THE TIME FOR DECISION
The time for decision is upon us. A referendum on Quebec sovereignty has been promised by the end of 1995. Will Quebec vote to separate from Canada? Quite possibly. And even if Quebeckers vote by a narrow margin to stay, the PQ's agenda will not disappear. What should Canada do? The Canadian government, seems to be unprepared even to acknowledge the situation. Prime Minister Chrétien said in an interview on Radio-Quebec in October 1994 that, "I will not spend a minute on the scenario of losing [the referendum]. I'm confident we will win the election...I don't have any Plan B [if Quebeckers vote to separate] because it won't happen."
No, you say. Québécois will never make up their minds. They will go on debating sovereignty endlessly. It is the talk, not the action, that Québécois revel in, particularly their politicians. They just love to rub English Canadian noses in it. Perhaps. That's certainly what happened the last time.
After being elected in 1976 with only 41 per cent of the popular vote, the Parti Québécois dragged its feet as long as possible, avoiding the issue at the heart of its existence. When it finally mustered up the courage to hold a referendum on separation, it was on a ridiculously long, 109-word question seeking a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association and promising another referendum before actually proceeding (a referendum within a referendum so to speak).
The PQ's less-than-heroic proposition was roundly rejected by 60 per cent of Quebeckers. Even 52 per cent of francophones voted no. But paradoxically, having rebuffed the PQ's program, Quebeckers turned around and returned the PQ to office in 1981 with even more seats and almost half of the popular vote. In 1995, the Quebec electorate could once again reject the PQ's raison d'être, while still putting its confidence in the PQ to provide the nationalistic, Ottawa-baiting government that Quebeckers seem to love.
Canadians have had enough of Quebec's incessant flirtation with separation. An obsession with the unity issue has long preoccupied the federal government and kept it from dealing effectively with the most pressing national issues of our times -- high unemployment, slow growth, out-of-control government deficits and debt, ineffective social policies, and much-needed tax reform.
Uncertainty about Quebec's political future has a high economic cost for both the province and Canada. Political uncertainty is reflected in interest rate premiums and a weak Canadian dollar. It is measured in decreased investment spending and lost jobs.
In a Globe and Mail article in September 1994, Reform Party Leader Preston Manning voiced the collective impatience of many Canadians: "What Canadians want, and I would assume Quebeckers want, is some resolution of this eternal struggling over our own unity. How can a country consume the energy and the time of its leadership that we've consumed and get into the 21st century if we keep continually asking whether we want to do it together?" Manning's interpretation of the views of Canadians was supported by his phone-in broadcast on national unity in October. Over 92 per cent of Canadians who participated in his non-scientific sampling of public opinion believed that the national unity crisis needed to be resolved soon.
A few impatient souls have gone so far as to call for Quebec to be thrown out of Confederation. Professors David Bercuson and Barry Cooper state in Deconfederation that "To restore the economic and political health of Canada, Quebec must leave." Peter Brimelow in The Patriot Game argues that "The Quebec issue in Canadian politics may become not whether Quebec will secede -- but whether it should be expelled."
While many Canadians sincerely want Quebec to stay in Canada, the last thing they want to hear on referendum night is Jacques Parizeau repeating Rene Levesque's words, "à la prochaine" (until the next time). Quebec must decide once and for all whether it is going to be in or out of Canada.
SOVEREIGNTY OR THE STATUS QUO
The choice facing Quebeckers in 1995 will be starker than ever before. They will be asked to choose between independence and Canada as it is. No promise of renewed federalism is being held out as in 1980. For better or for worse, Canadians ruled out constitutional changes to accommodate Quebec when they voted down the Charlottetown accord by the overwhelming margin of 54.4 per cent against to 44.6 per cent for. The accord went down in defeat from coast to coast in 7 out of 10 provinces. For their own reasons, Quebeckers rejected the Charlottetown constitutional accord by a margin of 55.4 per cent to 42.4 per cent. Politicians who suggest in 1995 that Canada be twisted into a constitutional pretzel on the off chance that these changes will convince Quebeckers to stay in Confederation for a few more years will likely get short shrift in the rest of Canada.
Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson, who will lead the Quebec federalist forces in the upcoming referendum, recogizes this Canadian reality and does not plan to offer Quebec voters an alternative to the status quo in the referendum. In his first news conference in October 1994 after the defeat of his government in the provincial election, he said, "The evolution of Quebec and Canada was accomplished within a constitutional document which has not really changed, except with the 1982 repatriation, and which has no economic and social influence to speak of. Therefore, the day-to-day lives of our fellow citizens with regard to job creation, economic development, the health of Quebec families and the level of education responds to imperatives which are not necessarily or exclusively tied to the number of commas that can be found in a sub-paragraph of the Canadian constitution."
Jean Charest, the interim leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, apparently not having learned any lessons from his party's disastrous defeat in the last federal election, has called for a "third option" of renewed federalism. Charest's plan includes making power-sharing deals with Quebec and other provinces in such areas as manpower training and entrenching them in the constitution.
Former Prime Minister Joe Clark, the man who negotiatied the Charlottetown agreement and has the scars to prove it, didn't learn much either, judging from recent his book, A Nation Too Good To Lose. While he is not calling for a further formal round of constitutional talks, he is proposing a sort of constituent assembly made up of "a group of credible Canadians to design a federation for the 21st century." The purpose of the project would be "to identify an arrangement which would encourage the citizens of Quebec to choose to stay Canadian" and "to keep the promise of the 1980 referendum" for renewed federalism. Clark, who still believes that decentralization is an essential aspect of renewed federalism, is particularly attracted to solutions that involve "asymetrical federalism" and "special status" whereby Quebec would get more powers than other provinces. He still supports the notion of "community of communities" that Pierre Trudeau loved so much to lampoon him for, calling him the headwaiter for the premiers.
The hardening of attitudes in the rest of Canada is evident in an Angus Reid/Southam survey taken in June 1994. Outside Quebec, 47 per cent of Canadians are willing to see Quebec leave Confederation rather than make further concessions. Only 44 per cent are ready to make concessions. And that was before getting jolted by the election of the Parizeau government.
A vote to stay in Canada as it is with no promise of renewed federalism would be the best possible outcome for Canada. It would mean that the sovereigntists would no longer be able to argue that the implicit contract between Quebec and the rest of the country was broken when the constitution was repatriated in 1982. In a real sense, Quebec would be endorsing the existing constitution. On the other hand, if constitutional renewal were promised, Quebec could always claim that promise was broken if the constitutional changes fell short of expectation.
A referendum defeat on sovereignty would be portrayed by sovereigntists as a crushing blow to Quebec aspirations. Québécois, they will say, will never be able to hold up their heads again. Knife-to-the-throat demands for more from the rest of Canada will be uncovered as hollow threats. The choice in the referendum will be presented as between humiliation and national pride. It will be a difficult choice for proud Québécois.
WEAKENING OF TIES BETWEEN QUEBEC AND CANADA
The relationship between Quebec and Canada, historically, has of course been difficult and since Confederation has been punctuated by periodic outbursts over issues such as conscription, schooling and bilingualism. But since the 1960s the weakening of the emotional ties between Quebec and Canada are accelerating rapidly. Many Québécois view the rest of Canada more as a foreign country than as part of their homeland. They are more likely to visit the United States than the rest of Canada, preferring the beaches of Maine and Florida to Jean Chrétien's beloved Rockies. Only when they go abroad do many Québécois admit to being Canadians. Their attachment to Canadian symbols has eroded. Rare is the Quebec school flying the maple leaf. Can young Québécois be blamed for thinking that the colour of their country's flag is blue and white, not red and white? O Canada has been greeted with boos at sporting events. (Québécois are not the only offenders. Singing the French words of our national anthem has been known to evoke similar intolerent responses outside of Quebec.)
