Canada

The churlish factor

Susan Riley April 14 1980
Canada

The churlish factor

Susan Riley April 14 1980

The churlish factor

Canada

Susan Riley

Six months ago, behind closed doors, a prominent federal MP from Quebec—now a cabinet minister-shocked his caucus colleagues by suggesting they all vote “yes” in the Quebec referendum, thereby neutralizing the Parti Québécois’ glamorous and apparently successful campaign. The bold proposal brought immediate sharp intakes of breath, then uproarious and dismissive laughter. But there hasn’t been much joy in the federalist camp since. In fact, several Quebec backbenchers are frankly worried that the “yes” forces are winning the referendum, and no number of showy public appearances—like the massive pep rally of federalist forces co-chaired by Claude Ryan and Jean Chrétien in Montreal last week, or Ryan and Pierre Trudeau’s intimate luncheon in Ottawa Friday—are going to turn things around. In their sudden anxiety some federal MPs have even publicly criticized Claude Ryan’s efforts—criticism that spurred last week’s flurry of public fence-mending. But others believe they have all been outsmarted by the PQ, which has fashioned a question so innocuous that to say “non” seems impossibly churlish.

Their problem now is how to salvage the “non” campaign, and the answers that started emerging in Ottawa and Montreal last week illuminate some very basic differences within the oncemonolithic Quebec caucus. On the one hand, some of the new, younger backbenchers—like Jean Lapierre from Granby, Que.—are urging against any “panic” or massive federal intervention. The youngest MP on the Hill, 23year-old Lapierre is the awesomely industrious protégé of Quebec’s ranking ward heeler, André Ouellet. Lapierre’s own organizational abilities are so highly regarded that he was sent to Frontenac riding to work in the recent federal byelection, and it was there that he picked up some disturbing intelligence, hanging around a local arena dressed in his blue jeans “looking like anything but an MP.” Some Liberals, he discovered, plan to vote “yes” in the referendum to give Quebec its mandate to negotiate, then they plan to toss out René Lévesque’s negotiating team and elect Claude Ryan in the next provincial election. It is a scenario Lapierre heard repeated often enough that he started to worry. Since then he has been buttonholing everyone from Ouellet to caucus godfather Marc Lalonde, warning: “If we give the referendum too much importance, if we say it is a hidden vote on independence, then it gives it too much authority.” He hardly needs add: “What if we lose?”

There is another concern among a number of the new Quebec MPs (“the class of ’79”), one they allude to with utmost delicacy. They are afraid some of the old-guard pioneers of French power—people like Jean Chrétien—will provoke a backlash in Quebec if they continue their almost fanatical denunciations of the Parti Québécois. Chrétien—and to a lesser extent, Lalonde, Ouellet and even Trudeau—have made eradication of separatism a lifetime mission. Chrétien, in particular, is personally and viscerally anti-PQ. (He complained once in an interview that some PQ ministers who come to Ottawa have looked down on him because of his accent—when talking French.) That isn’t a passion shared by some of the younger Quebec federal MPs who are closer to the PQ in age and outlook—and who have lived almost four years in René Lévesque’s Quebec. “A lot of those guys [Chrétien, Lalonde, Trudeau] moved to Ottawa 15 or 20 years ago,” says one. “They’ve gotten out of touch with Quebec and it’s a real problem.” That kind of remark ignites the highly inflammable Chrétien, who has shown no sign so far he will moderate his message.

Such a remark would also have been unthinkable a few years ago, when the Quebec caucus kept all its disagreements en famille. As a result it came to be regarded as a monolith, and unflattering stereotypes sprang up: Quebec Liberals were either zipless, navy-blue

lawyers of the André Ouellet variety or compromising yokels. “When I first came to Ottawa,” recalls one cabinet minister, “I remember asking the man next to me how he came to be a Liberal, and he said: ‘Why, I was Jean Lesage’s chauffeur.’ ” By contrast, the new breed is well educated and often ambitious, and after a few heady months in Opposition last year, when back-benchers were on an equal footing with cabinet ministers, they are reluctant to sink

back into oblivion. One of them is Dennis Dawson, bearded, blue-eyed and bilingual, a Quebec City MP first elected in 1977. After Trudeau resigned last fall, Dawson and others circulated a declaration of neutrality signed by 19 Quebec back-benchers who were tired of being £ treated in the media “like merchandise i to be delivered to this candidate or that, g by Marc Lalonde.” a

For Dawson, Pierre Deniger, Lag pierre and several other promising í

young MPs, Quebeckers will only have true equality in Ottawa when they have influence in economic as well as linguistic and cultural areas; when they can comfortably disagree with their English-language colleagues rather than constantly tiptoe around ancient prejudices. It is partly this new selfconfidence that has prompted the current battle over which fighter plane Canada should buy—the McDonnell Douglas F-18 favored by the military, or

the General Dynamics F-16, which promises greater industrial benefits to Quebec. But, ironically, national unity has become central to this allegedly economic debate: some Montreal-area MPs are claiming that if the federal cabinet doesn’t choose the F-16, Ottawa will lose the referendum.

Apart from the F-16, the federal Liberals have one other piece of heavy artillery: Pierre Trudeau. He emerged from his luncheon with Ryan on Good Friday in a combative mood, a green wool Napoleonic cloak draped over his shoulders. But there wasn’t much substance beneath the bombast or the brotherhood. Trudeau said he will make a speech in the Commons on the referendum, and he will speak in Quebec if invited. The relatively low profile could mean one of two things: Trudeau is listening to young bloods in Ottawa and Quebec City who are warning against a heavy federal hand in the referendum, or he doesn’t want to risk his personal credibility in a losing cause.

In the end, it looks as if the federal battle will be fought, as usual, by the infantry; people such as Jean-Claude Malépart, a portly, unilingual former tobacco salesman from working-class East Montreal who recently told a meeting in his riding: “Why leave your

child one home when you can leave him 10?” But even someone animated by his great optimism and sincerity faces an overwhelming challenge: how to convince people to say “non” to such an innocent question.