The Referendum Debate

Quebec’s ‘freedom’ is a vital concern, but freedom itself is that and more

Margaret Laurence April 17 1978
The Referendum Debate

Quebec’s ‘freedom’ is a vital concern, but freedom itself is that and more

Margaret Laurence April 17 1978

Quebec’s ‘freedom’ is a vital concern, but freedom itself is that and more

The Referendum Debate

Margaret Laurence

In the Canadian unity debate, what is beginning to concern me greatly is the question of civil liberties and civil rights. We now discover that the Security Service of the RCMP has been carrying out, for some years, a host of illegal activities. Our Prime Minister tells us that he doesn’t want to know what the RCMP is up to, and he doesn’t think we should want to know, either.

Is the RCMP then to be allowed to be a virtually autonomous force, responsible only to its own concepts of what may constitute a national threat, and using whatever methods its top security officers may deem justifiable? Even to contemplate such a setup frightens me a lot. Among our aspirations for our country, is the formation of a police state really one? The revelation that the RCMP acted in 1971 as agenta provocateurs, with a false communiqué purporting to come from the FLQ, inciting violence, does nothing to reassure me.

And what are they up to right this minute in Quebec? Pierre Trudeau may not be curious, but I certainly am.

The notorious War Measures Act, too, has again reared its unlovely head. The act can, by a cabinet decision, deprive all Canadians of their civil rights.

Mr. Trudeau says he would not be “shy of using the sword if something illegal is attempted by the province of Quebec.” He speaks proudly of his use of the War Measures Act in 1970. Surely most Canadians would now concede that in 1970 no national crisis happened; the FLQ was not a broadly based revolutionary organization. Y et hundreds of innocent citizens were imprisoned and held without either bail or trial. The history of the War Measures Act is not an honorable one.

Admittedly, Mr. Trudeau, in reference to the possibility of again invoking the act, was speaking of circumstances in which the Parti Québécois might attempt to seize federal property. But as far as I know, the PQ has never suggested even the remote possibility of such a thing. So why the talk of the War Measures Act? Why the metaphors of war?

With elegant timing, the now defunct Le Jour then published a report by a former army officer, now a separatist, on the need for Quebec to have its own army. As it turned out, the report had been done two

years earlier and on the ex-officer’s own initiative, but no doubt it added more fuel to the fire. So does the process of escalation take place.

I worry about the rights of anglophones in Quebec, about the rights of minority groups, whether they have lived there a long time or not, not only those of English descent, of course, but the Jews, the Italians, and all the others. I also worry greatly about a denial of their right to have their children educated in the English

language, if they should want to do so.

But can anyone deny that the Québécois have been short-changed in their own area for generations? Or that the language rights of francophone Canadians in other provinces have been virtually ignored? Only one province in anglophone Canada, namely New Brunswick, is officially bilingual. Premier William Davis has made it clear that he isn’t going to be in a hurry to make French an official language in Ontario. In my native province of Manitoba, the large French-speaking community lost its language rights—education, in the provincial legislature, in the courts—after a prolonged and bitter struggle in the late 1800s. The record, in English-speaking Canada, of guaranteeing language rights to the other founding nation in the country has been consistently abysmal.

René Lévesque says that if the Quebec referendum goes against separation, he will not feel bound by it. Trudeau says that if the Quebec referendum goes in favor of separation, he will not feel bound by it. What have we here? Who are these men

who would so blithely go against the expressed will of the total population of Quebec if such expression went against their own hopes? What is the point in asking the people of Quebec their view if, whichever way this goes, it will be ignored either by the federal or by the provincial government? Both these leaders are declaring a basic disregard for the will of the people.

I do not think it is too late to remedy old wrongs. But if this land is to remain one, it certainly cannot do so under the present form of federalism. Any new constitution will have to recognize the fact that the Québécois are a nation, bound together by ancestral roots, culture, language, religion. It will also have to recognize the legitimate and longtime grievances and needs of other regions—the West Coast, the Prairies, the Atlantic Provinces, and above all, the grievances, needs and rights of the native peoples, who have suffered more injustice than any other people in this land. But such discussions, if they are to have any chance of success, must be done with as much calm and mutual respect as can possibly be brought to bear.

I believe that without Quebec this country would be poorer in spirit and in culture than it is, or than it has the potential of becoming. I do not, however, believe that without Quebec this country would disintegrate and fall prey to the United States. The one unthinkable thought to me would be the use of violence to keep Quebec within Confederation. If an external invader attacked my country I would be prepared to defend it to the last breath, but as a citizen I would never willingly see violence used to keep in Confederation any part of this country that did not want to remain. I would grieve if Quebec were to part from the rest of Canada, but I have to state unequivocally that the entire cause of Canadian Confederation would never be worth the life of my son or of any of our sons on either side.

Whatever the future holds for us, both Canadians and Québécois, we must surely try to understand the reality of one another and to honor one another’s differences. We must be aware of our civil liberties ; if we are not willing to speak up and defend them, one day they may not be there.

Author Margaret Laurence lives in Lakefield, Ontario.