SOVEREIGNTY NOW OR LATER?

DAN BURKE November 12 1990

SOVEREIGNTY NOW OR LATER?

DAN BURKE November 12 1990

DISSENT WITHIN THE RANKS

COVER

QUEBEC TORIES DEBATE THEIR FUTURE

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s announcement that a special 12-member panel would travel the country to

seek Canadians’ views on the Constitution was clearly carefully timed. He unveiled his initiative almost on the eve of the weekend gathering in Mont Ste-Anne, Que., of the restive Quebec wing of his own Conservative party— and only days before the first meeting this week of the special commission established by the Quebec government to explore that province’s future constitutional options. Both events had the potential to embarrass Mulroney’s administration by creating the impression of a hamstrung federal government under siege from within, while outside forces stole the initiative in promoting the unravelling of Canada.

With his manoeuvre, the Prime Minister clearly aimed, at least in part, to pre-empt the Quebec nationalist faction within his own party, as well as the provincial commission. Said one member of Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s entourage: “At least now he can-

not be accused of fiddling while Rome bums.” But over the weekend, it became clear that Mulroney’s initiative had not completely quelled the fires of dissent burning within the ranks of the Quebec Tories. At the three-day party conclave in Mont Ste-Anne, a ski resort 40 km northeast of Quebec City, about 600 provincial Tories gave Mulroney a warm welcome that did not obscure their evident impatience with the pace of constitutional reform. With public opinion polls in Quebec reflecting an increase in support for greater sovereignty, and with mounting pressure on the Tories from the outspoken indépendantiste forces of former cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard’s Bloc Québécois, 14 of the party’s Quebec riding associations presented resolutions at the conference with strongly nationalistic tones. “It is the mood,” observed Quebec caucus leader and Industry Minister Benoît Bouchard during the weekend meeting. “There is a firm consensus that the status quo is no longer acceptable. It’s the beginning of a search for new options. You will hear words like sovereignty, integral federalism, sovereignty-association. ’ ’

In fact, such words were a common thread running through the weekend’s discussions. Mulroney served to encourage the airing when he told delegates: “I am not here to ask you to keep quiet. On the contrary, I am here to ask you to speak—and speak forcefully.” That invitation

won loud applause from the receptive audience gathered in a banquet hall festooned with Toryblue balloons trailing silver streamers.

And indeed, the Quebec Tories debated a sweeping range of options for Quebec’s future relationship with the rest of the country. Most of the proposals envisaged a looser federation of revamped Canadian regions. Conservative MP Charles DeBlois, for one, argued in favor of a concept labelled “confederalism,” under which Canada would effectively be split into

several independent, Swiss-style cantons with

a federal authority controlling only the armed

forces, foreign relations and monetary affairs. According to DeBlois, who represents the Quebee City-area riding of Montmorency/Orléans, confederalism in practice would amount to something very similar to the new governmental “superstructures” that Bourassa has also discussed as a remedy for the country’s constitutional ills.

Radical: An equally radical vision came from the St-Hubert riding association of MP Pierrette Venne. That resolution called for “draconian changes” in Canada’s makeup that would split the country into five quasi-independent regions and dramatically expand existing provincial powers. A resolution put forward by the members of MP Gilles Bernier’s Beauce riding went a step further. It recommended that Quebec unilaterally declare sovereignty-association status if the constitutional question is not settled before the next federal election, due to be called by 1993. While the Tories voted to refer the first resolution to the Spicer commission, they rejected the more radical proposal from Beauce.

For his part, Mulroney avoided direct comment on the array of nationalistic initiatives during his 45-minute speech to the gathering on Saturday afternoon. Instead, he delivered a

spirited defence of the Conservative party’s historic role in forging the Canadian Confederation—and urged his listeners to follow the example of Europe, where sovereign states are moving towards political integration in pursuit of economic prosperity. “I sense a will for unity across the country,” declared Mulroney, who added: “It may require new structures, new processes. But there is emerging a new Canada. And I believe it will be a better Canada.” But despite the Prime Minister’s invitation to the Quebec Tories to air even radical views of Canada’s future, Mulroney’s lieutenants—led by Bouchard—lobbied delegates energetically, but unsuccessfully, to defer voting on any of the stridently nationalistic resolutions that were before them.

Stake: And underlying all of the various proposals advanced at Mont Ste-Anne was a determination by Quebec’s Tories to avoid being swept aside by sovereigntist sentiment that has been rising in the province ever since the Meech Lake agreement disintegrated in late June. The political danger to the Tories in Quebec is evident: in an October poll conducted by Quebec’s Centre de recherche d’opinion publique (CROP), the federal party trailed in fourth place with the support of 16 per cent of decided voters, compared with 32 per cent for the Bloc, 26 per cent for the Liberals and 23 for the NDP. “We have to send a message to the Prime Minister,” MP DeBlois said on the eve of the meeting. “The Bloc Québécois is pushing at our backs. Our political future is at stake.”

Fuelling the sense of urgency among Quebec Tories is the fact that the party has never been in command of a strong provincial party organi-

zation. Before Mulroney’s 1984 landslide, in which 58 of Quebec’s 75 seats went to the Conservatives, the Tories had held only one Quebec riding. And in spite of the overwhelmingly Tory Quebec presence in the House of Commons, the party remains weak at a grassroots level—its successes during the past two federal elections due in large part to an informal alliance with provincial Liberal and Parti Québécois members. As one senior Quebec Conservative official acknowledged, “Effectively, we simply do not exist as a political organization beyond election time.”

Tory cohesion in Quebec is unlikely to improve once Quebec’s own constitutional commission gets to work following the inaugural Nov. 6 meeting in Quebec City. The commission, chaired by Michel Bélanger, former chairman of the National Bank, and Jean Campeau, former head of Quebec’s pension and auto insurance fund investor, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, will conduct daily provincewide hearings to assess public sentiment on the issue. It is scheduled to deliver a report, outlining Quebec’s constitutional options, by

next March 28. Few of the commission’s three dozen members—most of whom represent the province’s white francophone business and academic elite—expect that they will reach unanimous agreement. Still, the hearings are bound to provide an additional forum for pro-sovereignty rhetoric, which will bring even greater pressure to bear on Quebec Conservatives to either ride the nationalist wave—or face the possibility of being swept aside by it.

Game: One indication of what the Quebec commission can expect surfaced last week, when one of its members, Gerald Larose, who is also president of the 250,000-member Confederation of National Trade Unions, unveiled his organization’s constitutional proposals. The federation, which is the second-largest labor organization in Quebec, called for a referendum on independence to be held next June. If voters approved independence in principle in that referendum, a second would follow no later than June, 1992, in order to approve a new constitution for an independent Quebec. “Quebec has given federalism a chance since the sovereignty-association referendum in

1980,” Larose declared, “but the defeat of the Meech Lake accord proved that this period is over. Now, it is time for Quebec to take the ball and run— quickly.” Beset by similar sentiments from within his own party, Mulroney plainly hoped that his own federal forum would demonstrate to Quebecers that independence was not, after all, the only game left in town.

BARRY CAME