As usual, Calgary author Ezra Levant said it best without perhaps fully appreciating the significance of what he'd just said.
"The average age would not be 25 for a right-wing event in Alberta," Levant told about 500 conservatives gathered in Quebec City last week for the founding meeting of the Reseau Liberte Quebec (Quebec Freedom Network). "I feel like an old man."
Levant spent 75 minutes last Saturday morning delivering his trademark snappy patter on the horrors of human rights commissions, the grim litany of threats to free speech in this country and the evils of acquiescing to the "fascist theocracy" of militant Islam.
Yet, it was his ad lib exit line on the youthful composition of the audience, and his own relationship to it, that stood as his most compelling observation.
Only 14 years ago, after all, Levant was one of those mid-20 somethings at Calgary's Winds of Change conference, which he helped organize with David Frum.
Ultimately, the Winds of Change set in motion the generational shift among Canada's conservatives that the Quebec Freedom Network hopes to stimulate in la belle province. Out of the Winds conference, a whole crop of 25-year-olds stepped forward to ease their elders aside and reunite divided conservatives. Just so, the under-30s in Quebec City may be the force to shift Quebec society in a direction it desperately needs.
No one would pretend the 1996 gathering in Calgary, like last weekend's meeting in Quebec City, was anything but a tentative first step. It took a decade of false starts, electoral disasters and wound healing for fractured Canadian conservatives to forge an effective coalition within Stephen Harper's Conservative Party. The time frame is a realistic one for conservatives in the Quebec Freedom Network to keep in mind if their end is power and not just talk. The Quebec network's long-term goals remain unclear. None yet knows whether it will be a Tea Party North talking shop, seek to re-energize the troubled Action democratique du Quebec provincially, or help create a new political party.
Still, as with Winds of Change, there was an unmistakable feeling of something significant having begun in terms of organizers' stated ambition of shifting Quebec's political dialogue from the insular polarity of sovereigntist-federalist disputes to the left-right axis conventional in modern nation states.
As political philosopher Frederick Tetu told the audience, the binary proposal of either sovereignty or federalism has left zero space or energy to debate the kind of economic renewal Quebecers desperately need.
Discredited socialism remains entrenched within Quebec because the fixation on federalism versus sovereignty has left no time to challenge the left-nationalist orthodoxy that only the state can protect the nation.
Maxime Bernier, the Conservative MP for the Beauce region south of Quebec City, pointed out the poisonous paradox that after 50 years of debate, and two torturous referendums on "the national question," Quebec is economically weaker and more financially dependent on Canada than when sovereignty first emerged as the primary political option.
In fact, he argued, the "two nationalisms of Canada and Quebec" have reinforced each other in a codependency relationship that was toxic to the economic growth and genuine autonomy of the province.
"Successive governments in Quebec have undermined our autonomy by demanding more and more from the federal government," Bernier said. "They want independence, yet they are more dependent than ever."
Quebec, he said, need only insist on respect for the autonomy it's already guaranteed in the Canadian Constitution. The result would be a Quebec that regains legitimate constitutional autonomy within a united Canada, thereby allowing Quebecers to see their fellow Canadians as compatriots, not threats.
Such talk naturally affronts the left-nationalist orthodoxy that created and sustains the so-called Quebec model of omnipresent state intervention in both economics and culture. In what has become de rigueur behaviour for Quebec's intellectually exhausted leftists, a handful of them responded by trying to disrupt the Freedom Network gathering, dumping manure on the front steps of the hotel where it was held, scrawling slogans in a washroom and conducting a noisy protest.
Here, however, Levant again stepped out as the unrealized embodiment of the shift in Quebec that those behind the Freedom Network seek to represent. The unilingual Calgarian, called upon to address an audience that was almost unanimously francophone, tossed off his telling observations and trenchant one-liners entirely in English. And no one batted an eye.
Fifteen years ago, there would have been showy walkouts, or at least audible hissing, had a Quebec political movement been kicked off by a speech from a high-profile anglophone unable to speak French in Quebec City.
Last Saturday morning, though, they applauded even when Levant asked such pointed questions as: "How did Quebecers forget their lineage of freedom?"
Wouldn't it be wonderful if a group of 25-year-old Quebecers, inspired by winds of change coming from Calgary, reminded their political class of the true meaning of the motto je me souviens?