September 2012 Commentary

The Quebec Election and Canadian Defence

by J. L. Granatstein

The Quebec election results on Tuesday almost certainly put paid to the prospect of a secession referendum for the immediate future. With only a third of the vote and 54 seats, with opinion polls showing only 28 percent in favour of another referendum, Pauline Marois has lost the ability immediately to muster nationalist Quebecois for a third attempt at sovereignty. But the issue is not dead. This minority government will not last long, and if Mme Marois governs well, she has a good chance of securing her majority in the next election, likely next year. Her rancorous election speeches—which doubtless read better in the original German, as the late, great Texas columnist Mollie Ivins once said of another politician—will need to be stored away only until the next campaign.

Still, the prospect of a referendum has implications for Canadian defence and foreign policy. The possibility of a Parti Quebecois referendum victory has even more.

The PQ’s platform makes the right noises on defence and foreign policy, pledging to remain in NATO and NORAD and to enthusiastically support UN peacekeeping. But during the election campaign, Mme Marois attacked the Harper government’s supposed “warrior” mentality, its support for the F-35 fighter, its defence spending that metaphorically takes bread from the mouths of Quebec’s children. The reality is that no one in Quebec or outside it believes that an independent Quebec would want anything but the most barebones of constabulary duties for its military. That translates into either Canada or the United States assuming de facto responsibility for the defence of Quebec, responsibilities in which Quebec would have almost no say.  Certainly both Canada and  the US are unlikely to be willing to make Quebec a third member of NORAD.  There might also be opposition to allowing Quebec to join NATO. None of this may matter very much if there is no military threat to North America or Europe, but these conditions cannot be guaranteed to last forever.  Possibly bereft of alliances, certainly with its defences under others’ stewardship, how Quebecois could consider this independence is most unclear.

The impact of secession on the Canadian polity would also be severe.  Some other provinces might decide that Canada no longer meets their long term needs and seek statehood in the US or independence. Whole industries—the aviation business in Quebec built with federal subsidies, for example—would be lost to Canada. Ottawa’s power and status would be greatly diminished in every international organization (while Quebec’s, of course, would be minimal in every case), and keeping the United States friendly to Canadian survival and trade would become even more critical than it now is.

Moreover, the implications of a separate Quebec for the Canadian Forces are also severe. First, every francophone in the military would face a difficult personal choice—to go with his or her heart or head. The only possibility of a serious career lies with the CF, but Canada’s post-secession military would likely be English-speaking. It would certainly be diminished in size and talent if many or most of the francophones who make up 28 percent of the present CF left for the new republic’s quasi-military. Moreover, much of the CF’s  equipment and infrastructure in Quebec would accrue to the new nation, including bases at Bagotville, Montreal,  and Valcartier, and the Naval Reserve headquarters in Quebec City. The CF-18s at Bagotville—unless they were flown out before the referendum (as was done just before the vote in 1995) would fall into Quebec hands, as would the equipment and most of the personnel of the Ve Brigade—some one-third of the Army’s combat strength--at Valcartier.

And although we can scarcely bear even to think of this, the possibility exists that secession will spark violence that could escalate quickly into something approaching civil war. Quebec’s remaining anglophones, its unassimilated allophones, and its First Nations  are not likely to acquiesce silently to becoming Quebec citizens and to losing their ties to Canada. Some will surely press to separate parts of western Quebec, Montreal and the north, efforts that the new republic would be obliged to resist. Seeing their compatriots confronted on the evening  news, Canadians would certainly demand they be protected. A single misstep, a single rash act, could create a bloodbath.

None of these possibilities and calculations is new in 2012. All were considered and planned for in Ottawa and Quebec City in 1980 and 1995. Mme Marois and Company will have their hands full for the next few months, but It may be time for Ottawa’s planners to dig out those dusty draft plans and orders from the department’s archives once more.

J.L. Granatstein is a senior research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.


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