retrograde positions based on flagrant opportunism.
Take the government's F-35 stealth-fighter plane deal. It will cost a vast fortune and yet no persuasive case for this choice has ever been spelled out, except for the powerful lobbying of both the United States and retired officers from the senior ranks of the Canadian military now enriching themselves in the private sector. Given the Bloc's usual response to public policy issues, a thoughtful, well-articulated opposition to this feckless deal was expected. In fact, however, the Bloc is an enthusiastic cheerleader for the F-35s, for no known reason beyond the number of aerospace companies located in Quebec. What we end up with is a surprising alliance of those two apparent arch-enemies, the Harper government and the Quebec separatists. But it's far from the only one.
Take two other touchstone issues, asbestos and affordable AIDS drugs. Any day now Premier Jean Charest will announce whether he will subsidize the re-opening and expansion of an asbestos mine in Quebec aimed specifically at increasing deadly asbestos exports to Asia, South America and Africa. If this scandalous venture goes ahead, it will, as sure as you are reading these words, lead directly to the deaths of workers in the countries who will be using it.
Unknown to the rest of Canada, a remarkable campaign has been going on in Quebec with the entire provincial medical and public-health establishment calling for an end to asbestos mining and exports. A recent poll showed the public has been moved: 76 per cent of Quebeckers opposed financing the mine with only 14 per cent in favour. Who this tiny minority includes may come as a shock. The strongest pressure on Mr. Charest to support the mine comes, incredibly enough, from the Quebec trade-union movement, in as great a betrayal of working people as can be imagined. The former president of the Quebec Federation of Labour was actually hired as the president of the registered lobby group for the Quebec asbestos industry, the Chrysotile Institute, which, as it happens, the Harper government funds. Solely because of the unions' position, the PQ and the Bloc, despite knowing full well the lethal consequences, support the continued export of asbestos. International solidarity with poor working people around the world, non! Solidarity with Stephen Harper, oui!
Then there's the disappointing Bloc position on attempts to streamline the Canadian Access to Medicine Regime (CAMR). This was once a well-meaning attempt to encourage generic drug manufacturers to supply low-cost AIDS drugs to Africa. But thanks to the pressure from the giant brand-name drug companies, it was rendered virtually useless. Yet CAMR can easily be made more viable, and when the House reconvenes next week, one of the first items of business will be an NDP motion to make it so. Another no-brainer for a Bloc that explicitly trumpets its concern for social justice for poor countries, n'est-ce pas?
But look again at the F-35 issue and how easily special interests in Quebec trump both social justice and commonsense. Besides aerospace, Quebec happens also to be rich in Big Pharma companies. Very Big Pharma. So big in fact that it's got the Bloc playing deadly political games on the AIDS drug issue. As of now, the Bloc intends to offer an amendment to the proposed NDP bill, a sly sunset clause whose effect will be to deter generic drug manufacturers from using the bill at all. Caving in to Big Pharma pressure, the Bloc may actually be prepared to undermine a reformed CAMR, with all that implies for those dying from AIDS in Africa. But they're doing so in a slippery way so they're not seen as being in bed with Mr. Harper and Montreal Liberal Marc Garneau (also on behalf of Montreal's Big Pharma industry) to frustrate yet another Canadian attempt to provide low costs AIDS drug to Africa. It's not too late for the Bloc to change its mind. But no one knows what it will take to get them to do so.
Finally, there is the unseemly and very dangerous role of both the Bloc and the PQ in the way they've been handling identity questions related to Canadian's minorities. Social solidarity means welcoming the world to Canada, and indeed Quebec has done that. But the PQ's stance toward these mostly visible minorities increasingly mirrors that of far-right immigrant-baiting parties in Europe that are threatening democracy and solidarity. Instead of being true to its progressive roots and leading the fight against all forms of racism and discrimination, the PQ is consciously exploiting the irrational paranoia and hysteria of Quebeckers against Orthodox Jews, Muslims (especially the handful of women who wear niqabs), and now Sikhs. It may be legitimate to question why someone who would be barred from boarding a plane wearing a small dagger could wear one in a legislature. But the lust with which the PQ pounced on the issue, and the demagogic way the Bloc picked it up for the House of Commons, is nothing less than creepy.
Once, Canadians outside Quebec and Quebeckers who chose Canada could at least say the two separatist parties shone with a certain integrity. They were honourable men and women. Now we know better, another sad development for a country desperately looking for integrity and honour in its political system.
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