AFTER APPEARING TO WIN THE PITCHED BATTLES OVER UNITY, CANADA MAY INSTEAD BE LOSING THE PEACE
STORM CLOUDS OVER QUEBEC
AFTER APPEARING TO WIN THE PITCHED BATTLES OVER UNITY, CANADA MAY INSTEAD BE LOSING THE PEACE
Twenty years ago this autumn, the atmosphere in Quebec was thick with a nationalist fervor that, the following year, would explode into the October Crisis. Already in 1969, a wave of bombings had damaged targets as diverse as Montreal’s elite Reform Club and the home of the city’s mayor, Jean Drapeau. In June, the annual St. Jean Baptiste Day parade turned into a frenzy of rioting and looting. A decade later, the violence was absent, but there was no less emotion when then-Premier René Lévesque, speaking in the town of Alma, 175 km north of Quebec City, on Sept. 22, 1979, first delivered a speech that he would make dozens of times in the coming months, urging Quebecers to reject Canada in a referendum. Across the country, the clear threats to Confederation provoked a decade of national soul-searching.
The political landscape in the autumn of 1989 appears transformed. What fire there has been in the campaign for the Sept. 25 election in Quebec has been sparked largely by environmental concerns and a dispute over public service salaries—issues that could as easily arise almost anywhere in Canada. Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau has campaigned on a separatist vision more radical than Lévesque’s ever was—to shrugs of indifference in the rest of the country.
Danger: That may be partly because of the widespread expectation that Quebec’s avowedly federalist Premier Robert Bourassa and his Liberals will defeat the PQ handily. But in greater part, it may result from the assumption outside Quebec that the tide of separatism, stopped in the streets in 1970, was turned back for good at the ballot box in the 1980 referendum.
But there is a growing sense that the comfortable view is wrong; a suspicion, in fact, that after appearing to win the pitched battles over unity, Canada is in danger of losing the peace. Peter Desbarats, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario in London, and the author of several books on Quebec, recently
surveyed federalist veterans of the referendum debate and found, he says, “more pessimism than at any time in the last 20 years.”
In July, Gallup Canada-Inc. polled 1,034 Canadians and uncovered the highest level of support for Quebec’s separation ever recorded: 28 per cent openly favored breaking up the country. Canadians willing to abandon Confederation are easy to find. “I hear more and more people saying, ‘If they want to go, let them,’ ” remarked James McNairn, 53, a Halifax retiree who spent 31 years in the Canadian military. “It will be a burden off our backs.”
It is a stunning culmination to three decades of enormous change. Since the death of Quebec’s Union Nationale Premier Maurice Duplessis 30 years ago this month, Quebec has weathered terrorism and social upheaval to emerge as a secular, sophisticated and urban society, firmly in control of its distinctly Québécois culture and economy. Canada as a whole has shaken off most of its remaining British affiliations and adopted a political ethic based on the multicultural citizenship that is increasingly evident on the streets of its major cities. The shadow of the War Measures Act has lifted from relations between Quebec and the rest of the country, to be replaced by the Meech Lake accord.
Rights: Still, mutual incomprehension and distrust often sour the dialogue between Quebecers and their fellow Canadians. And on few topics are those differences deeper than Meech Lake’s “distinct society” clause. It is a phrase that Bourassa and other Quebec federalists say accurately describes the cultural reality of their province but that critics claim may allow Quebec’s leaders to ignore the rights of individuals and minorities. Those competing views have reinforced Parizeau’s nationalist appeal to Quebec voters. And they seem certain to complicate Bourassa’s goal of securing the accord’s endorsement if he emerges as the winner after next week’s election.
It was Liberal Premier Jean Lesage who set Quebec’s so-called Quiet Revolution in motion in the 1960s. Lesage wrested control of French education from the Roman Catholic Church and took privately owned electric power companies out of the grip of their mostly anglophone shareholders. In 1964, refusing to join the new Canada Pension Plan, Lesage instead created a distinct Quebec plan with its own pension fund, the Caisse de dépot et placement.
