CANADA

‘There could be chaos’

GLEN ALLEN January 27 1992
CANADA

‘There could be chaos’

GLEN ALLEN January 27 1992

‘There could be chaos’

CANADA

Letter from Fort Coulonge, Que.

In stark contrast to the often complex constitutional debates currently preoccupying many Canadians, Fred Ryan's vision of the future is clear, direct—and certainly different. The 50-year-old newspaper publisher and president of the Pontiac Business and Tourism Association says that he wants to carve an autonomous duchy and tax haven out of the vast, largely rural Pontiac region of western Quebec. Ryan, the bilingual chairman of a group called the Committee of the Duchy of Pontiac, readily agrees that the notion may appear farfetched. But, he declared during an interview last week in his office in Fort Coulonge, Que., 115 km northwest of Ottawa, “It is not. It is perfectly legal.” While Ryan says that his committee is finding growing support in the region for his plan, its chances of success appear slim. But the initiative underscores the ferment and anxiety in western Quebec over the region’s future in the event of either decentralization of federal powers or the outright independence of Quebec. Said Ryan: “We just want to solve our own problems. The only growth industry in this country right now is constitutional consultations, and that isn’t coming up with anything. Well, we are.”

Pontiac residents are not alone among Quebecers in their concern about what constitutional change may bring. To the east, in the neighboring Outaouais region that lies directly across the Ottawa River from the nation’s capital, 25,000 people—fully one-quarter of the workforce—are employed by the federal government. Another 24,000 are employed by private interests in Ontario. Many Outaouais residents say that they fear that the majority of those jobs could be lost if the country experiences massive changes. As a result, local planners and municipal officials are studying the region’s prospects in a future that may be radically different—perhaps even threatening.

Some residents are even discussing the possibility of establishing a new province in the Ottawa-Hull area if Quebec breaks away from Canada. Said Jean-Marie Séguin, chairman of the Outaouais Development Corp. and one of she members of a committee examining the effects of Quebec independence or decentralized federalism on the area: “We are facing a difficult time. There could be chaos here unless the Outaouais gets some special attention.”

Certainly, the prospects of political disruption have left many people in the Outaouais fearful of personal upheaval. Jean-Pierre Gougeon is a supervisor with the federal department of energy, mines and resources who lives just 10 km northwest of Ottawa in the Outaouais community of Aylmer. He has been commuting to work in the nation’s capital for 31 of his 48 years. Gougeon’s wife, Danielle, also works on the other side of the Ottawa River—as an administrator for the University of Ottawa. Gougeon says that he fears that both their jobs could be lost if Quebec separates. “Any major change could certainly disrupt our lives,” said Gougeon, a father of two. “If our employers decide they will no longer employ people from outside Ontario, then we have two choices: either we leave our work and stay in Quebec, or we move to Ontario.”

That uncertainty is also reflected among members of the business community, both in Ottawa and in western Quebec. Parimal Mody, an Ottawa-based real estate investor with varied interests in western Quebec, said that he expects the region to suffer tremendous economic dislocation if Quebec separates.

Premier Robert Bourassa is bound by provincial legislation to hold a referendum on the province’s future by October. Before that happens, said Mody, his company “will liquidate some properties.” He added: “By no means are we going to sit idly and roll the dice and take a chance. Our money will be out in Ontario banks.” Hull real estate agent Charles Labelle, meanwhile, told Maclean’s that if Quebec achieves sovereignty, “We’re going to starve for the next 10 years.” Added Judith Grant, mayor of the Outaouais community of Chelsea, 20 km north of the capital: “People are very, very worried by all this.”

Some western Quebecers have reacted to the current uncertainty with passion—even defiance. Raymond Menard, a 44-year-old entrepreneur at Luskville, 30 km west of Hull, for one, has hung large signs outside his restaurant and frozen-food outlet and on his trucks that say, in both French and English, “Proud to be Canadian.” Declared the Hull-bom Menard: “If more people would show they’re Canadian instead of just yakking in the backrooms, we’d be better off.” In nearby Shawville, sportinggoods store owner Barrie Murray has repeatedly fought with Quebec’s language authorities over his alleged contraventions of the provincial ban on the use of English on commercial signs. Asserted Murray: “Nobody here wants to live in a separate Quebec. Just about everybody comes from families that have been here for centuries. We are Canadians—it’s as simple as that.”

