Our next governor general exposes our mediocrity

Michaëlle Jean may yet prove an excellent governor general. But her appointment has dramatically underlined a major source of pervasive mediocrity in Canadian public life. Because clear thinking about Quebec tends to be alarming, our politics is dominated by people who don't think very clearly. It's irritating to have another vice-regal consort who dresses and thinks like a campus socialist. It's worse that, in 1991, Ms. Jean's husband Jean-Daniel Lafond filmed her joining in a toast to "independence." But her, and our, big problem is that, as Paul Wells wrote in Maclean's, "In some circles last week it was fashionable to write off" both his films and her toast as "an expression of the ideological flexibility that is as fundamental a part of life in Montreal as a jaunty disregard for traffic signals. Everyone in Montreal finds himself at a table full of sovereigntists now and then, according to this analysis. Anyone might, finding himself at a polling station after a morning stroll, take it into his head to vote 'Oui' instead of 'Non.' What of it?"

What indeed. Here's the question we can't even ask. Not the comparatively harmless one whether Ms. Jean was a good choice for governor general, but the far more alarming one whether it would matter if she had flirted hard with separatism. If the answer from one part of the country is that destroying Canada is something any decent person might seriously have considered, and from another that the proposal is outrageous, it could lead to real trouble.

There's growing suspicion out Lethbridge way that much of the great debate since 1968 has taken the former view for granted, and has concerned only whether Canada can be salvaged by making it far more like Quebec or whether it's unredeemable so Quebec should get out now. In 1999, Pierre Trudeau's son Justin told the television program W5 that his father's philosophy, "and certainly he has passed it on to us, has always been that Quebecers are better than the rest of Canada. A lot more of us are bilingual, bicultural, a lot more awareness of the rest, and that's a richness. Who's to say we should need special protection?"

If that's the real "federalist" option in Ottawa as well as Montreal, you can see why it hasn't been presented clearly out in Alberta. If not, if the real position has been that Quebec should stay in Canada and get with the program, you can see why it hasn't been presented clearly in the Saguenay. But you can also see the pernicious long-term consequences if a frank presentation of the choices would drive mainstream Quebecers into the separatist camp in a heartbeat, provoke a hearty "Then let them go" from the hinterland, or possibly both.

It's tempting, instead, to start by not talking about it and end by not even thinking about it. But then politics becomes increasingly congenial to people not troubled by difficult questions, even oblivious to them.

A division of opinion so fundamental it threatens to split the country creates a political climate in which the profoundly shallow flourish. It is particularly dangerous to the political careers of those with enough wisdom and courage to understand the central question, but not enough to accept that it cannot be fudged. Thus it clears the stage for genuine mediocrities who are far less prone to fail in politics by tripping over fundamental issues or quit politics because they cannot bear the stress of avoiding them.

Survey our political landscape and tell me that's not what you see. Petty bluster over softwood unencumbered by strategic realism is just one small symptom of our lack of memorable oratory or compelling vision. The fear, that either offending against or frankly acknowledging mainstream Quebec aspirations will destroy the country, long since reduced our statecraft to such blither as "Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription." The issue is everywhere from Iraq to gay marriage, and nowhere: We even ignore our history, lest we should blunder onto the Plains of Abraham.

I do not suggest recklessly enflaming public feelings, and respect people reluctant to dispute Ms. Jean's appointment because it was raised by hard-core separatists for precisely this purpose. I have no easy solution to the problem. But drifting into a crisis is even more dangerous than striding into one.

Ms. Jean did not create the problem. But she underlines how hard it has become to fudge the question whether it is obvious that Canada must be transformed or else demolished. And how shamefully mediocre to try.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson