CANADA

THE 'NO' OFFENSIVE

The federalist forces gather steam in the fight for Quebec

BARRY CAME January 23 1995
CANADA

THE 'NO' OFFENSIVE

The federalist forces gather steam in the fight for Quebec

BARRY CAME January 23 1995

THE 'NO' OFFENSIVE

The federalist forces gather steam in the fight for Quebec

BARRY CAME

CANADA

They were all on hand, a glittering array of political heavyweights from both the federal and the Quebec Liberal parties. Jammed incongruously into a modest hall in threadbare StHenri, within sight of downtown Montreal’s soaring skyscrapers, they gathered last week to welcome a new star in Quebec’s federalist firmament. And when she finally arrived to a boisterous round of applause, Lucienne Robillard did not disappoint. The former provincial cabinet minister graciously accepted the uncontested nomination to run as Liberal standard-bearer in the newly vacated riding of St-Henri/West-

mount in next month’s federal byelection. Then she launched, in both fluent French and English as well as passable Hebrew, a stinging attack on those who want to take Quebec out of Canada. The upcoming referendum is, she charged, “one man’s obsession that directly threatens everything we’ve spent the past 128 years building as a nation and risks transforming us into foreigners in our own country.”

It was exactly what the assembled crowd of 500 Liberal stalwarts, including a score of senators, federal ministers and provincial members of the National Assembly, wanted to hear. Robillard, once regarded as one of the more nationalist-minded members of former Quebec premier Daniel Johnson’s Liberal government, is widely expected to play a leading role in the impending battle to defeat Premier Jacques Parizeau’s plans to lead the province to independence. And her nomination last week not only signalled new stirrings in the hitherto slumbering federalist camp, but also offered a hint of the emerging strategy the federalists plan to employ. “I say no to independence,” declared Robillard. “I say no to the status quo. I say yes to change.”

Her remarks were echoed by other federalist voices that spoke out forcefully last week. Addressing the same nomination meeting, federal Finance Minister Paul Martin, who represents the Montreal riding of LaSalle/ Emard, said that the burden of proof lies squarely with sovereigntist forces to explain how Quebecers will have a better standard of living in an independent country.

The federalist cause received another significant boost when Michel Bélanger, a highprofile banker, businessman and former top civil servant in Quebec City, was named chairman of the provincial Liberal party’s referendum committee the day before Robillard’s nomination. In announcing Bélanger’s appointment as head of the body that will prepare federalist forces in Quebec for the upcoming referendum, Johnson could scarcely contain his delight. Bélanger, co-chairman with Jean Campeau of the commission that explored Quebec’s political and constitutional future four years ago, is one of the province’s most credible federalist figures. Not only does he neatly balance Campeau, now the finance minister in Parizeau’s Parti Québécois government, but he also gives the federalists enormous prestige. “It was a real coup to snag a tremendously capable guy like Bélanger,” says Montreal broadcaster Jean Lapierre, the former Liberal who helped found the Bloc Québécois. “He’s articulate and civilized. He’ll keep the debate out of the gutter.”

In his first public pronouncement as helmsman of the Liberal’s referendum effort, Bélanger gave an indication of what lies ahead. Like Robillard, he urged Quebecers to vote against Parizeau’s draft sovereignty bill to avoid the prospect of “becoming foreigners in Canada.” He also insisted that a No vote in the referendum will not close any doors to Quebec’s future but, rather, keep them open. “What is interesting in Canada is that the status quo is not carved in stone,” he said. “By voting No, you have only said ‘No’ to one thing. You said ‘No’ to one law. All the other options are still there.”

It is a theme that Johnson will be pursuing as well in the near future, perhaps as soon as this week when he is scheduled to travel to Toronto to meet with Ontario Premier Bob Rae and address a joint meeting of the Canadian and Empire clubs. The Ontario visit is one of several Johnson is planning outside Quebec in the coming months. He hopes to meet with as many premiers as possible before the referendum in an effort to demonstrate to Quebecers that there is a willingness in the rest of Canada to change the existing federal structure, even if the federal government is likely to resist the attempt. While there is as yet no specific agenda, members of Johnson’s entourage privately indicate that he is working on meetings with premiers who are considered receptive to Quebec’s demands for expanded provincial powers—in particular, British Columbia’s Mike Harcourt and New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna.

Late last week, the Quebec Liberals announced the creation of yet another party committee—this one to define a new constitutional platform for the party. Once again, the goal was to demonstrate that the upcoming referendum will not offer a choice only between independence and the status quo but, rather, independence and a system that is in the process of almost continual change. The Liberals’ overall strategy will become clearer at the party’s general council meeting, set for Jan. 27. “That’s when the Liberal program is likely to coalesce,” says Lapierre.

In the meantime, Parizeau intends to devote much of his time to the ongoing effort to shore up international support for the possibility of Quebec independence. A major step in that direction will occur during a visit he is scheduled to make to Paris from Jan. 24 to 27. While in France, the premier will have the opportunity to lobby not only French leaders, but also the representatives of other Frenchspeaking nations who are planning to hold a summit in the French capital at the same time. Among Péquiste strategists, France is considered the key to gaining international recognition, particularly if Parizeau proceeds with his stated plans to unilaterally declare Quebec independence one year after a majority votes Yes in the referendum.

Before that occurs, however, Parizeau needs to win his referendum. Until last week, events were unfolding in the PQ’s favor, fuelled by the recruitment of such prominent former federal Tory cabinet ministers as Marcel Masse and Monique Vezina to chair some of the 15 regional commissions that will begin public hearings on Parizeau’s draft sovereignty bill early in February. All those commissions are now in place, most of them securely in the hands of individuals with pronounced separatist sympathies, if not outright supporters of the Péquiste cause. But there are now signs of life in the federalist camp. As the nomination of Robillard and the appointment of Bélanger clearly indicated, Parizeau’s march towards sovereignty will not go unchallenged.