Thursday, March 08, 2007

Book Review: Chantal Hébert's Blind Date disappointing, but still good

Book Review of French Kiss: Stephen Harper's Blind Date with Quebec

by Chantal Hébert, Published by Knopf Canada

This is a disappointing work by one of Canada's sharpest political pundits. It is not well organized. It rambles. It has little new information or research. And its title is somewhat misleading - it's for the most part just another tome on Quebec's place in Canada. Still...

Hébert has a considerable and loyal following who are hooked on her regular analysis in the Toronto Star, where she is the parliamentary affairs columnist. There, she is a very bright light in an increasingly dull and Pravda-like broadsheet.

Yet with this book, she has missed a great opportunity to fulfill the expectations of her loyal readers. This is not 250 pages of thoughtful and substantiated analysis. Instead, we get a book that comes across as a series of her columns just grouped together, with a sexed-up title that bears only passing relation to the content of the book.

Still, Chantal Hébert on a bad day is far more entertaining than other political authors like Hugh Segal or Graham Fraser on a great day. Even her ramblings are worth reading. Consequently I am recommending this book, with the caveat that she can do much better. In particular, Hebert's take on Québec federal politics is both nuanced and memorable.

She sets out to fill in the now standard narrative of how Stephen Harper, after being elected Leader of the new Canadian Conservative Party in 2004, took the road less traveled and deliberately began working to woo Francophone Quebec into the federal Conservative fold in a plan that would take more than two years to come to fruition.

Her approach is bemused but respectful. Respectful in that Harper is given real credit for seizing an opportunity by reaching out to Francophone Quebec in 2004. Bemused, because Hébert thinks it's like a blind date, and one that will end when the lights come on. She argues that once Quebec Francophones really get to know the Federal Conservative Party, they will reject it as entirely alien to their more social democratic and collectivist point of view.

Well, perhaps that's expected from a Toronto Star writer. Less expected are Hébert's counter-intuitive ideas about how the Bloc Québécois has actually made a positive contribution to Canada through its engagement of the Federal government in the House of Commons. She argues that it is through the Bloc's constant engagement of the government that the Canadian Federation is forced to debate Quebec's independence movement, and make counter-moves.

Through this democratic engagement, Hébert argues, the federal government developed a better plan to deal with the aspirations of Quebecers for greater autonomy. Whether it was through confrontation like the Clarity Act, or through regular infusions of cash to fund the Quebec welfare state, she argues that much of the energy of the sovereigntist movement has been largely dissipated and Francophone Quebecers now feel a growing confidence in their linguistic and economic status in Canada. A clear sign of this progress is that we are now seeing a compelling three-way race in the Quebec provincial election, where the arrival of the conservative Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) has added a reforming dimension to formerly static contests between the entrenched Quebec Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois.

This is not a first rate Canadian political book at the same level as the recent Right Side Up by Paul Wells. Nor does it dish out great inside information as have recent tomes by Eddie Goldenberg and Allan Gotlieb. Regardless, this may be the best popular analysis of 2006 federal politics in Quebec in print, despite its shortcomings, and for that alone it is worth reading.