BUSINESS WATCH

The re-election of a barefaced opportunist

For Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, the idea that Canada should be valued instead of audited counts for very little

Peter C. Newman October 9 1989
BUSINESS WATCH

The re-election of a barefaced opportunist

For Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, the idea that Canada should be valued instead of audited counts for very little

Peter C. Newman October 9 1989

The re-election of a barefaced opportunist

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

At the climax of last week’s Quebec election campaign, Liberal Leader Robert Bourassa flew into Granby, 65 km east of Montreal, to make an important announcement: if re-elected, his government would fork over $3.9 million for a new monkey house at the local zoo.

That was one of the few sensible promises in an otherwise bleak campaign that confirmed the Quebec premier as un homme de la situation, politely translated as barefaced opportunist. On the one hand, Bourassa refused to endow separatism with any misty dreams of refighting the defeat on the Plains of Abraham; on the other, he would not commit himself to any notion of federalism beyond its crassest, bottom-line terms. The countervailing forces of give and take, the idea that the Canadian nationality should be valued instead of audited—such considerations count for very little in the Quebec premier’s lexicon of values.

Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau reasonably speculated that the reason independence had not become much of an issue was because “there is no federalist party involved in the race.” In fact, according to a Centre de recherche sur l’opinion publique poll taken just before the Quebec election, fully one-quarter of Quebec separatists said that they would vote Liberal, and Claude Morin, the PQ functionary who conceived the separatists’ 1980 referendum strategy, predicted that it would be Bourassa, not Parizeau, who eventually would take the province out of Confederation. “If the polls go in the direction of independence, Bourassa will bend that way too,” said he.

It all comes down to Quebec’s new religion: language. It was Bourassa’s betrayal of his own 1985 electoral promise to restore bilingual signs on the streets—plus his rejection of three court injunctions upholding bilingual signs— that triggered Quebec’s current crisis by invoking the Constitution’s “notwithstanding” clause. Yet the effects of his action only strengthened Parizeau, who pointed out that the root of Quebec’s problems had always been

For Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, the idea that Canada should be valued instead of audited counts for very little

bilingualism, “which engenders collective schizophrenia, self-doubt and confusion . . . now, our lives become increasingly computerized, and computers speak English.”

By using the “notwithstanding” clause to overrule the Supreme Court of Canada judgment that had struck down the province’s discriminatory language law, Bourassa endangered the social contract as most Canadians know it. The clause could just as easily be used to limit the hard-won freedoms in the Charter of Rights, including such fundamental notions as protection for religious freedom and rights of assembly.

On election night, the premier attacked the newly formed Equality party for disturbing “the linguistic peace in Quebec.” In other words, “linguistic peace” now means no political voice for the province’s 775,000 anglophones, who incidentally outnumber the population of three provinces. His rejection of Quebec’s minority rights is in tune with Bourassa’s earlier opposition to the plea of 60,000 Franco-Albertans to run their own Frenchlanguage schools. Recently, in the Supreme Court hearings involving the battle by the Franco-Albertans to run their own schools, Bourassa intervened to oppose their demand.

He came out shooting against his compatriots’ deep longing to preserve their mother tongue—and it was only Ontario and New Brunswick that dug in on the pro-French side.

By his words and actions, Bourassa has turned the 1969 federal Official Languages Act, which was supposed to be the model of a new, more enlightened bilingual Canadian society, into a dead letter. Its spirit, which meant that one man’s meat was another man’s poisson, cannot survive when there are so few left to defend it. Bourassa’s dismissal of English rights in Quebec and French rights outside Quebec is a betrayal of the many brave Anglo parents and their even braver kids, who highdived into French-immersion classes and wrapped their WASPish tongues around French irregular verbs. Maybe all those aunts never did have any pens ....

Bourassa’s attitude is doubly idiotic because the reason French-Canadian culture is threatened has nothing to do with language and everything to do with the decline of the Catholic Church’s influence and the popularity of late-night TV. The absence of alternative nocturnal entertainment in rural Quebec once gave the province the world’s highest birth rate. It’s now down to 1.4 per woman, nearly one-third the pre-television totals. This may be the first time in history that Johnny Carson and his cohorts can be accused of genocide.

The next step in the Bourassa-Mulroney gavotte will be one final effort to revive the Meech Lake accord, with its troublesome “distinct society” clause. What was originally thought to be a rhetorical flourish turns out to be loaded with constitutional dynamite. Can a distinct society have distinct social, political and legal institutions? Quebec’s minister of intergovernmental affairs, Gil Rémillard, certainly thinks that it should and has already suggested that provincial ambassadors would be sent abroad to promote that distinctiveness and that the province would reach far deeper into such federal fields as broadcasting, banking and other jurisdictions.

Despite the threats and counterthreats, the Meech Lake accord remains essential to the future of this country, if only because Quebec will never again demand less to remain within Confederation. Brian Mulroney was probably right when he told Peter Gzowski in a recent Morningside interview that if there ever is another referendum on an independent Quebec, “every Canadian watching the vote come in will be saying to himself or herself: ‘My God, we could have avoided all this by ratifying Meech Lake and making Quebec a full partner in Canada.’ ”

Quebec premiers have always faced the painful option of how to remain loyal to their province while not betraying their country. But in the end, that choice has had to be made. I remember once asking Jean Lesage, the Liberal premier who started Quebec’s Quiet Revolution back in the 1960s, whether he considered himself a Quebecer or a Canadian first. His face flushed, his jaw worked, he glanced at my poised ballpoint, then he exclaimed: “Hell, I’m a Canadian. That’s my nationality.”

I doubt if Robert Bourassa would dare give the same reply.