DRAWING LINES IN THE SAND
SEPARATION CARRIES HIGH STAKES
The meeting was private, a two-day strategy session organized to give the leaders of the Parti Québécois an opportunity to roll up their sleeves and get down to the serious business of planning a sovereign state. But even the 80 sovereigntists gathered in suburban Beauport, on the outskirts of Quebec City, were taken aback by the proposal advanced by an avuncular professor of political science from the University of Montreal. Edouard Cloutier, invited to the conclave to provide expert advice, urged the assembled party officials to consider establishing a military force to counter possible acts of sabotage and disorder from equally secessionist-minded groups—natives and anglophones in particular. “It’s a touchy subject,” Cloutier acknowledged last week. “But we cannot afford to do nothing in the face of threats to take away from an independent Quebec territory that rightly belongs to it.”
PQ officials quickly dissociated themselves from the proposition, especially when accounts of the incident, which occurred early this fall, reached reporters. Natives and anglophones just as swiftly expressed outrage. But neither the denials nor the denunciations could disguise the fact that the mild-mannered professor had clearly exposed a raw nerve in the debate over Quebec’s future. What cannot be denied is the existence of a small but swelling chorus aimed at the separatist credo that the borders of an independent Quebec would match its current provincial boundaries. It comes from native groups, who even today are challenging Quebec’s authority over vast reaches of the province. And it comes from sectors of the English-speaking population, both inside and outside Quebec, who argue that an independent Quebec could not lay claim to all of the province’s territory. Complained Cloutier: “What is being discussed is nothing less than the fate of the land that is the soul of the entire ideal of Quebec sovereignty.”
In raising the prospect of armed force to defend that ideal, the professor also touched on another explosive issue. To most Canadians, English and French alike, an armed conflict over Quebec’s future borders seems a remote possibility. But not everyone shares that assumption. In early November, historian Desmond Morton sounded a warning when he spoke at a Toronto conference staged by the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies to debate the military implications of Quebec separation. “I don’t believe—and here I disagree with PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau—that countries break up easily or in a civilized way,” the University of Toronto professor said as he urged Canadians “to look into this abyss of violence—and step back from it.”
Others, though, say that there may be no stepping back. “Not only is armed conflict possible, it is highly probable,” predicts University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper, co-author of the recently published Deconfederation: Canada Without Quebec, a study recommending the speedy departure from the Canadian Confederation of a radically truncated Quebec. Added Bill Wilson, political secretary of the Assembly of First Nations: “People who are told that they are Quebecers without having their decision-making respected are going to protest. If we don’t sit down and talk now, the confrontation will be 100 times as bad as it needs to be.”
Anger: Recent events have already presaged potential confrontations to come. In the summer of 1990, armed Mohawks at Oka, Que., angered over a local decision to expand a golf course onto land claimed by the natives, engaged in a tense 78-day standoff with the authorities that began when a Quebec provincial police officer was killed in circumstances still under investigation. In fact, it is Quebec’s Indians who mount what is perhaps the most compelling challenge to the view that the province’s borders are inviolable. “One hundred per cent of the province is the traditional hereditary territory of the aboriginal nations,” declares James O'Reilly, a Montreal lawyer who specializes in representing Indians in landclaim battles. “Almost every one of those nations has a good case in law to title.”
Quebec’s 10,000 Cree have been at the centre of much of the debate over the territorial integrity of an independent Quebec—largely because they inhabit the lands where Quebec’s massive James Bay hydroelectric project is located. Quebec now plans an expansion of that project. But a month ago, Ovide Mercredi, grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, ignited a furious debate when he suggested that the Cree might withdraw from Quebec should the province secede from Canada.
At the core of that particular dispute is the widely held conviction in official Quebec circles that the Cree have no legal claim on Quebec territory as a result of the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. According to the Quebec government, under that agreement the Cree and Inuit ceded their historical rights to the land for $225 million. Parizeau has insisted that all Cree claims to northern Quebec are “false, illegal and unconstitutional.” PQ vice-president Bernard Landry reiterated that opinion last week. “Both the Cree and the Inuit agreed in writing to yield, renounce, dedicate and transfer all their rights—and we paid them in return,” he told Maclean ’s.
Spokesmen for the Cree, however, have a different view. “The agreement was entered into with Quebec in Canada,” says Billy Diamond, chief of the Waskaganish Cree and a member of the Quebec Cree Grand Council’s constitutional committee. “We did not sign an agreement with an independent Quebec. If that happens, the agreement would become null and void—and that would certainly jeopardize the boundaries of Quebec.”
Other Quebec natives are also exploring the legal ramifications of Quebec independence— including the possibility of declaring their own independence. “We are all seriously looking at it,” says Jean-Yves Assiniwi, a mixed-blood native of Quebec and an adviser to the Native Council of Canada. The underlying motivation, he points out, is native reluctance to sever long-standing ties with Ottawa. Said Assiniwi: “I don’t think too many aboriginal groups want to entertain the possibility of letting go of their relationship to the federal Crown.”
Much the same kind of sentiment is driving some members of Quebec’s anglophone minority to contemplate a rearrangement of the provincial frontiers. The strength of those currents is not easy to gauge—largely because the subject’s delicate nature has precluded an open discussion. And for some Quebec politicians, suggestions that an independent Quebec’s borders could be readjusted amount to a “scare tactic,” as Parizeau has said, to weaken support for independence. Added the PQ’s Landry: “All of these attempts to fracture or fragment or dislocate Quebec are transparently illegal and bound to fail.”
