CANADA

THE PQ'S SLOW START

BARRY CAME December 5 1994
CANADA

THE PQ'S SLOW START

BARRY CAME December 5 1994

THE PQ'S SLOW START

CANADA

BARRY CAME

Jacques Parizeau was in a feisty mood. Fresh from a polite but chilly encounter last week in Toronto with Ontario’s Bob Rae and the cream of Bay Street’s business elite, the Quebec premier was clearly happy to be back home on friendlier turf. He even managed to crack a smile when, pausing on his way into a meeting of his Parti Québécois caucus, he was pestered as usual by questions about his young

government’s lacklustre performance. “We’ve developed a habit of chewing gum and walking at the same time,” he quipped, promising action on two broad fronts when the national assembly convenes this week for the first time since the PQ took power on Sept. 26. An economic program would be unveiled, he said. More important, the government would finally launch its longawaited plan to hold a referendum on independence sometime

next year. “We’re starting now,” Parizeau vowed. “We’re about to get under way.”

Brave words, particularly coming from the leader of a government and a party that is clearly floundering. With one or two notable exceptions, the PQ government’s record to date has been largely dismal, marked by a series of embarrassing gaffes on the part of senior ministers. The party itself is riven by internal divisions over the wisdom of proceeding with an independence

referendum when public support for sovereignty remains extremely volatile. And the Péquistes’ much-publicized effort to woo moderate nationalists into a nonpartisan “rainbow coalition” of forces to fight on the Yes side in the upcoming referendum is, so far at least, going nowhere.

Despite the gloomy signals, however, Parizeau seems determined to stage his oft-promised referendum next year—and, for him, the sooner the better. The vote, in fact, may take place as early as next June if the government’s current strategy succeeds in building the kind of momentum required to draw support from beyond the ranks of committed separatists. Parizeau’s cabinet met for two days at week’s end, putting the finishing touches on that strategy. And while the details will become clearer in the premier’s inaugural address to the newly constituted national assembly, set for Tuesday, Nov. 29, the broad outlines were already apparent last week. “It’s not going to be a fancy, high-tech war,” said PQ MNA David Payne. “This is going to be an old-fashioned battle fought by the infantry—trench by trench, riding by riding, region by region.”

The opening salvos are likely to be fired almost immediately. ‘We’re going to determine the way in which the question of the referendum will be introduced into the House and the various steps that will be taken,” said Parizeau on his way into a PQ caucus meeting last week. Although he declined to disclose details,

party sources indicated that a key element would be a forum of some kind designed to draw as many people as possible into the debate. Native associations as well as business, labor, community and women’s organizations will be invited to take part in discussions—likely in advance of a commission that will tour the province in an effort to draft a provisional constitution for a sovereign Quebec. “The aim is to build support for sovereignty by initiating the debate as soon as possible,” explained a member of the PQ’s executive, who asked for anonymity. “At the same time, we’ll try to make sure that we keep a controlling hand on our own overall agenda.”

Some Péquistes have even raised the possibility of resurrecting the PQ’s long-standing promise to have the national assembly adopt a solemn declaration stating the desire

Parizeau’s government has been plagued by an embarrassing series of ministerial gaffes

of Quebecers to be sovereign. That idea died in the wake of the PQ’s razor-thin victory (based on 44.7 per cent of the popular vote compared with the Liberals’ 44.3 per cent) in September’s election. “The fact is, more people voted against the PQ than voted for it last September,” noted Liberal MNA Jacques Chagnon, the education minister in Daniel Johnson’s defeated government and a key strategist for the federalist camp. “How can they force a vote of that nature

through the national assembly when it is patently false that most Quebecers agree with the notion?”

But whatever the technicalities, it is clear that the real struggle in the impending referendum is going to take place at the constituency level. Both separatists and federalists recognize as much. And both sides are already busy marshalling their troops for the effort. Like the PQ cabinet, the provincial Liberal caucus met for two days last week both to finalize their own referendum strategy and to continue the ongoing effort to build a campaign machine for the referendum battle, uniting the major federalist forces in Quebec. “As far as the politicians are concerned, we’re pretty well set,” said Chagnon. “After all, it’s easy to co-ordinate because we’re basically dealing with three bodies—the Quebec Liberal party, the federal Liberal party and [federal Conservative leader] Jean Charest. Everyone’s been contacted. They’re just waiting for us to buzz them.”

The Liberals have also initiated a program to draw upon the support of nonpartisan organizations. One of the principal organizations in this effort is the Council on Canadian Unity, a profederalist lobby funded by major corporations in Quebec. “We’ve organized three committees, one for businessmen, one for artists and one—called Génération 18-35—for young federalists,” said Robert Desbiens, spokesman for the council. “So far, we’ve lined up around 200 prominent speakers for each of these sectors who are ready to hit the campaign trail as soon as we get the green light.”

