Canada

THE FEAR MERCHANTS

David Thomas May 12 1980
Canada

THE FEAR MERCHANTS

David Thomas May 12 1980

THE FEAR MERCHANTS

Canada

David Thomas

Sometimes the bogeymen are just laughable. One elderly secessionist, for example, got a bit carried away evoking the enemy in the damp chill

of a Magdalen Islands meeting

hall: “Look at the English ganging up to crush us,” Octave Turbide boomed into the microphone, blissfully unmindful that his offstage prompter and organizer of this “yes” rally is an authentic anglophone called Edward Bantey. But Turbide’s overenthusiasm notwithstanding, the spectres being conjured up by both sides in Quebec’s venomous referendum campaign are becoming hellishly cruel.

Just last Friday, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, on his first big foray into the campaign, compared Premier René Lévesque to Cuba’s Fidel Castro

and Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. That was only a few hours after “no” leader Claude Ryan had made his first naked accusation of fascism against “yes” partisans. Exhibiting photographs of defaced federalist billboards, Ryan urged voters not to be intimidated by such acts “which resemble fascism—and I employ the word deliberately.” The fascist theme was evoked earlier in the week when, before 1,000 Montreal anglophones, Conservative Peter Blaikie paraphrased German theologian Martin Niemöller: “When the Nazis came for the Jews, I did not stand up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics; I did not stand up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to stand up.” Blaikie denies he meant to equate “oui” leader Lévesque’s Parti Québécois with Nazism— “If anybody writes that I’ll beat his goddamn head,” he warned reporters after his speech—but his words resounded

I across language lines to distress immii grant minorities and outrage many g French-speaking Quebeckers. Q So far, in the streets, spring-melo lowed Montrealers were still smiling £ and confining their division to the choice of blue “oui” or red “non” buttons. But the politicians, often impelled by personal enmity, mercilessly exacerbated Quebec’s old, endemic fears of assimilation, racism, totalitarianism and economic collapse. Referendums are designed to divide and the legacy of trepidation left by this one will take years to soothe.

The essential, underlying issue is

fear. Only because French-speaking Quebeckers fear for their society’s future as a separate minority within Canada will there be a vote May 20. But, because they also fear for their economic security, the vote will not be a straightforward choice between federalism and independence. Instead, Lévesque’s government is catering to both fears by proffering the cultural security of independence and the economic assurance of a retained Canadian dollar. Lévesque’s self-righteous protest that “no” campaigners are fearmongers, rings hollow when compared to his “yes” movement’s manifesto which sets out as the first reason for sovereignty: “To ensure our cultural and social security, surrounded by an anglophone sea.” And the same manifesto warns direly that a “no” would be “a break in Quebec’s historical continuity and a refusal of equality. It would imprison us in the status quo and risk choking off our future.” Such threats to a people engrained with the ethic of la survivance are subtler than federalist doomsaying and may be more effective among most francophones.

But the crude emotional clubbing of pensioners and immigrant communities does seem to be working: federalists, including Health and Welfare Minister Monique Bégin, declare an independent Quebec will not be able to maintain supplementary cheques to poorer pensioners. Ryan has compared Lévesque’s government to Moscow’s Kremlin, as well as hinting that the PQ has affinities with fascism: “I’ve said repeatedly that some of their methods are dangerous and are a source of concern to me. I am going to keep repeating that.”

Dark portents usually point to Cultural Development Minister Camille Laurin, father of Quebec’s restrictive language legislation and, strangely for a man who is the focus of non-francophone distrust of PQ nationalism, the minister responsible for the integration of minorities into the French-speaking mainstream. Laurin’s British-born ethnic adviser, David Payne, confided to Maclean's last week: “This Nazi business is really hurting us.”

Moments later, the spokesman for the “yes” committee ethnic section, Ottavio Galella, complained to 100 followers about “the terrible fear campaign [that is] almost forcing us to hide ourselves,

like the first Christians, from the verbal bombardment of our 1980 Neros and Caligulas.” Then psychiatrist Laurin himself rose to diagnose “irrationality and hysteria” among his opponents: “The supreme insult aimed at us during the past few days is that which suggests a Quebec living in a regime of equality — sovereignty-association — would resemble a dictatorship.” The real totalitarians, he said, were Trudeau’s federalists: “Don’t forget the activities of

the RCMP in October, 1970, when, to chase down about 30 terrorists, they raided 5,000 homes, arrested more than 1,000 persons without warrant and put mothers and fathers in prison without informing their children.”