Questionable: But legality or illegality are questionable concepts when applied to uncharted waters. In Deconfederation, Cooper and his colleague, historian David Bercuson, argue that because Quebec’s present borders are largely a direct result of its being a part of Canada, an independent Quebec would not be entitled to much more than the original French colonial territory scattered along the shores of the St. Lawrence River before the fall of New France in 1763. A similar argument has been advanced by B.C. lawyer and constitutional expert David L. Varty in his study Who Gets Ungava?— Ungava being the northern hinterland ceded by Ottawa to the province after Confederation. Varty argues that an independent Quebec would have no claim to that territory.
Both books draw heavily on the material contained in Partition: The Price of Quebec’s Independence, first published in 1980 by Montreal authors William Shaw and Lionel Albert. Shaw, a dentist who at the time served as an MNA, and Albert, a businessman, argued that Quebec could not afford to separate because it would lose too much territory. Together, those studies raise the issue: if Canada is divisible, Quebec should be as well. Said McGill University constitutional law professor Stephen Scott in an interview: “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. It is sheer effrontery on Quebec’s part to demand the northern twothirds of the province. Those territories were added to Quebec—to be governed as part of a Canadian province.”
Diverse: Challenging Quebec’s claim to some of its territory appears to be gathering steam among Quebec anglophones. Earlier this year, 38-year-old Montreal financial consultant Gregory Gogan almost single-handedly founded a Quebec anglophone separatist movement called Option Canada. Gogan proposes to transform Option Canada into a federal political party dedicated to carving a new province out of southwestern Quebec—including the western half of the island of Montreal—where most of the province’s non-French-speaking population resides. “There are 1.5 million people in that region,” says Gogan. “They are ethnically diverse and bilingual. I am convinced that the overwhelming majority will support the creation of a new bilingual and economically stable province that is progressive in attitude and tolerant in spirit.”
Gogan clearly has a steep road to climb. Still, during the past seven months he has been tirelessly addressing small gatherings—and claims that he has convinced 2,000 Quebecers to join his organization. And in a sense, Gogan’s idea is merely the logical extension of another, less ambitious program. Reed Scowen, chairman of the anglophone-rights organization Alliance Quebec, has proposed the creation of what he calls “English territories” within Quebec. These so-called territories, all with either anglophone majorities or hefty minorities, would seek exemption from Quebec’s restrictive language laws. Declared Scowen: “The idea is to give some kind of political expression to those regions of Quebec, scattered largely along the southern and western borders, who voted ‘no’ in the 1980 referendum on sovereignty and are likely to vote the same way if another referendum on the same issue is held.”
In the same vein, Quebec’s tiny Englishrights Equality party recently published a study by McGill Unversity economist William Watson that advances the argument that electoral ridings voting against sovereignty in any future referendum should be allowed to form new provinces or join neighboring ones. “The political life of a post-independence Quebec would be much more peaceful if dissident regions were permitted to opt out of the secession,” Watson wrote.
Few of those propositions have been treated with anything but a passing remark from either the PQ or Robert Bourassa’s ruling Liberals. Parizeau, in fact, has cavalierly dismissed the proposals by noting that “there will never be an independent republic of Sept-Iles.” Such an attitude may well reflect an accurate assessment that the threat of separation from within an independent Quebec is, indeed, a minor one. But it may also mirror wishful thinking. There is reason for worry, particularly over the possibility of anglophone dissent coupled with the far more dangerous prospect of repeated aboriginal unrest, should Quebec follow the path to independence. If that were not the case, the University of Montreal’s Cloutier would not have thought it necessary to raise the need for a new military force to counter it.
BARRY CAME in Montreal with E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa and BRIAN BERGMAN in Toronto
E. KAYE FULTON
THE ANGLOPHILE SEPARATIST
Jacques Parizeau is an unlikely hero. The 61-year-old leader of the Parti Québécois makes no secret of the fact that he is an admirer of most things English. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics, speaks English with a British clip, chain-smokes English cigarettes, confesses to harboring a “soft spot” for the Queen and is inordinately fond of that most English of French wines—claret. Parizeau even dresses in the image of a modem English banker—or at least used to, until his advisers recently persuaded him to abandon his trademark three-piece English pinstripe. Still, Parizeau remains resolutely committed to the goal of Quebec sovereignty.
It is a conviction that he has held since 1968, when, after a lengthy period of uncertainty, he reached the conclusion that independence was the best course for Quebec. He made his decision during a long train ride across Canada. “I got on the train in Montreal a federalist—but I got off the train in Banff a separatist,” he has remarked on more than one occasion. The belief is deeply held. He walked out of René Lévesque's cabinet in 1984, resigning his post as finance minister, after the former Quebec premier decided to steer the PQ away from separatism and towards the goal of working to achieve the province’s nationalist goals within the framework of Confederation.
During his years out of politics, Parizeau, an economist by training and a former university professor, did not waver from his indépendantiste goals. And he has remained loyal to his ideals since wresting control of the PQ in 1988 from the moderates who ran the party after Lévesque. At the moment, Parizeau is riding high. If a provincial election were held now, all the polls point to a PQ victory. And if that were to happen, he openly pledges to immediately begin moves to take Quebec out of Canada. He reiterated that view last week in Washington, when he told three U.S. senators, all members of the senate foreign relations committee, that he would stage a referendum on the issue eight to 10 months after taking office.
Parizeau has no doubts about the outcome of a popular vote, despite the fact that the tide of nationalist sentiment that swept over Quebec after the failure of the Meech Lake accord now appears to be gradually receding. But even if he does finally manage to reach his goal and lead Quebec out of Canada, it is not likely to alter his fondness for the English. When he was asked in Washington last week whether an independent Quebec would remain in the British Commonwealth, he replied: “It may well be that we will remain in this—for old time’s sake.”