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Stephen Harper: Now he's the champion of national unity

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Now we've seen everything -- Stephen Harper, who only a few years ago counseled Albertans to build "firewalls" around their province to protect it from Canada, has proclaimed himself the indispensable champion of national unity. Without him at the helm of a majority government, this one-time quasi-Alberta separatist would have us believe there will be no one to protect the country from a new round of sovereignist upheaval in Quebec.

In fact, I'd be surprised if Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois didn't regard a Harper majority government as one of the essential "winning conditions" for a sovereignty referendum should she succeed in becoming premier of Quebec in the next provincial election. The PQ is well ahead of Jean Charest's hapless Liberals in the polls, but an election does not need to be called for two and a half years.

A Harper majority government would be the most English Canadian-centred majority government since the Unionist (mostly Conservative) government of 1917 that imposed conscription during the First World War. That government's remoteness from Quebec inspired the introduction of the first ever resolution -- it was never put to a vote -- in the Quebec legislative assembly advocating the secession of the province from Canada.

Ever since the federal election of 1993 when the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois -- heirs to the disintegrating Progressive Conservatives -- won large swaths of seats in the House of Commons, a showdown between Alberta regionalism and Quebec nationalism has been in the making.

Reform leader Preston Manning -- Harper was a Reform Party MP -- saw the collision coming. Absurdly, he was fond of portraying himself as Canada's Abraham Lincoln standing on guard against the "peculiar institution" of bilingualism.

The tradition of the Alberta right flows from the Social Credit through the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance to Harper's Conservative Party of Canada -- not to be confused with John A. Macdonald's Conservative Party, formally the Liberal Conservative Party. No political tradition is as alien from the social values and culture of Quebec as the political steam of which Harper is a part. Just as the old Reformers knew that they could not abide bilingualism and Quebec -- this sentiment was one of the main reasons the Reformers broke away from the PCs -- Quebec nationalists know that they have nothing in common with the current federal manifestation of the Alberta right.

Nothing would fire up the engines of the aging Quebec sovereignists more than a Harper majority. They would make the case that Harper's Canada is remote from Quebec and everything the Quebecois aspire to.

That Harper took the lead in recognizing Quebec as a nation within Canada would make little difference to the Quebecois. Everyone knows that Harper's motive was to head off Michael Ignatieff who promoted the idea during his failed bid for the Liberal Party leadership in 2006.

In the winter of 1980, when Parti Quebecois Premier Rene Levesque was launching the first Quebec sovereignty referendum, nothing upset his plans more that the resurrection of Pierre Trudeau through his electoral victory over Joe Clark's short-lived PC minority government. Instead of facing Clark during the referendum campaign, Levesque had to do battle with Pierre Trudeau, a much more daunting proposition.

The truly hopeful development in Quebec during this election campaign has been the stunning rise in Jack Layton's standing in the province.

For six federal election campaigns in a row, the Bloc Quebecois has been dominant in Quebec. Now the Quebecois are turning in huge numbers to the NDP, embracing a progressive federalist party that could give them a voice in governing the country. Layton's breakthrough in Quebec has the potential to change the landscape of Canadian politics.

Harper's boast that he alone can keep the country together is merely the latest demagogic claim he has made in his desperate bid for a majority.

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