28 August 2017

The Quebec Demon #nlpoli #cdnpoli

The fancy word for it is revanchism.

People who study words and language call it a borrowed word, meaning that we use it in English but got it from the French word.  In this case, it is the French word for revenge.

People familiar with history are most likely to associate the word revanchism with the struggle between France and Germany that lasted from 1870 until 1945.  The Prussians defeated the French in 1870 and took two territories – Alsace and Lorraine – that many in France wanted back. 

Desire for revenge for regain of the lost territories was an important aspect of French policy against Germany at Versailles in 1919.  The tension between the two countries lasted until, after another world war,  Germany was simply destroyed as a single country and France got the territories back.

When Kathy Dunderdale worked herself into a froth in 2012 about Quebec she was basically expressing a particular Newfoundland form of revanchism.   Pam Frampton’s recent column on Muskrat Falls mentioned Dunderdale’s speech to the party rally in Gander and quoted a bit of James McLeod’s story on the event.

Pam talked sincerely about the belief among a great many people about the source of the revanchist sentiment, namely the 1969 power contract.  Pam also repeated the myth that Quebec makes about a billion dollars a year by reselling the power from Churchill Falls while we get a pittance. 

Pam wrote that she’d “hate to think Muskrat Falls was predicated primarily on a desire to give Quebec the finger; in other words, on passion and not rationality. But it’s a question worth considering. “

“We’ve all seen how the other anticipated assumptions driving the project — a surge in demand for electricity, a mining boom, rising oil prices, the need for rate stability — have not been borne out,”  Pam wrote.  McLeod wrote in 2012 that “up until now, the government’s message has focused primarily on stable, low-cost electricity rates for Newfoundlanders, and the benefits of being able to sell excess power to mainland customers, or use it to power mining developments in Labrador.”

Indeed it is worth considering the question of Quebec and Muskrat Falls.  And it is also worth considering why it took Pam so long to notice this thread in the rationale for Quebec.  After all, both McLeod in 2012 and Frampton this month talked about other reasons that were supposedly driving the government to build Muskrat Falls.

After all,  you need only go back to the announcement in November 2010 when Danny Williams announced his political exit strategy was in place.  “A day of great historical significance,”  Williams called it,  “as we move forward with development of the Lower Churchill project, on our own terms and free of the geographic stranglehold of Quebec which has for too long determined the fate of the most attractive clean energy project in North America.” 

Of all the things Williams could have said about this project,  the sweetness of revenge is what Williams chose to be his first quote about the development deal.  For its part, rather than question Williams’ comments,  the Telegram editorial on the project gushed with praise:

In stepping down from office Thursday, Williams is leaving at the top of his game. Only a week ago, he announced terms of a partnership with Nova Scotia’s Emera Inc. to build a generating station at Muskrat Falls to transmit power from Labrador to the island and across the Gulf to the Maritimes.

It’s not the megaproject everyone envisioned, but it represents a long-time goal few believed Williams could ever achieve: Lower Churchill power without Quebec.

Revenge against Quebec was an enduring theme of the Conservative policy going back before 2003.  To highlight the contrast between himself and Roger Grimes,  Danny Williams had vowed to develop the Lower Churchill with Hydro-Quebec only if the deal included redress for the 1969 agreement.  In 2006,  Williams rejected a development proposal from Ontario and Quebec for the Lower Churchill in order to go-it-alone.

And in 2009, when Hydro-Quebec forced Williams to call an emergency session of the legislature to withdraw a clumsy effort to screw with the 1969 contract,  Williams launched into an intense period of verbal attacks aimed squarely at the mythical enemy in Quebec.  In the House of Assembly,  Williams dismissed his opponents as “Quebec lovers” while his cabinet and back bench hooted, laughed and cheered. They even introduced a resolution in the House of Assembly that prompted Kevin O’Brien to utter the immortal one that all “we” wanted was “fairity”.

Everywhere he went,  Williams saw the evil hand of the imaginary enemy.  There was a plot to block Labrador power from getting across to the United States.  That was Williams explanation when the Quebec energy regulator rejected a string of appeals filed by Nalcor over transmission.  Williams attacked Hydro-Quebec over its efforts in Quebec.  He ranted about Quebec in the United States and to anyone who would listen.

Two years later,  during debate about Muskrat Falls-related legislation,  all that members on the House on all sides could talk about was Quebec.  On one day alone,  the word ‘Quebec” appears in the Hansard transcript no fewer than 200 times, with Hydro-Quebec appearing another 32 times.

When you run through the entire history of the Lower Churchill project and Muskrat Falls for the people behind it, you have to wonder when was it not about revenge against Quebec?

For its part, the conventional media never questioned the issue once.  That’s not really surprising since the myth of Quebec is an integral part of the post-1970 nationalist ethos that grips so much of the province and its people.  The Quebec Enemy is an article of faith among so many groups in Newfoundland that the conventional news media in the province took every government utterance as gospel, without question. In some instances, they either challenged contrary views, ignored the contrary evidence that was immediately in front of them,  or – in the case of the secret talks Kathy Dunderdale revealed – refused to even mention that she’d talked about them. 

Newfoundland revanchism is no less nationalist than any of the others, nor is it any less aggressive than other examples seen around the globe even if it doesn’t involve violence.  Revanchism was a key part of government policy through the 1970s and 1980s and, at least on some level, it remained part of the government policy after 2003.   You have to say “on some level” because of the efforts the provincial government apparently made to get Hydro-Quebec to buy into the Lower Churchill, without redress.  At the very best it was a dog-whistle to get the faithful into line behind the government.  At worst,  it was something that ministers and officials seriously believed as they approved hundreds of millions of dollars in legal actions and ultimately billions in Muskrat Falls.

That is really a testament to the power that lives in the myth of the  Quebec Demon. So pervasive is it,  so potent is its grip on the minds of so many Newfoundlanders that it took until 2017 for someone in the conventional media in the province to realise that something was wrong.  What they should wonder is why they  - and pretty well everyone else in the province – is now trying to reinvent the past and their role in bringing the province to the brink of financial disaster.