Canada

The five-per-cent decision

David Thomas May 19 1980
Canada

The five-per-cent decision

David Thomas May 19 1980

The five-per-cent decision

Canada

David Thomas

All was going according to plan

until, at the

end of René Lév-

esque’s pitch, the old

folks didn’t applaud. They had been lured to the parish hall in the village of St-Pierre les Bequets by the promise of a card party. Bewilderment

showed in their faces when the

premier arrived with his entourage of journalists and the portable cheering section accompanying his Tuesday ramble through Lotbinière County. It was then, when St-Pierre’s skeptical Golden Age Club refused to clap for the cameras, that Lévesque’s “oui” bandwagon seemed to lose a wheel.

By Friday, “non’’leader Claude Ryan was confident of over-all victory May 20, but it was improbable that he would achieve the crucial majority among Quebec francophones without which, even he admits, the referendum will not be decisive. Half of French speakers intend to vote “yes,” and only 38 per cent “no,” according to the final campaign poll commissioned by Radio-Canada. Such disquieting arithmetic carries the potential for post-referendum discord among the province’s estranged cultural communities: it is because of overwhelming “no” support among nonfrancophones that the polls indicate an over-all five-per-cent lead for Ryan’s side. That lead could widen by voting day since the dominant profile of “no” and undecided voters coincide: nonfrancophone, over 55 and poorly educated. But the “no” coalition also includes French Quebec’s old economic and social elite, and nowhere was the cleavage among francophones more obvious than in Quebec City Wednesday night when each side mobilized in a show of force. In working-class Lower Town, 7,000 francophones, young parents, teachers, professionals, unionized workers and students celebrated that, even without Lévesque’s presence, a mass “oui” rally could outdraw all the political luminaries of the “non ” camp. The simultaneous federalist meeting was under way, fittingly, in Upper Town, and its 6,000 voters who came to hear the heroes of unity were notable for their greater age and the proof in their garb and gait that Confederation had been good to them.

Onstage, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Claude Ryan stood smiling to-

gether, for the moment allies but soon to become adversaries if Ryan attains power and fights for radical redesign of Canada. Their appeal was surprisingly ethnocentric as they set themselves up as the true defenders of French Canada. Trudeau, who passed up the Belgrade rendezvous of world leaders attending the funeral of Josip Broz Tito, said he chose to be in Quebec City “not because you need my help, but because I felt the need to be among family tonight.” He disparaged the referendum question because it left to others the power to accept or reject economic association. But independence, said Trudeau, “is something which, in the end, only Quebeckers can decide.” In his referendum stance for home consumption, Trudeau

upheld himself as a champion of French-Canadian rights: “It takes more courage to stay in Canada and fight it out for our rights than to withdraw within our walls.”

Even Trudeau fell into the shadow cast by the evening’s star performer, timbrel-voiced Jean Lesage, whose term as premier from 1960 to 1966 earned him his reputation as “Father of the Quiet Revolution.” Lesage, now 68 and practising law, boomed: “I am proud of my homeland Quebec, but my country is Canada.”

After Lesage’s old-time eloquence, Ryan’s always dull delivery fell especially flat. The next day he self-righteously defended his campaign style before the Canadian Club of Montreal, saying, “My approach is based primarily on the intelligent judgment and goodwill of the ordinary citizen.” He ridiculed Lévesque’s media-oriented campaign—“One day he is seen on TV in the company of a couple of cows, the next with some workers in a factory”— and claimed to have been seen by 200,000 people (there are about four million voters in Quebec). Ryan warned his anglophone audience that May 20 will not purge Quebec of conflict: “There is a deep-rooted malaise in this province which will not go away after the referendum, no matter what the result.”

According to Ryan, Quebec’s internal

conflict reaches deeper than the choice between federalism and secession or the tension between language groups: “Basically, I think we are faced with a conflict between the more traditional cultural values we inherit from the past and the new culture of the Quiet Revolution which the Parti Québécois represents most visibly. It centres around nationalism, technocratic values and a great importance placed on class struggle, the central Marxist theme which has made great inroads in our society.” Reconciling the two currents is the

post-referendum challenge, said Ryan, painting himself as the conciliator but without promising results: “We don’t know how this thing is going to turn out.”

Secessionist leaders, however, dared predict catastrophe should they fail to triumph. An exodus of capital was predieted by Energy Minister Yves Bérubé because a “no” would revive hard-core nationalism and social ebullition. A similar scenario was sketched by former Union Nationale leader and “yes” convert Rodrigue Biron, who warned 1,000 rural dwellers in St-Agapit that

refusal would mean “six or seven years from now, our young will have their say and it may strike violently and bring us real separatism.” That prompted a committed secessionist in the audience to whisper: “Let’s hope the ‘no’ wins.” Such anti-separatist rhetoric from the “yes” side fits with a proposed campaign battle plan leaked a year ago. Publicly disavowed by Lévesque, it was penned by prominent party member and television actor Doris Lussier, best known for his role as the country rube Oncle Gédéon of the erased but unforgotten serial The Plouffe Family. Wrote Lussier: “The only efficient way to reassure [voters] is to wage a spectacular anti-separatist campaign.” Official or not, the strategy has been carried to its most flagrant extreme by PQ National Assembly member Gérald Godin (see Profile, page 12) who told a synagogue audience: “We despise separation

so much that we want to have common institutions with Canada to make sure our friendship with that country will last.” Lussier also advised: “It’s the assurance of association that removes the fear of sovereignty. We have to play on that sentiment whether we like it or not. The only way to achieve independence is never to talk about it.”

The flaw in that scheme is that it can’t prevent the others from talking about it and, as the campaign entered its last week, it appeared that this step in the PQ’s strategy of gradualism could become a serious stumble. Late Friday Lévesque promised he would urge his own partisans to accept a defeat, even should it be caused by a solid “no” from minorities: “We’re in a democracy and everyone’s entitled to a vote whether he speaks English or French and from wherever he comes, so we would have to accept the result. But if it should happen that way, if a clear majority on the French side is denied the solution it wants, the situation will be a bit sticky and will require good, steady democratic nerves.”