THE NATION'S BUSINESS

Calling Jacques Parizeau’s bluff

Many fear that a PQ victory will mean another constitutional talk-fest. No way. Once Parizeau’s in, Quebec’s out.

Peter C. Newman September 5 1994
THE NATION'S BUSINESS

Calling Jacques Parizeau’s bluff

Many fear that a PQ victory will mean another constitutional talk-fest. No way. Once Parizeau’s in, Quebec’s out.

Peter C. Newman September 5 1994

Calling Jacques Parizeau’s bluff

THE NATION'S BUSINESS

Many fear that a PQ victory will mean another constitutional talk-fest. No way. Once Parizeau’s in, Quebec’s out.

PETER C. NEWMAN

Back on June 21, 1990, Brian Mulroney rose to address the House of Assembly in Newfoundland. It was just two days before the Meech Lake accord was due to die and the prime minister’s appearance was a dramatic last-ditch effort to save his constitutional initiative by trying to bring the province’s governing Liberals on side. At the time, Mulroney believed that Clyde Wells would keep his written undertaking to either hold a referendum on Meech or allow members of the Newfoundland legislature to declare themselves on the issue. Wells never did allow the vote and Meech died. But the speech Mulroney gave that night, its many drafts written by himself on the plane from Ottawa to St. John’s, finds haunting echoes in the current Quebec election campaign.

If Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard agree on anything (apart from the fact that they’re grand chaps who want to destroy Canada), it’s that the demise of Meech Lake gave their cause the kick start it needed. ‘Thirty years of struggle ended in failure, broken promises and shattered dreams for Quebec,” Bouchard has reiterated in just about every speech he has given since he became a full-time independence crusader. “Quebecers remember the rejection in particular of the Meech Lake accord in 1990, and we should not forget that the five constitutional conditions set by Quebec at the time were the most modest ever to be advanced by a Quebec Government.”

Jean Allaire, the renegade Liberal who failed to get Robert Bourassa’s Liberals to adopt his radical nationalist platform, has lamented Meech in the most telling terms. “Coming on the heels of more than 20 years of sustained effort of the 1867 constitutional pact, the failure of the Meech Lake accord was clearly an event of historic significance,” he wrote at the time. “It was perceived as a refusal by Canada to recognize the distinct value of Quebec’s society, further proof that it

was impossible for Quebec to obtain, within the existing federal structure, the powers essential to its survival and full development.”

There was so much overblown rhetoric involved on all sides of that failed initiative that the quickest way to empty any room in Canada, even now, is to reminisce about Meech and its impact. But those laments from Quebec were real, and we’re now paying the consequences for what happened.

As the Quebec campaign grinds to its all but inevitable conclusion of a separatist victory at the polls—with a referendum to follow—it’s useful to recall Mulroney’s words on that long ago evening in St. John’s. “Nobody can predict the future,” he said. “But I know this: that if Mr. Parizeau gets a chance to have a referendum, that on referendum night, as you and all the rest of us, too, on that night, when you’re sitting there with your families and your children, one thought is going to go through your mind. And that thought is: ‘Do you mean to tell me we could have avoided all of this through Meech Lake?’ If that night were ever to come, the terms of Meech Lake are going to look very, very reasonable.”

That was a prophetic insight worth consid-

ering for anyone who still buys the Bouchard line that a vote for the Parti Québécois doesn’t necessarily mean independence, at least not until a referendum is held on the issue a year or so later.

That’s ham baloney.

The PQ’s own platform (in an excellent English translation by journalist Robert Chodos) is available in bookstores under the title Quebec in a New World. It’s an essential read because it sets out precisely and unemotionally what Parizeau has in store for his province and our country.

Once in office, the PQ will ask the National Assembly to approve a resolution affirming Quebec’s independence and will then create a constitutional commission to define its terms. The PQ’s published platform details the first steps towards separation it would take: a Parizeau government will make certain that all taxes imposed in Quebec are collected by the new Quebec government; that laws which apply to Quebec citizens emanate from the Quebec National Assembly; and that international treaties are redrafted in a form that will require ratification by the new Quebec.

The only mention of Ottawa is as a mailing address for Parizeau to send his separation timetable and, as his platform puts it, the “modalities for transferring powers and the determination of the rules for dividing Canadian assets and debts.” Parizeau’s main aim before calling the referendum will be to draft a new constitution which will be submitted to the people. In other words, the referendum will not deal with whether Quebecers want to stay in Canada, but only on how the new republic on the St. Lawrence should define itself.

Even if Parizeau has appeared to waffle in all directions during the current election campaign, his party platform is crystal clear about the details of his intentions. Quebec’s incumbent lieutenant-governor would, as the Queen’s representative, be fired and replaced by a “ceremonial head of state,” all federal property inside Quebec (presumably including the $460 million St. Lawrence Seaway) would be seized without compensation, and so on. The Quebec Republic would of course get to keep such Canadian advantages as our currency and passports. Fat chance.

Browsing through the PQ’s platform is illuminating. Many Canadians still believe that if Parizeau is elected, we’ll promptly sink into yet another constitutional talk-fest, trying to square the circle of French-English relations in this benighted land of ours.

No way. Once Parizeau’s in, Quebec’s out.

“It is urgent to achieve Quebec sovereignty as rapidly as possible,” the PQ leader insists. His urgency is understandable. On Aug. 9, Parizeau celebrated his 64th birthday. He knows he only has one shot at being the first head of state of the new Quebec. Lucien Bouchard, who is only 55, has a bit more time, which explains why he’s advocating a much more cautious and gradual approach. But the objective of both men presents a clear and present danger to Canada’s future.