CANADA

BRAVE NEW WORLD

IN QUEBEC, THE NEW 37-MEMBER COMMISSION ON THE PROVINCE’S FUTURE BEGINS PUBLIC HEARINGS

BARRY CAME November 19 1990
CANADA

BRAVE NEW WORLD

IN QUEBEC, THE NEW 37-MEMBER COMMISSION ON THE PROVINCE’S FUTURE BEGINS PUBLIC HEARINGS

BARRY CAME November 19 1990

BRAVE NEW WORLD

CANADA

IN QUEBEC, THE NEW 37-MEMBER COMMISSION ON THE PROVINCE’S FUTURE BEGINS PUBLIC HEARINGS

The long-awaited search for a new Quebec began solemnly. While the season’s first snowstorm swirled across the province’s historic walled capital, the 37 members of the Commission on the Political and Constitutional Future of Quebec gathered last week inside the magisterial National Assembly building overlooking the city. They seated themselves beneath glass chandeliers in the ornate Red Chamber, around a polished wooden table in the shape of a large letter U. For the next seven hours, speaking one after another, they gravely declared their intent. In an opening address that set the tone for the remarks that followed, Michel Bélanger, one of the commission’s two co-chairmen, announced: “A new definition of the relation between Quebec and Canada—and of Quebec’s place within or at the side of Canada—is the object of this proceeding.”

That goal will be pursued with increasing vigor over the course of the next Alh months. By the time the commission submits its findings to the provincial legislature on March 28, it will have spent an estimated $10 million conducting 22 televised public hearings in 11 separate cities and towns scattered across the province. It will also have studied 500 briefs from widely diverse groups and individuals, canvassed precise opinion from 100 experts and convened several professional forums and round tables devoted to single-issue themes ranging from monetary reform to minority rights. “Quebec will decide its own future,” declared Jean Campeau, the commission’s other co-chairman. “Our aim is to find an underlying consensus among Quebecers on the essential elements of that future.”

But consensus has already proven difficult to achieve. The commission’s first hearing opened on Nov. 6 only after a bitter closed-door debate among the members of its steering

committee over whether or not a Canadian flag should sit alongside that of Quebec in the hearing chamber. The decision: it could. But a wide divergence of views exists among the more than three dozen individuals who sit on the Bélanger-Campeau commission. The membership is composed of Quebecers espousing opinions that range across the political spectrum, from the forthright separatism of former federal Conservative cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard, to the committed federalism of former federal Liberal cabinet minister André Ouellet (page 16). But whatever the outcome, the commission’s highly publicized deliberations are certain to further inflame the passions aroused by the debate over the failed Meech Lake constitutional accord. As well, the commission’s final report is likely to have a significant impact on the future shape, not just

of Quebec, but of the entire country. It will demand—sooner or later—a cogent response from Canadians outside Quebec.

Some indication of opinion from other parts of Canada will clearly be heard even as the Bélanger-Campeau commission conducts its deliberations. In January, the 12-member Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future—announced on Nov. 1 by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney— will also begin countrywide public hearings on the country’s constitutional future. But in the media blitz that preceded the Quebec commission’s inaugural session last week, both Bélanger and Campeau repeatedly insisted that opinion beyond Quebec was not part of their concern. Said Bélanger: “Hearing from the rest of Canada, or worrying about how it will react to what will be said here is not our mandate.”

That mandate is straightforward: to explore Quebec’s constitutional future in the aftermath

of the failure of the Meech Lake accord. To that end, the commission has set about its task with meticulous attention to detail. Since midOctober, experts have been briefing the commission’s members on the various forms of political association that could replace Canada’s existing structure. Economists have provided detailed analyses of alternatives to the use of the Canadian dollar in a potentially sovereign Quebec. As well, they have described various forms of customs agreements and addressed the tangled issue of how to separate assets and liabilities in the course of a national divorce.

Long lists of questions have been mailed to a further group of 100 experts, demanding precise answers to queries involving the nature of government jurisdictions and the link between standards of living and different forms of political and economic union. “We have to make sure that no stone is left unturned,” said Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Gil Rémillard, Premier Robert Bourassa’s leading adviser during the Meech negotiations and a key government representative on the commission.

The commission has also paid a great deal of attention to its surveying of Quebec public opinion. A seven-member steering committee will study the 500 briefs that have been submitted so far. That committee will decide which of those briefs merit presentation during the 22 public hearings that began in Quebec City last week and will continue for the next six weeks as the commission begins its gruelling tour through 10 other towns and cities across the province. Each of the daylong public sessions will be televised live on cable TV, while taped highlights will be rebroadcast nightly on the provincially run RadioQuébec network. Those broadcasts are expected to consume close to half of the commission’s $ 10-million budget.

When the hearings are completed on Dec. 22, the commission will study the answers it receives from its group of 100 experts. Depending on their responses, the commission may decide to convene round tables on particularly difficult or outstanding issues before submitting its final report by the March 28 deadline.

