COVER

What If Quebec Separates?

Politicians are shying away from a big issue: the potential battle over dividing up Quebec

MARY JANIGAN November 25 1991
COVER

What If Quebec Separates?

Politicians are shying away from a big issue: the potential battle over dividing up Quebec

MARY JANIGAN November 25 1991

What If Quebec Separates?

COVER

Politicians are shying away from a big issue: the potential battle over dividing up Quebec

In polite political circles, it is the topic that dare not speak its name. In federal and provincial capitals, most politicians simply refuse to consider what the boundaries of a seceding Quebec should be. At issue is the ownership of a glorious swath of land, stretching from fogbound Hudson Strait to the Eastern Townships, where the barns are often round because legend holds that the devil hides in barn corners; from the Spartan Cree settlements of James Bay to the wild North Atlantic where the 16th-century mariner Sir Martin Frobisher once looked for a passage to the riches of Asia. At stake is the wealth of that land and its resources, the future of its disparate peoples and its priceless tradition of strained but enduring civility. Perhaps Canada’s silent leaders assume that the very mention of the topic breaks the bounds of that civility. But their silence has largely left the explosive issue to the consideration of the threatened and the threatening.

The few leaders who have the courage to confront the issue believe that the eerie silence should end—for the sake of the nation. Across Southern and Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union, ethnic hatreds are shredding the social fabric and blurring official boundaries. In Yugoslavia, ethnic rivalries have fired a vicious civil war, killing hundreds of people and devastating the medieval port of Dubrovnik. Such hatreds do not run as high in Canada. But there are many people—aboriginals, French-Canadians, anglophone Quebecers and those outside of the province—who have a stake in the landmass of Quebec (page 22). University of Saskatchewan law professor Donna Greschner, for one, questions what would happen if Quebec seceded—and its native people did not choose to stay with Quebec. “With whose sovereignty do we side?” she asked. “We cannot blindly pretend that force is not part of the Canadian tradition.”

In coolly rational terms, Canadians should discuss who owns what if Quebec separates. A historical examination will help to understand why boundaries were drawn and why peoples grieved (page 26). It may throw light on why claims are made and why positions clash. That process could heal the nation, or it might at least ensure that future boundaries are drawn—and claims are settled—in peace. There are those who dispute that approach: Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau, for one, assured U.S. officials last week that separation would occur inevitably—and painlessly. Countered University of Toronto history professor Desmond Morton: “It is a misreading of history to believe that countries are tom up easily or without a tremendous risk of tragic conflict. Concealing that fact because we do not want ‘to alarm the children’ is both deceptive—and contemptuous to the people of this country.”

The first lesson of history is that its mistakes are easily repeated. The second is that threatening people are also often the threatened. Like other aboriginal groups across Canada, Quebec’s nine aboriginal nations have fought hard for recognition of their rights. In 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a 230-year-old agreement between the Hurons and the Crown constituted a treaty between nations—and that aboriginals in the Lorette Indian reserve near Quebec City still held the right to camp and to make fires in Jacques Cartier provincial park. In light of their troubled past, it is only natural for natives to ask if an independent Quebec would also recognize such aboriginal and treaty rights. It is only a small step further to the native peoples’ assertion that they have outstanding claims, throughout the province, to two-thirds of the landmass.

French-Canadians, in turn, have sadly observed the erosion of their cultural status. In 1867, they viewed themselves as a founding nation of Canada. Quebec generously extended constitutionally guaranteed rights to its Englishlanguage minority. But throughout the ensuing decades, comparable minority rights were callously withdrawn or withheld from bewildered French-speaking, Roman Catholic peoples in other provinces. As a result, many Quebecers feel that the boundaries of their province represent the boundaries of French Canada. From that belief, it is only a small step to the assertion that an independent Quebec should ensure its viability—and reclaim its rich heritage of Labrador from Newfoundland.

English-Canadians, including anglophone Quebecers, also have grievances. When Parliament added the territory of northern Ungava to Quebec in 1912, it was partly to compensate for the erosion of minority francophone rights in Western Canada. That doubled the landmass of the province; it added rich minerals and rushing rivers. It is only natural that many English-Canadians ask why many Quebecers assume that an independent Quebec would still own Ungava. It is only a small step from that question to the assertion that Parliament must take back Ungava from a seceding Quebec. Together, those small steps could lead into an abyss.

But if the past gives cause for rancor, it also gives reason for comfort. Throughout Canadian history, it is compromisers who have always saved the nation. Perhaps today’s partisan politicians are incapable of fitting the explosive issue of boundaries into their already crowded agenda. But it is exactly for that reason that many Canadians might wish to refer the issue to a constituent assembly, or an academic conference, or a publicinterest group. Whatever the forum, another historical lesson holds: when people talk to each other, tension abates. The topic that dare not speak its name would then speak—in a rational, generous and understanding exchange.

MARY JANIGAN