The country prospect clearly of fills living some in western a sovereign Quebecers with dread. One in five of the region’s 257,000 people are English-speaking. And, said Gerald Barber, 39, the manager of a Shawville clothing store, “Nobody would want to be part of an independent Quebec. We already feel we have our rights trampled on by them.” In the eyes of many of the region’s anglophones, an independent Quebec would be even more dismissive of their rights. Many residents express the fear that western Quebecers, with little more than four per cent of the province’s population, will enjoy little political clout in a Quebec that is sovereign—or even in a province that has assumed many federal powers in a new and decentralized Canadian federation. Said Mark Assad, Liberal MP for the area: “We are going to be subjected to what the rest of Quebec wants.”

Although those sentiments may be difficult to dispel, Quebec provincial politicians, notably from the opposition separatist Parti Québécois, have attempted to allay concerns—at least about unemployment and economic dislocation as a result of separation. PQ luminaries have told federal employees living in the Outaouais region that jobs would be found for them in the public service of a sovereign Quebec. But there is widespread skepticism about such assurances. Said MP Assad: “Militant separatist groups are always trying to make the civil servants believe that they will all be needed by Quebec. But they don’t believe it.” And as the Outaouais Development Corp.’s Séguin pointed out, if civil servants are moved elsewhere in Quebec, the Outaouais region will still be diminished by their departure. Said Séguin: “This doesn’t solve our problems at all.”

Still, many minds are at work on alternatives for the threatened region. The six-member Outaouais committee on which Séguin sits has held two mass meetings over the past two months to examine solutions for any impending difficulties. The twin goals of the committee, chaired by Hull Mayor Marcel Beaudry, are to suggest ways to create economic diversification in the region and to maintain levels of employment. The committee is due to present its report late next month—and there is no shortage of ideas. Some residents argue that, with its highly qualified workforce, the Outaouais could become a centre for scientific and technical enterprise. Others suggest that an independent Quebec could relocate some of its ministries to the Hull area—and that embassies in the newly sovereign country would find their natural home across the river from Ottawa.

A more radical idea that has had its champions in the past, and has now gained some new advocates, is the creation of a new province in the Ottawa-Hull region. Said Carol PritchardMurtagh, executive director of the Outaouais Alliance, a community organization for western Quebec’s 48,000 anglophones: “People are looking at that question—it has gotten a lot louder with the whole question of sovereignty banging at the door.” Others, though, dismiss that alternative. For one thing, Joane Hurens, a vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, noted that the economic impact on the area resulting from either Quebec sovereignty or a decentralization of federal powers would make the creation of a new province there “unlikely.” Added Hurens: “If the federal government is going to be reduced drastically, the industrial infrastructure will not create enough revenue to sustain another province.” Even short of outright separation, the union executive added, “the future of the public servant in this region is not particularly appealing.”

Other more alternatives fanciful—in may spite appear of their even staunch supporters. In his Fort Coulonge office, Fred Ryan pores over a stack of legal documents, press clippings and correspondence relating to his plan to turn the Pontiac region into a duchy. Ryan envisages a tax haven presided over by a largely ceremonial duke or duchess appointed by the Queen and governed by a municipal council. Said Ryan: “Whether you like it or not it, we are a monarchy—it fits into the existing system.” Under the plan, first broached publicly in June, Pontiac would create a climate favorable to banks and corporations by passing special privacy laws. Ryan said that the laws would enable Pontiac to become a North American Liechtenstein. That tiny European principality, Ryan said, “was, 40 years ago, just farms and pine forests, too.” He added: “Now there are 50,000 [foreign] corporations there and the average income is $82,000.1 think we could do worse.” „

Ryan acknowledges that he faces huge obstacles in trying to achieve his goal. For one thing, he said, while the Queen could grant letters patent creating a duchy, she would be unlikely do so without consulting either Canada or Quebec. Neither would be likely to greet the request sympathetically. But for many western Quebecers, even pipe dreams have their place—especially at the beginning of a year of constitutional bargaining that could result in radical changes to their lives and livelihoods.

GLEN ALLEN in Fort Coulonge