COVER

A GROWING SENSE OF ALIENATION

QUEBECERS REVIEW THEIR OPTIONS

BARRY CAME March 12 1990
COVER

A GROWING SENSE OF ALIENATION

QUEBECERS REVIEW THEIR OPTIONS

BARRY CAME March 12 1990

A GROWING SENSE OF ALIENATION

COVER

QUEBECERS REVIEW THEIR OPTIONS

Stephen Leopold is a member of what is loosely termed the “Anglo” community in Montreal. At 38, he runs a successful commercial real estate busi-

ness from a sumptuous suite of offices atop a downtown skyscraper overlooking the city, where his family has resided for the past eight generations. The company that he founded and owns is one of the largest in its field in Canada. He is not the kind of individual who happily contemplates the prospect of the province where he was born drifting away from the rest of the country. But that is precisely the conclusion he is reluctantly coming to. “It is a rotten shame,” he told Maclean slast week. “But it is becoming clearer by the day that some new kind of order may be evolving in this country. My feeling is that if it’s going to happen, then+ let’s get on with it. There’s not much more that Quebec can lose. And maybe—just maybe— there might be something to gain.”

Distaste: Leopold’s vision of Canada’s future, and Quebec’s role in that future, is one that an increasing number of Quebecers seem to be sharing. They are not only the ardent nationalists and convinced separatists of an earlier era, the stalwarts of the Parti Québécois (PQ) and the St. Jean Baptiste Society who have never abandoned their distaste for Quebec’s participation in Canada. The Quebecers who seem to be growing disenchanted now are a different breed, and far more numerous. They can be found at every economic level of the French-speaking majority, among Montreal taxi drivers and the farmers of the St. Lawrence valley as well as among the political and business elite—both Frenchand Englishspeaking. Their common complaint: that Canada is becoming unworkable.

Quebec’s francophones are coming around to that view largely in visceral reaction to the wave of anti-French, anti-Quebec sentiment that they perceive in the rest of Canada. Quebec politicians, meanwhile, are grappling to come to terms with the developing mood. Many of Quebec’s business leaders, meanwhile, buoyed by newly acquired self-confidence and fed up with endless constitutional wrangling, no longer fear the impact that Quebec’s separation might have on its economy. As Claude Castonguay, a former Quebec cabinet

minister and president of the Laurentian Group, a financial services company, remarked in a recent speech, “Like it or not, we are at a crossroads.”

At the core of the debate lies the Meech Lake accord that would secure Quebec’s full participation in the Constitution, eight years after the PQ government of René Lévesque refused to endorse the 1982 Constitution Act. The national debate over whether to adopt the accord has touched a raw nerve inside Quebec, uncovering emotions that have little to do with the specifics of constitutional reform. In several recent opinion surveys, a majority of Quebecers have said that they would regard English Canada’s rejection of Meech Lake as

amounting to a rejection of Quebec as a partner in the Canadian federation. A recent Sorecom poll, for one, indicated that 58 per cent of Quebecers are prepared to support some form of sovereignty should the Meech Lake accord fail. Indeed, late last week, another polling firm, Montreal-based Léger and Léger, reported that 58.4 per cent of 1,031 respondents to a survey it conducted in February expressed support for sovereignty regardless of the outcome of Meech Lake.

Inescapable: Even federalists in Quebec find the message contained in such responses inescapable. “Better a Canada with Meech Lake than no Canada at all,” former federal cabinet minister Francis Fox, now president of the

WHAT THE MEECH LAKE ACCORD SAYS

The Meech Lake accord would alter significantly the way the federal and provincial governments share powers and responsibilities. Some of the key proposals-.

ON QUEBEC

Gives the province the right to “preserve and promote” its character as a “distinct society.”

ON NATIONAL PROGRAMS

Provides for financial compensation for provinces that create their own programs to match national programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction.

ON THE SUPREME COURT

Allows provinces to provide lists of new Supreme Court justice nominees, from which the Prime Minister makes the final selection; reserves three places on the bench for Quebec.

ON THE SENATE

Allows provinces to provide lists of new Senate nominees, from which the Prime Minister must make the final selection.

ON IMMIGRATION

Allows provinces to set their own policies within overall targets set by Ottawa.

ON THE AMENDING FORMULA

Expands the types of constitutional changes that would require unanimous provincial consent to include, among other things, Senate reform and the creation of new provinces.