Writing that report will likely be the most difficult of all the commission’s tasks, because the co-chairmen insist on achieving a consensus amid the expected flurry of divergent views. Last week, Campeau defined a consensus as something amounting to “roughly 75 per

cent” of the commission’s membership reaching agreement on fundamental principles. But according to Robert Libman, leader of the small English-rights Equality party, who will sit on the commission but has no voting privilege, “It may be an impossible goal.”

As a result of intense jockeying between the Liberal premier and Jacques Parizeau, leader of the separatist Parti Québécois, the body is roughly split between sovereigntists and those who, like Bourassa, clearly lean towards a renewed but much looser form of Canadian federalism. Among the voting members of the commission who are in Bourassa’s camp are nine other Liberal MNAs, four representatives from the business community, one federal Conservative, one federal Liberal MP and Richard Holden, Equality party MNA for Westmount—a total of 17 panelists. Parizeau is one of seven PQ MNAs on the commission, whose indépendantiste position is supported by four representatives of labor unions, Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard and Serge Turgeon, who represents Quebec’s artists—a total of 13.

The other seven commissioners could vote either way. Among the potential swing group: Claude Béland, president of the Mouvement Desjardins credit union federation; Guy D’Anjou, the president of the Quebec Federation of School Commissions; Jean-Louis Desrosiers, president of the Quebec Union of Municipalities:

and Roger Nicolet, mayor of the Eastern Townships hamlet of Austin and president of the Quebec Union of Regional Municipal Counties. “It is pretty finely balanced,” said Marcel Beaudry, a Hull real estate developer and Liberal party organizer in western Quebec. “It’s impossible to predict the outcome at this stage.” The recommendations will depend heavily on the public sentiment that the commission uncovers in the coming weeks. “We will be looking for the answers to three questions,” Rémillard remarked last week. “Where are we? What values does our society want to nurture? What jurisdictions must our government control in order to nuture those values?”

In the end, the commission’s findings will not be binding on the Quebec government. And ultimately, Quebec’s future direction will be decided by the province’s voters—most probably in an election that many observers expect Bourassa to call for sometime during 1993.

That election will clearly be fought along the same partisan lines that now divide the commission. For the moment, though, the individual members are striving to maintain political peace within the commission’s ranks. Their success will depend

0 largely on the personal chemistry that the individual commissioners develop as they travel the province together, 1 living and working in close proximity with each other. Already, there are signs of a budding harmony between

personalities who are poles apart in political viewpoint. Last week, almost everyone associated with the commission took pains to stress that the task ahead required an open mind and non-partisan spirit. Capturing the mood in the Red Chamber, Bourassa declared, “If we can work together to arrive at a minimum consensus, then this will lend considerable weight to our demands for a new political reality.” Few of the members of the Bélanger-Campeau commission, no matter how dramatically different their views, appeared to disagree on that approach.

BARRY CAME in Quebec City

COMMISSIONERS OF DESTINY

Most of the 37 members of Quebec’s Commission on the Constitution are politicians, including 19 members of the Quebec national assembly, three federal MPs and two elected municipal officials. In addition, there are six prominent members of the business community and four trade unionists, an educator, an artist and a credit union official. Among the key members-.

Michel Bélanger, 61, a retired bank president and deputy minister in the provincial government. He was Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s personal choice to co-chair the commission.

Jean Campeau, 59, former chairman of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec—the powerful Crown corporation in charge of investing the province’s pension

and auto insurance fund. Now chairman of Montreal-based Domtar Inc., he owes his appointment as co-chairman to Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau.

Claude Ryan, 65, Quebec minister of public security. Leader of the provincial Liberals from 1978 until 1982, he led the provincial Non campaign during Quebec’s 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association and remains a committed federalist, but one who believes in increased powers for Quebec.

Cosmo Maciocia, 48, Liberal MNA representing Montreal’s ethnic east end. An Italian immigrant who said he leans towards federalism, Maciocia is the only commissioner who is an “allophone”—as Quebecers call residents whose ethnic roots are neither French nor English.

Louise Harel, 44, Parti Québécois MNA from Montreal. A lawyer and former PQ cabinet minister, she is widely viewed as among the most ardent indépendantistes in the PQ caucus.

Richard Holden, 59, MNA for the Englishrights Equality Party. Representing the affluent, anglophone bastion of Westmount, he is a staunch federalist. Holden broke with his own party to support the Meech Lake accord.

Claude Béland, 58, president of the financially powerful Mouvement Desjardins credit union federation. A Montrealer, he was originally a candidate for the chairmanship of the commission, but Bourassa blocked his appointment because of his nationalist leanings.

Louis Laberge, 61, president of the 475,000-member Quebec Federation of Labor. Laberge said in June that the time has come for Quebec sovereignty.

Serge Turgeon, 44, president of the Quebec Union des artistes. Bourassa appointed him to the commission reluctantly, in view of the artists union’s frankly indépendantiste position. □