In the wake of those innovations, young Quebecers began for the first
time to learn more in school about science than about philosophy. Hydro-Quebec became a training ground for young francophone engineers and managers. And the Caisse began to bankroll the ambitions of Québécois entrepreneurs. At the end of 30 years, a new, Frenchspeaking elite has largely supplanted the anglophone business class that once dominated the province (page 25).
Insecurity: Lévesque’s government completed Quebec’s transformation. In July, 1977, PQ Culture Minister Camille Laurin introduced sweeping legislation to restrict the use of English in business and limit access to English education. Laurin declared at the time, “We are going to proceed by helping what is French and by restricting what is not.”
Laurin’s Bill 101 provoked outrage among anglophones, but it had its intended effect. The English signs that had seemed to belie Montreal’s status as the second-largest French-speaking city in the world disap-
peared. French became the first language of business. More subtly, the bill removed the cause of a pervasive insecurity that for decades had fuelled resentment toward English Canada. Following the PQ’s defeat in 1985, Bourassa did not tamper with the law’s central provisions. “Language is not a purely rational question,” he said, in explaining that decision to Maclean’s. “To change Bill 101, for a lot of French Canadians, would be affecting cultural security.”
Canada has changed equally dramatically in the same years, but along a different course. While Quebec acted to preserve and assert its cultural identity, so-called English Canada dismantled many of its remaining connections with Britain—and embraced an ethnic variety that defied a single cultural description. Some changes were symbolic: a new flag retired the colonial Red Ensign, and the word “Royal” disappeared with the unification of the Armed Forces in 1967.
But other changes altered the character of the country much more profoundly. The federal government adopted official bilingualism in 1969. Unofficially, Canada has become multilingual as well as multicultural. By 1987, Asians, South Americans and Caribbeans had overtaken Europeans to make up three-quarters of the country’s immigrants. After the Constitution was changed—over Quebec’s significant protest—in 1982 to include a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it was used repeatedly to challenge what remained of British cultural dominance and to champion the equal rights of the country’s emerging tapestry of ethnic minorities.
Threat: The result is that Quebecers and other Canadians find little common ground on some critical elements of the Meech Lake accord. Among francophone Quebecers, its distinct-society clause is seen as an affirmation of their right to the advances that they have won over the past three decades—in particular, the right to protect their language. Canadians elsewhere, attuned to the demands for recognition of many cultures, tend to regard the clause as a threat to the rights to diversity guaranteed in the charter.
Language brings those different perspectives into their most painful conflict. Edgar Norman, a 36-year-old Vancouver labor lawyer, expressed a view of Quebec’s language laws that seems to reflect the opinion of much of English Canada: “The impression is that the English minority has not had its rights.” At the same time, Arthur Silver, a former resident of Montreal and a g specialist in Quebec’s development, pointed out that 3 many French Quebecers “feel themselves a threatened I group; most would not agree that Bill 101 was a s fundamental violation of the freedom of speech.” Said I political scientist Laurent Dobuzinskis of Simon Fraser I University in Burnaby, B.C., of the two views: “What is “ regarded as an unmitigated good by English Canadians is regarded as an unmitigated bad in Quebec.”
For Jacques Parizeau, that is one more reason to abandon Confederation. As he told Maclean’s, “Canada and Quebec don’t have the same priorities.” For Bourassa, it is a divergence of views that he has promised Quebecers that he can reconcile. “These are minimal demands,” he says of Meech Lake. “I cannot, as the leader of Quebec, accept any less.” His words hauntingly echo René Lévesque’s 1967 remark that “there is a vital minimum of change needed to assure our collective security.” At the time, Lévesque added, “This is a minimum which, for the rest of the country, is completely unacceptable.” If events in the days and weeks that follow Sept. 25 prove that Lévesque was right and Bourassa has been wrong, the autumn of 1989 may in the end prove to have been even more of a turning point in Canadian history than the noisier autumns that came before.
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