The separatist camp has a similar organization in place, co-ordinated by the Mouvement National des Québécois, a coalition of 15 sovereigntist organizations. Over the past few weeks, representatives from Quebec trade unions, artists’ organizations, and community and women’s groups have been meeting in the movement’s Montreal offices in an attempt to forge a referendum team. ‘‘Our goal," said Louise Laurin, president of the movement, “is to contact as many nonpartisan groups as possible to enlarge the sovereigntist movement—to take it further than the memberships of sovereigntist political parties.”

Aside from the troops, there is no secret about the overall strategies of each camp. Unless there is a radical change of plans, the federalist forces intend to wage a battle that concentrates on forcing Parizeau and his team to justify Quebec independence. “I’m deeply convinced that we have to put the burden of proof on the government,” maintained Chagnon. “If we’re clever enough, we’re not going to put ourselves under the gun by being placed in the position of having to define specific forms of federalism.”

For the Péquistes, that strategy is the main weakness of the federalist argument. “It’s even worse this time around than it was during the 1980 referendum,” argued the PQ’s Payne. “At least then, Pierre Trudeau was offering a renewed federalism. Now, Quebec is going to be told that the status quo is all they can expect from the rest of the country. In my opinion, Quebecers are simply not going to accept that. They’re going to vote for independence.”

Perhaps. But for the moment at least, public opinion polls are divided. While surveys a month ago showed support for sovereignty dropping as low as 32 per cent, a poll released late last week suggests that it is on the rise once more. The Léger & Léger poll indicated that 45.7 per cent of Quebecers supported sovereignty. PQ strategists say that their own internal polls have also been showing a sharp rise in recent weeks.

But polls aside, there are other signs suggesting that Quebec opinion remains undecided. Only two weeks ago, for instance, former Liberal MNA Michel Tremblay, who was defeated by a wide margin in his bid for re-election last September, turned the tables by running for mayor in Rimouski and winning the election in the St. Lawrence River town. A month earlier, the PQ barely managed to eke out a 500-vote victory in the St-Jean riding in a second vote called to break the tie that occurred in the general election. Even Parizeau described that result as disappointing.

Despite such setbacks, however, Parizeau continues to portray Quebec independence as inevitable, just as he did last week in Toronto. “It can be fought, sidetracked, postponed, but at some point, identity will be translated into a vote for sovereignty,” he told the Canadian Club. “I say, ‘Why wait?’ ” Even if his government does not win its planned referendum next year, added Parizeau, the drive for independence would continue: “This Quebec problem is like a never-ending visit to the dentist.”

Others are not so certain about the separatists’ staying power. In a study published earlier in November, Carleton University sociologist John Samuel predicted the imminent demise of the Quebec independence movement, largely as a result of the province’s changing demographics. According to Samuel, separatism will die a natural death because of a number of factors, including a growing influx of immigrants, stagnant birth rates among native-born Quebecers and an aging population that tends to shy away from radical change.

That may be an exaggeration, but it is certainly true that a rising note of desperation has been creeping into the arguments of Parizeau and his ministers in recent weeks.

Consider the outburst last week that came from Quebec’s deputy premier and minister of international affairs, Bernard Landry. In an emotional harangue, Landry demanded the recall of Canada’s ambassador to Washington, Raymond Chrétien, for failing to denounce Cree leader Matthew Coon Come. The Quebecbased grand chief had not only suggested to an American audience that Quebec nationalism was ethnically based but had also labelled as “outdated, colonial and racist” the Quebec government’s claim that aboriginal rights were capable of being extinguished. “It is not true that an ambassador paid with our taxes would let that sort of unfair and unjust statement be spread around the planet without any remarks to negate it,” said Landry as he entered a Quebec cabinet meeting last week.

It was not the first time Landry appeared intent on picking a fight with Ottawa. Earlier, he had attempted to deride the recent China trade tour of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and the nine English-speaking premiers on the grounds that the premiers were forced to ride in minivans while Chrétien travelled in a limousine. And Landry is not alone. Other senior Quebec ministers have engaged in similar antics recently. Richard Le Hir, the minister in charge of restructuring Quebec’s administra-

tion to pave the way for sovereignty, had to beat a hasty retreat when he presented an incomplete set of statistics purporting to prove that the existing federal system was costing Quebec $300 million a year in lost revenues. And only last week, Culture Minister Marie Malavoy resigned from Parizeau’s cabinet for voting in federal and provincial elections without holding Canadian citizenship. Malavoy, whose parents immigrated from France when she was three years old, said that she had put off obtaining Canadian citizenship because she “felt very much like a Quebecer.”

The gaffes may merely be the result of a new government that is still in the process of finding itself. But, taken together, they do not lend much encouragement to Quebecers who want to see their province leave Canada. □