Quebec branch of the federal Liberal party, remarked recently. “If Meech fails, then we’re on our way to a very different kind of constitutional setup in Canada.” If the Meech accord dissolves, Fox added, “the middle class [in Quebec] would become much more amenable to sovereignty. And, as we know, independence movements are made by the middle class.” Ovation: In fact, Premier Robert Bourassa’s

Liberal party may already have taken the first tentative steps towards independence.

Meeting from Feb. 23 to 25 in Quebec City, the party’s governing general council voted to establish a committee to study Quebec’s options if the Meech Lake accord is not ratified by the generally accepted deadline of June 23.

Bourassa took care to stress that the decision was not an attempt to “dismantle the country,” adding that a role in Canada remained Quebec’s “first choice.” But he won a standing ovation from his au-

dience of 600 Liberal delegates with a ringing declaration that the party had not received “a mandate to practise federalism on our knees.” By contrast, no one from the party—the only major party in the province still officially committed to federalism—made any move to declare unconditional support for the existing form of Confederation.

But Bourassa’s remarks drew immediate criticism from beyond Quebec’s borders. “I think Mr. Bourassa is looking to separate Quebec from the rest of the Canadian family,” declared Manitoba’s staunchly anti-Meech Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs. But to most observers inside Quebec, the Liberal premier’s statements merely reflected a finely tuned set

of political antennas. Noted Alain Dubuc, chief editorialist of the Montreal daily La Presse: “Mr. Bourassa is talking about after Meech now because he no longer has any choice. He is not trying to save the ship anymore, he is trying to save the castaways.”

The twin prospects of a hardening of Quebec nationalism and a beleaguered Robert Bourassa plainly delight the separatist PQ’s current leader, Jacques Parizeau. In the wake of the

Liberals’ weekend convention, Parizeau observed that, once Quebecers become persuaded that sovereignty is in their interests, they will not be likely to seek it from the Liberals. “When you have a sore tooth,” Parizeau quipped, “you go and see a dentist, not a shoemaker. If people want sovereignty, they will go and see the sovereignists.”

But it is not only Quebec politicians who are taking heed of the changing mood in their province. More than 1,000 business and profes-

sional leaders have joined Castonguay’s monthold Association in Favor of Meech Lake. The membership encompasses the province’s corporate elite, both Frenchand English-speaking. For many, their motivation appears to he less in the value of the accord itself than in a desire to end the debate that is diverting time and attention away from what many executives say is a far more pressing concern: the state of the economy. Montreal developer Philip O’Brien, a member of the pro-Meech Lake association’s governing committee, noted, “For most businessmen, the content of the agreement is secondary to the requirement to finally resolve this endless constitutional debate.”

Propelled by such concerns, Quebec’s business leaders have begun to exert themselves to persuade the opponents of Meech Lake to change their view. For his part, O’Brien returned to Montreal this week from his second visit in as many months to meet Newfoundland Liberal Premier Clyde Wells, who has threatened to rescind the approval that his province gave Meech Lake in July, 1988, under Wells’s Tory predecessor, Brian Peckford. He said that the trip, like the earlier one, was fruitless. “Wells is a missionary,” O’Brien told Maclean’s on his return. “He told me he would rather live in the 51st state [of the United States] than in a Canada under Meech.” Added O’Brien in a flash of anger: “He represents as many people as you could get together for a large football game, but he’s willing to see the country go down.”

Miracle: But O’Brien’s remark is indicative of another trend that is taking shape among Quebec’s business leaders. Like the province’s politicians, the business class is coming to the view that, with June 23 fast approaching, only a political miracle is likely to save Meech Lake. Faced with that prospect, the corporate elite is now willing to consider what was previously out of the question: the prospect of going back to the beginning to work out an entirely new constitutional framework for Quebec’s continued relations with the other nine provinces. Indeed, some go further. One poll conducted by the Quebec business magazine Commerce, published last month, suggested that 56 per cent of the 566 respondents, most of whom are thought to be senior managers, favored a sovereign Quebec.

For committed federalists like Stephen Leopold, such findings offer dispiriting evidence that the battle for Canada is being lost. “The rest of Canada does not seem to understand that there is simply no possibility of compromise on Meech Lake,” he glumly remarked as he sat behind his desk on the 33rd floor of Montreal’s Place Ville-Marie office tower. “Either Meech Lake is ratified and Canada goes on or Meech Lake is not ratified. Which will mean that Canada as we have known it will no longer be—ever again.” That view may be bleak. It may not even be accurate. But it is one that is heard with growing frequency among the seven million residents of Quebec.

BARRY CAME