The media plays an important role in keeping a country together. Or taking it apart. Quebec journalists and TV commentators are not strongly federalist and they will be responsible for screening and interpreting all the information passing to Quebec voters in the period leading up to the referendum. Some journalists outside Quebec have also contributed to the problem. The scene of Canadians stomping on the Fleur-de-lis flag in Brockville, replayed scores of times on Quebec TV, did more than any other single event to alienate Québécois.
Equally troubling is the penchant of Quebeckers, even the federalists, to focus on the purely economic aspects of relations between Quebec and Canada. Among francophone voters, the 1980 referendum was probably won more on the basis of the economic advantages of remaining in Canada than on strength of a commitment to Canada. The economic benefits of Confederation will also be the federalists' rallying cry in the 1995 referendum.
Federalism is always described as being a good deal for Quebec because the province gets access to Canadian markets, because Ottawa provides equalization payments and grants to Quebec or because the cost of leaving would be too high. It's what former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa dubbed "profitable federalism."
But the sad fact is that if you always have to justify a federation in terms of specific short-term benefits like fiscal transfers, government spending, jobs, tariff protection or grants, its days may be numbered. It is also a recipe for fiscal disaster if Ottawa always has to buy off the provinces to keep them in the federation. This is one of the main causes of our current deficit and debt crisis.
In the recent debate over manpower training, it's an article of faith in Quebec that the province must have jurisdiction over manpower training. Nobody, even federalists like the Quebec Liberals, dare to argue that it might be in the interests of all Canadians, including Quebeckers, for the federal government to have an important role in deciding the direction of manpower training. In the end, both federalists and separatists are vying to be the best defenders of "Quebec first." That a federal Canada has merits in and of itself is seldom if ever defended in Quebec.
What if federalism became really profitable for Quebec and the province ceased being a recipient of federal handouts and instead became a net contributor to equalization like the have-provinces of Ontario, British Columbia or Alberta? Chances are Quebec would soon start to complain about being forced to carry the welfare-case provinces. Separatists would surely seize on Quebec's financial support of other provinces to justify secession.
So in the end, the argument over what Quebec gets out of Confederation is a dangerous one if there is no fundamental belief in Quebec that there is a value in being part of Canada for its own sake, beyond mere financial convenience. If Quebecers are convinced that they're getting more money out of Confederation than they put in because they're poorer, it feeds into the separatist argument that Canada is an arrangement designed to keep Ontario and the West richer. If, on the other hand, they become convinced that they would be better off if they leave Canada, they'll be gone tomorrow.
Former Liberal Premier Bourassa typified the contradiction inherent in most Québécois. Bourassa's ambivalent persona was so essential to the ongoing Quebec drama that his retirement provided an opportunity to a younger, more naive stand-in, Mario Dumont, the Leader of the Parti Action Democratique du Québec. This is the party started by Jean Allaire, who quit the Quebec Liberals after the party dropped his controversial constitutional proposals. The Allaire proposals would have transferred most federal powers to Quebec, leaving Ottawa a shell to carry out such essential activities as defence, customs, currency and debt, and, of course, paying equalization to Quebec. While Dumont claims not to be a separatist, he plans to support the PQ in its referendum on sovereignty to get the leverage to strike a new deal with the rest of Canada. Whether this is unbelievable ingenuousness or cleverly disguised separatism, it certainly infuriates Canadians and will be used to maximum advantage by the separatists.
Daniel Johnson, Bourassa's successor, was a refreshing departure as premier of Quebec for a brief interlude: a Québécois who is not ashamed to say he is proud to be a Canadian. But that proved too Canadian for many in his party who pushed him to be more nationalistic as the 1994 election campaign progressed.
