December 30, 2011

Milestone year for Canada

PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch

---- — It may be an admission of lack of imagination or narrowness to declare that the highlights of the waning year in Canada were mostly about politics.

In the case of 2011, though, there's little debate that it was an extraordinary year in the comings and goings of those who sought to govern the country, one that is likely to have an impact for many years to come.

There's a bit of a toss-up over what was the most momentous thing that arose out of the stunning result of the federal election in May. For the record, those main outcomes were: Prime Minister Stephen Harper winning a strong Conservative majority government; the left-wing New Democratic Party winning a huge number of seats in Quebec, enough to propel it to official Opposition status; the reduction of the once mighty Liberal Party to its worst showing ever; and the de facto obliteration of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, down to four seats.

As if this massive tectonic shift in the federal political firmament were not enough drama, there was the sudden, shocking and cruel death of New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, felled by an unspecified cancer at age 61.

Layton's death in August immediately forced a rethink of the longer-term prospects of the party he had brought to the doorstep of power, quite possibly forming an historic first New Democratic Party federal government come the next vote. The party's success was almost entirely based on the sudden affection Quebecers discovered for Layton's relentless optimism and socially progressive stance.

Whatever fate awaits the New Democratic Party, now in the midst of a leadership campaign, the fact remains Stephen Harper has a solid lock on power for four years, having already served as prime minister for five years in a minority situation. Based on actions taken so far, it's clear to political observers the prime minister fully intends to take the country in a new direction.

We can't ignore Quebec on the checklist of major developments on the Canadian political scene in 2011. The end of the year saw the creation of a new political party — Coalition Avenir Quebec — comprising disaffected elements from both the separatist Parti Quebecois and the conservative-leaning Action Democratique. Under leader and former PQ minister Francois Legault, the party offers a freeze on talk of Quebec separation and an agenda to streamline Quebec government.

An election is expected in the province, perhaps in the spring, in which Premier Jean Charest, unpopular in the polls but the wiliest of politicians, will likely attempt to derail the Coalition Avenir Quebec before it can establish itself as a credible government alternative.

Another development that deserves notice as a milestone and perhaps a portent of things to come is the fact Canada now has four female leaders of its 10 provinces and three territories. The newest is Alison Redford, who won the leadership of the long-ruling Alberta Progressive Conservative party in October.

The 46-year-old lawyer and former attorney general is a good bet to hold power in the election in the coming year and inherit the job of defending the province's oil sands project in the face of foreign protest.

Redford follows Christy Clark, who has led the British Columbia Liberal government since winning the party leadership in March. Her prospects for becoming B.C.'s first elected woman premier in 2013 are not as certain as Redford's, seeing as she faces stronger opposition parties.

Newfoundland and Labrador's Pat Dunderdale led her conservative party to a strong victory in October. She joined Nunavut's Eva Aariak in the small group of women who have won provincial or federal elections as leader. Aariak, an independent, came to power in 2008.

Aariak has quipped that with female premiers on the north, west and eastern coasts of the country, "the three seas are guarded by women."

While the emergence of female leaders may mark a "sea change" in Canadian politics, surely the major change driving the nation in 2012 will be Stephen Harper at the helm commanding a majority at full steam ahead.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at