The Referendum Debate

Where there’s a national will, there’s a way-but is there a national will?

Robert Lewis February 6 1978
The Referendum Debate

Where there’s a national will, there’s a way-but is there a national will?

Robert Lewis February 6 1978

Where there’s a national will, there’s a way-but is there a national will?

The Referendum Debate

Column by Robert Lewis

Ever since the Parti Québécois election there has come forth in Canada a fusillade of devices aimed at restructuring the country. But the only common note has been opposition to the status quo. We have had the “New Federalism” of Pierre Trudeau, the “Third Option” promised by PépinRobarts, the sovereignty-association of Lévesque-Morin—all of them, so far, vague and unpromising.

From private citizens there has been a plethora of proposals, many modest, some downright outrageous. There have been eloquent pleas, on the one hand, that we love one another and, in contrast, that we simply agree to an amicable divorce; that Ottawa buy off Quebec with goodies, or alternately that we Creightonize the province by cutting it adrift.

Perhaps the most inelegant of all came when the Task force on National Unity arrived in Halifax and a woman tabled, not her hopes for the future but a piece of feces. “I thought it was a piece of chocolate,” JeanLuc Pépin, cochairman of the task force, chuckled the other day with characteristic insouciance. Privately, the managers of the federalist cause tend more to bittersweet assessments of the enterprise ahead.

The harsh truth is that, despite a 15-month exercise in national consciousness-raising since the PQ victory, French and English in this country are still seas apart. In English Canada the crisis often is dismissed as some sort of media plot, hatched on the Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec axis. There is, in English Canada, too little compassion, too little sense of urgency and a stupefying ignorance of the historical grievance that fuels the march of the Parti Québécois.

In Quebec, where the outcome of the debate will really be decided, en famille, momentum and energy are still with the PQ. To be sure, the government’s honeymoon is now over and it has made enough blunders to appear defeatable in the normal manner. There is, as a result, a new bounce in the strides of the federalist opposition forces (increased by Claude Ryan’s bid for the Quebec Liberal leadership) which contrasts sharply with the doom and panic following November 15, 1976.

The Sun Life announcement that it is packing up without a struggle only strengthens the Parti Québécois mes-

sage that independence is inevitable.

The erosion of the federalist will in Quebec can also be glimpsed, telltale, in the actions of the francophone elites as they interact with their government in Ottawa. Phillipe de Grandpré, the Supreme Court’s brilliant right-wing jurist, quietly slips from the Ottawa scene after only 3Vi years on the bench, impatient with chief Justice Bora Laskin, whom he regarded as a “mindless centrist.”

The same dropout factor is evident to

the federal headhunters in Quebec. Since the PQ victory there are more regrets in response to offers of judicial appointments or seats on federal boards, commissions and task forces. “They’re sitting on their hands,” laments one senior Ottawa francophone official.

Meanwhile, in Anglo Canada, there is a parallel lack of passion and commitment, starting at the senior levels of governments that ought to know better. In Ontario, for example. Premier Bill Davis eschews a visible role in the unity debate and. more Brampton lawyer than statesman, he marvels at the list of new French school openings. What he doesn’t see is that the delivery falls tragically short of the promises made in 1967 by his predecessor, John Robarts, now Pépin’s cochairman.

In Edmonton, Premier Peter Lougheed sits smugly behind his desk, fondling the new levers of oil power, and waits for the best offer, instead of hitting the national banquet circuit to preach accommodation. Like Davis, Lougheed concludes there are no votes at home in bonhomie these days.

Selling Canada is something both men leave to Pierre Trudeau.

Trudeau, meanwhile, has unwittingly or cunningly emerged as the preeminent nation-saver. The strongest voices in his cabinet are gone. From his Anglo ministers there are only exceptional interventions in the referendum debate. In Trudeau's personalized showdown with René Lévesque the shrill, militaristic rhetoric of both sides stops just short of “body counts” and “incursions.”

As a result of all the bombast, the collective circuitry is dangerously overloaded.

By default this has left Pierre Trudeau to carry the federal cause. It is Trudeau who defines the terms of the debate (after me, he threatens, find someone else), who proposes the solutions (a greater voice in the Senate and Supreme Court is in the works for the provinces, whether they like it or not). But after 10 years of Trudeau, when we have less unity, not more, should there be only his way?

Pépin has discovered that, in large measure, the answer is yes, as far as the Prime Minister is concerned. He and Robarts paid a call on Trudeau several weeks ago to pitch their concept of a “Third Option,” an approach somewhere between what we’ve got and what Lévesque proposes. Trudeau listened skeptically—then, the very next day. ridiculed the notion in the House of Commons. Pépin was horrified.

The same solo performance by Trudeau has been evident on a number of other occasions. When Trudeau, for example, offered the provinces a plan to entrench minority education rights in the Constitution, he did so without consulting his own cabinet. Trudeau’s reason, apparently, is that in the fight with Lévesque, the polls tell him that he is in a strong personal position.

But what happens if Pierre Trudeau is wrong? The trouble with his high-wire act is that all of us could end up in the pits. What he should have, instead, is a broader range of opinion, including that of leaders in English Canada who could then mobilize their supporters instead of allowing them to doze. Without more heat and light for federalism Trudeau will continue to swagger toward a High Noon with Lévesque. But the spectators may not survive.

Robert Lewis is Ottawa bureau chief for Maclean’s.