Regardless of what we may think of Premier Jacques Parizeau, we at least know where he stands. Not only is he not a Robert Bourrassa, he's not even a René Lévesque. Parizeau is a separatist "pur et dur" with one singleminded purpose in life, an independent Quebec. Even his new wife and official advisor, Lisette Lapointe, is a long-time PQ militant.
While federalists may take comfort from the slimness of Parizeau's margin of the popular vote (44.7 per cent to the Liberal's 44.3 per cent), the fact remains that he won the 1994 Quebec election and took a healthy majority of 77 out of 125 seats in the National Assembly. Parizeau has chosen a like-minded cabinet and will use his majority to push his separatist agenda for all it's worth. This was clear from the referendum strategy announced in December, which asks Quebec voters to endorse a declaration of sovereignty that will already be passed by the National Assembly.
From the time Jacques Parizeau joined the PQ a quarter century ago, he has consistently taken hardline sovereigntist stands and has gained a reputation as a separatist ideologue. (Ideological positions come naturally to him. He confessed to his semi-official biographer Laurence Richard that, as a student, he was briefly a member of the Communist Party.) In 1974 he opposed the "étapiste" strategy of PQ éminence grise (and sometime RCMP informant) Claude Morin that committed the party to holding a referendum on sovereignty if elected, rather than taking the election as a mandate to achieve independence. René Lévesque's contorted and weak 1980 referendum question almost provoked Parizeau's resignation. Refusing to take the "beau risque" of federalism, Parizeau quit the PQ in 1984. When he came back four years later as leader, his objective was to return the party to its original separatist program.
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien plans to take an active role in the Quebec referendum, but says it will be as "second fiddle" to Daniel Johnson. Having served as Trudeau's point man in the 1980 referdendum, he comes to the task with much experience. In fact, too much experience some would say, citing his role in the 1982 patriation of the Canadian constitution and his opposition to the Meech Lake accord, both of which didn't win him many friends among Québécois. While Chrétien is very popular outside of Quebec, he has something of an image problem in the province. Lacking Pierre Trudeau's personal appeal to Québécois and the grudging respect he gets even from nationalists, Chrétien can't count on his aura alone to turn reluctant sovereigntists into federalists.
The victory in the 1993 federal election of Bloc Québécois MPs in 54 of 75 Quebec seats, sweeping francophone ridings, established a mutual aggravation society housed in Parliament at Canadian taxpayers' expense. The Liberal government has had to face continually an official opposition committed to Quebec separation. Every issue is twisted by the Bloc to show what a bad deal Quebec gets out of Confederation. The closure of the Collège Militaire Royal as part of a cross-Canada base reduction exercise was pounced on by the Bloc as an effort aimed solely at closing the door on opportunities for francophones in the military. Not a word of protest was spoken by Bloc leader Lucien Bouchard about the simultaneous closing of Royal Roads in British Columbia or the thousands of jobs lost through base closures across Canada.
Bouchard has gone out of his way to be antagonistic. In a tour of Western Canada in May of 1994 to sell his book On the Record, his smug defence of the separatist agenda in speeches and on radio phone-in shows was designed to upset Canadians. His statements were so outrageous that Premiers Harcourt, Klein and Romanow countered with statements likely to offend Quebeckers. No sooner had Bouchard returned to Ottawa than he added fuel to the fire by telling a closed-door meeting of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce that the West could be annexed to the United States if Quebec separates. Bouchard's trips to Paris and Washington provided occasions for further inflammatory remarks.
The way Bloc MPs draw federal salaries and expect generous federal pensions while working to undermine Canada offends most Canadians. Comments by Bloc members that they may stay around in Parliament even if the separatists lose the referendum smack of opportunism.
Prime Minister Chrétien's hesitation in meeting the new Quebec government's demand to be compensated for the cost of Quebec's separate referendum on the Charlottetown accord unleashed a torrent of abuse from the Bloc. Parizeau has his own plans for Quebec and has served notice that his government will only participate in the federal-provincial meetings and policy reforms that suit his purpose.