That fits with Lévesque’s description of Trudeau’s 1970 imposition of martial law as “a political operation to crush Quebeckers,” but Laurin himself has a less than shining reputation as a champion of individual rights. Shortly after taking power in 1976, the PQ government fired road-repair workers in a largely English-speaking region bordering Ontario because they could not speak French. Just last month, Laurin made a quirky attempt to dispel the racist reputation which sticks to him like tar. Pre-empting the transport ministry, Laurin personally announced $4 million worth of highway projects for the lower north shore of the St. Lawrence River, where most of the isolated population is anglophone.

But Laurin’s call to arms drips with dread at the consequences of a continued Confederation: “Quebec will vote ‘yes’ because it prefers equality to subordination, dignity to collapse, liberty to trusteeship, a leap forward to retreat, pride to humiliation, majority status to minority status, self-fulfilment to the exhausting conflicts which reduce our creativity, prosperity to federal handouts, a place in the parade of free nations to the ghetto in which it has been confined for a century by the federal system.”

As if to join in the referendum campaign, the cover of the Paris newsmagazine Le Point last week blared from newsstands across the province: QUEBEC IN DANGER OF SLOW DEATH. Inside was a report on Quebec’s worrisome birthrate—now the lowest in Canada— and a projection that Quebeckers will drop to 23 from 27 per cent of the Canadian population by the end of the century. That demographic scare is used by Lévesque to justify the urgency of choosing. Perhaps recklessly, poker player Lévesque is calling his own side’s prolonged bluff. Voters must show their strongest cards, or fold their hands and slink from the table: “The referendum will be interpreted as the reply to the famous question, ‘What does Quebec want?’ To answer ‘no’ is to say everything is perfect. A ‘no’ will take away from us all power of negotiation.”

The same fear of assimilation surges

forth when pro-“yes” hecklers accuse Ryan of being “a second Lord Durham.” Ryan is enraged by comparison to the colonial governor who recommended the deliberate anglicization of French Canadians after the abortive 1837 rebellion. Protests Ryan: “It is to accuse me of genocide against the French race. It is a monumental accusation.”

Federalists, too, dip into the past for campaign inspiration: Senator Jean Marchand told 300 voters in Quebec City that a “yes” result “would be one of our worst moments in history—it would be worse than the defeat on the Plains of Abraham.”

Such excesses, like guns abandoned by the enemy, are quickly turned around by “yes” campaigners. Among them, an affirmation by “no” orator Michèle Tisseyre: “A ‘yes’ will lead to the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Quebec and the risk of American reprisals. Quebec would become a Cuba of the north with a dollar worth only 30 cents, which would affect trips to Florida as much as it would old-age pensions.” Then there was federal MP Léopold Corriveau’s mysterious assertion: “Fifty per cent of Quebec farmers will disappear if there is a ‘yes.’ ”

Parti Québécois leaders are experienced at defending against campaign scares. The first big blow was the socalled “Brink’s Coup” on the eve of the 1970 provincial elections. Now part of Quebec political lore, the cavalcade of Brink’s trucks carrying securities from Montreal to Toronto was considered by PQ partisans to have been a deliberate plot to put a financial scare into the electorate.

This time, the first weeks of the “yes” campaign concentrated on proving Quebec’s economic autonomy because, Lévesque said, “That’s where they’re always trying to scare us.” His economic development minister, Bernard Landry, reassures both mind and body: “We now produce 32 kinds of cheese—if that continues, we’ll soon be more civilized than the French.”

Most importantly, the federalist use of fear to divert votes from the PQ is responsible for the government’s softsell referendum strategy which has so obfuscated the objective of independence that many voters are genuinely confused. Now, even the phrase “sover-

eignty-association” has been dumped in the PQ’s garbage can of banned expressions. The operative euphemism for independence is “equality.” At best, the government’s anti-fear strategy is paternalistic; at worst it implies a contempt for the electorate’s ability to

g choose between clear alternatives. z> Some, like Montreal Mayor Jean Dra£ peau, simply refuse to take sides pubS licly, ostensibly better to heal post-referendum wounds: “Old friendships

chill, ties are broken. Contempt, bitterness and hatred invade spirits and hearts. What sadness, what sadness.” Drapeau’s public abstention may be motivated by a personal fear of his own: that of being on the wrong side on the morning after, May 21—an uncomfortable place for a politician dependent on provincial authorities for his budget and power.

A whole new set of fears is poised to pounce in post-referendum Quebec, parg ticularly in the too likely event that a §5 majority of francophones vote “yes” but 5 the “no” of minority groups denies the g government a victory. “It would require K very steady nerves,” Lévesque told a group of anglophone Jews. “Anglophones who vote ‘no,’ like francophones who vote ‘no,’ shouldn’t expect us to thank them.” And Ryan says a majority “no” among both language groups is essential “if we want a verdict strong enough so that we don’t have to repeat this in a second or a third referendum.”

That prospect is enough to strike fear into anyone’s heart.