REFERENDUM FILE

PORTRAIT OF QUEBEC

THE BATTLE OVER QUEBEC’S ROLE IN CANADA HAS FEATURED THE SAME COMBATANTS FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 20 1992
REFERENDUM FILE

PORTRAIT OF QUEBEC

THE BATTLE OVER QUEBEC’S ROLE IN CANADA HAS FEATURED THE SAME COMBATANTS FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 20 1992

PORTRAIT OF QUEBEC

REFERENDUM FILE

They first encountered each other in political combat 22 years ago— bright, young economists adjusting awkwardly to public life, both in the wake of recently completed political odysseys. On one side, was a shy, skinny 36-year-old Robert Bourassa, leading the Quebec Liberals into the April, 1970, Quebec provincial elec-

tion, just three months after becoming party leader. Two years earlier, he had flirted with the idea of Quebec independence during talks with René Lévesque and others in the fledgling Parti Québécois, before finally declaring his commitment to the Liberals and federalism. Facing him in 1970 was the plump former consultant to the provincial finance ministry, Jacques Parizeau, then a newly minted 39-year-old secessionist. In that election, the first featuring a credible, pro-independence party, Bourassa and his Liberals swept most PQ candidates aside, Parizeau included.

Now, tried by more than two decades of political wars, Bourassa and Parizeau are still present, still arguing their separate visions for Quebec. And that 1970 provincial election now resounds as just one battle in a seemingly endless conflict over Quebec’s place in—or out—of Canada. Since then, other pivotal events, notably the PQ’s 1976 election win and the 1980 referendum on sovereigntyassociation, have fuelled what has become a national political obsession over constitutional change. The debate has widened to encompass other political causes, from native rights to Senate reform. But as the Oct. 26 referendum on the Charlottetown accord approaches, the principal participants in Quebec remain as unchanged as the directions they debate.

Bourassa and Parizeau are not exceptions. The unresolved issue of Quebec’s relationship to Canada has come to define the careers of a whole generation of Quebec politicians, from Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Federal Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien has been a crusader for Canada within his own province since first being elected to the House of Commons in 1963. Claude Ryan, a senior minister in Bourassa’s government, played

THE BATTLE OVER QUEBEC’S ROLE IN CANADA HAS FEATURED THE SAME COMBATANTS FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS

a central role in not only the 1980 referendum, but in such critical moments as the 1970 October Crisis. Even Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has grappled with the issue of Quebec’s role within Canada for three decades— he was a central organizer of the turbulent 1961 Congress on Canadian Affairs at Quebec City’s Laval University.

That comparatively long shelf life reflects the respect and importance that Quebecers accord their political leaders. But to many

young Quebecers, it demonstrates something more foreboding: a sense that the current round of constitutional negotiations has been the final cry of an old generation, whose eyes are fixed more firmly on the judgment of history than on modem concerns. In a recent interview with Maclean’s, Marc-André Ledoux, a 22-year-old law student at the University of Sherbrooke, declared: “There is not one politician out there who has had a new idea in the past 25 years.”

From the beginning of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s to the post-referendum lull of the early 1980s, Quebec’s best and brightest routinely looked to careers either in partisan politics or the province’s highly professional civil service. But now, the effort of nationbuilding no longer inspires young Quebecers, and many have turned their backs on politics. “There is an unbelievable amount of cynicism directed at politicians,” said federal Environment Minister Jean Charest, who became a member of Parliament in 1984 at 26. “And what is most distressing of all is how much of it comes from young people.”

That despair is reflected in the bleak approach of both sides in the present referendum campaign. For better and for worse, the campaign features little of the flag-waving, massive rallies and emotional appeals that both sides

relied on in 1980. Then, the opposing visions of the province’s future were personified by the charismatic and emotional Lévesque, up against the icy Cartesian logic of Trudeau. Although they clashed, their messages were often upbeat: Trudeau spoke glowingly of a Canada in which francophones would feel at home from coast to coast, while Lévesque talked of the pride and advantages of building a Quebec nation.

The 1992 referendum has no such lofty

appeal to a better life. Its theme is fear. From the Yes side, fear wears the shroud of economic penance should No prevail. Parizeau and Bouchard respond that Quebecers will not be moved by threats and predictions of crippling consequences. But they, too, rouse fears—of Quebec losing its power to promote its language laws, or of being powerless to fight off native claims to parts of Quebec territory should the Charlottetown accord go through.

One reason for the sour tone is that each group includes people who have seen their past hopes dashed. The No side is primarily led by separatists—many of them deeply disillusioned by their loss in the 1980 referendum. Their ranks are swelled by the many Quebecers who soured on federalism after the failure of the Meech Lake accord two years ago. One of those is author and lawyer Christian Dufour, who was an ardent supporter of that agreement. But in his new book, La Rupture Tranquille, Dufour argues that Quebec must now have the “courage to consummate” its “inevitable rupture” with the rest of Canada, be-

cause the Meech failure proved the two sides no longer understand one another.

That disenchantment with Canada also affects the Yes supporters. There is little mention of the rest of Canada in the Yes side’s campaign because, concedes one senior organizer, “after Meech, it is pretty hard to sell people on feeling good about the rest of the country.” And when Canada is mentioned, it is in strictly pragmatic terms, emphasizing the economic benefits of federation.

Some prominent Yes supporters say that Quebecers would respond well if they were given more passion alongside such reasoning. Says Charest, who frequently discusses his pride in being Canadian during speeches in his Sherbrooke riding: “People still feel a real emotional connection to Canada, but they need to hear someone say it for them.” Still, he acknowledges that “there are a lot of bruised feelings within Quebec.” Because of that, Quebecers on both sides will likely wake up on Oct. 27 with ambivalent feelings, no matter what the final result. And even if Quebec says Yes to Canada, the atmosphere of mutual suspicion will probably continue.

Yes supporters, such as Treasury Board President Gilles Loiselle, argue that an agreement would mark a first step to ending those suspicions. “A Yes would acknowledge that we and the rest of the country want to keep working together,” he said. “Even if it is a No, Quebecers cannot ignore the fact that we still must work and live alongside the rest of Canada.” As they prepare to cast their ballots on Oct. 26, many Quebecers, just as Constitutionweary as other Canadians, will reflect on whether that association is still a welcome prospect—or merely a frustrating reality.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Montreal