As frustration with Quebec separatists builds, there is bound to be a backlash in the rest of Canada. The exchanges between Bouchard and the Western premiers illustrate how easy it is for the decibels to rise. Anti-Quebec incidents could occur and the mutual antagonism could feed upon itself. How can we keep everyone cool in a charged environment and avoid an exchange of insults?
Bouchard himself has been transformed into a folk hero of mythic proportions in Quebec by his close brush with death. The outpouring of sympathy by Quebeckers showed how well-loved and respected he is in Quebec. He has assumed the place of René Lévesque in the hearts of Quebec nationalists. If he is able to participate in the referendum campaign, he will be a formidable opponent and a tremendous asset for the separatist cause.
READY OR NOT
In a recent CBC Newsworld interview, Prime Minister Chrétien acknowledged that the federalists had no strategy for the coming referendum, but he said that in 1980 the federalist side did not get organized until 45 days before the referendum. "We started 10 points behind and ended 20 points ahead."
This time it is the PQ that is starting from behind, according to pollsters. They only won the election with under 45 per cent of the vote and many of those who voted PQ were voting only for a change of government, not the PQ's sovereigntist platform. When the last referendum was held in 1980, they didn't get any more support in the refererendum than the 41 per cent of the vote they got in the previous election. Why should it be any different this time? Post-election polls show support for sovereignty still in the same range. Even at the height of the post-Meech upsurge of sovereigntist sentiment, support for independence barely touched 50 per cent, and for the more slippery concept of sovereignty, 55 per cent.
Yet there is no reason for federalists to feel over-confident. The Parti Action Democratique will be a wild card in the referendum. If its leader Mario Dumont throws his support behind the PQ, how many of his supporters will go along? The 6.5 per cent of the vote his party won in the provincial election could be enough to take the PQ over the top.
The pollsters may be right in saying that the PQ will not win the promised referendum on sovereignty. But it is still much too early to make a definitive call. Public opinion is volatile and will be influenced by unexpected developments. We shouldn't sell short Premier Parizeau's resolve to make Quebec an independent country. Nor should we underestimate the potential for relations between Quebec and the rest of Canada to go downhill.
Since the failure of the Meech Lake accord in June 1990, Quebec has carried out a systematic and thorough program of research on the political and economic consequences of separation. Initially organized by Liberals, the effort has been bipartisan, bringing Liberals and péquistes together in the service of the greater national cause of Quebec.
The Bélanger-Campeau commission set up in the fall of 1990 by the Quebec government in the aftermath of the Meech Lake debacle examined all the issues that must be resolved prior to separation. So did a Commission of the Quebec National Assembly, backed by many reports from almost every economic, political, and legal expert in Quebec and a few from outside thrown in for good measure. When Quebec representatives come to the bargaining table to take Quebec out of Canada, they will be fully briefed and ready to negotiate. For some, it will be the climax of their careers, having devoted their lifetimes to little else but dreaming and scheming about independence.
No equivalent preparation has been carried out in the rest of Canada. There is a low state of readiness to deal with a Quebec government armed with a referendum victory on sovereignty. Like the reluctant partner in a divorce, Canadians are still stuck in the stages of denial or anger.
There are major obstacles to a rational examination of our choices. The federal government remains the government of all Canadians, including Quebeckers, and cannot officially contemplate the break-up of the country lest it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As for the provinces, they can't very well take the lead on national issues. As it stands now, we won't study the issue until the break-up of Canada becomes a fact. By then, it will be too late to defend our essential interests.
Canadians outside Quebec must put aside their denial and anger and recognize that we don't have to wait for Ottawa to define our interests and to develop our positions on key issues. We have to make our own preparations without government. In that way, if the time to act comes, a consensus can be built quickly in Canada and well-informed leaders will be ready to step quickly into the breach.