CANADA

DOWN AND DIRTY

Both sides lower the tone in Quebec’s referendum debate

BARRY CAME October 9 1995
CANADA

DOWN AND DIRTY

Both sides lower the tone in Quebec’s referendum debate

BARRY CAME October 9 1995

DOWN AND DIRTY

CANADA

Both sides lower the tone in Quebec’s referendum debate

BARRY CAME

When autumn mists blanket the lower reaches of the St. Lawrence River, the most popular attraction on board the ferryboat L’Heritage is the television set by the snack bar. With nothing to see and even less to do, passengers spend the two-hour crossing from Trois-Pistoles on the river’s south bank to Les Escoumins on the northern shore drinking watery coffee and watching old movies. On a particularly foggy day last week, it was The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 1957 remake with Anthony Quinn in the starring role, that captured their attention. And for traveller Alain Dubé, a 42-year-old hardware salesman on his way from Rimouski to Chicoutimi, the film struck a timely referendum note. “That guy could have had a brilliant career in Quebec politics,” muttered Dubé as he watched the disfigured Quinn leap among the gargoyles that decorate the face of the Paris cathedral. “That’s just about what we’ve got here, a bunch of miscreants trying to tell us how to behave when all they seem to be able to do is shout insults at each other.”

A harsh judgment perhaps but, given the performance of all sides in Quebec’s referendum debate last week, one that is not entirely misplaced. For as the pace of the campaign accelerated, separatists and federalists alike chose to lower the tone. Bitter recriminations and personal slights abounded as both sides struggled to gain the upper hand. Premier Jacques Parizeau’s Parti Québécois machine, frustrated by its failure to sway public opinion, lashed out at federalist policies and personalities and launched an emotional advertising campaign clearly designed to ignite slumbering but still sensitive Quebec passions (page 21). Not to be outdone, the federalists indulged in excesses of their own. For the first time in the campaign, Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson was put on the defensive, forced to distance himself from the remarks of some of his more zealous followers at precisely the moment when he took his campaign to Quebec’s hinterland. By the end of the week, the situation had deteriorated to the point where both leaders felt moved to reign in their troops. “Can we lower the decibels?” Parizeau wondered aloud, to which Johnson promptly replied: “I’m asking everyone to lower the volume because it is everyone in Quebec who will still be here the morning after the vote.”

If the campaign is generating a lot of heat, however, it does not appear to be accomplishing much in the way of changing Quebecers’ minds. At least, those were the findings suggested by two new opinion polls late last week. One, conducted among 2,020 voters between Sept. 20 and 25 by CROP Inc. of Montreal for The Toronto Star, Montreal’s La Presse and Quebec’s TVA television network, found that 47 per cent of respondents intended to vote No on Oct. 30, 39 per cent Yes and 14 per cent were undecided or refused to answer. When the undecideds were redistributed, the results indicated a 55 to 45 vote against the sovereignty option. The second poll, carried out Sept. 25 to 28 by Groupe Léger & Léger for The Globe and Mail and Le Journal de Montréal, also put the federalist side ahead. With a smaller sample of 1,006 voters, it found 53.2 per cent for the No side and 46.8 per cent for the Yes after undecided voters were allocated proportionately to each side.

For the PQ faithful and their allies in the Bloc Québécois and the Parti action démocratique, the results were not encouraging. What is more, they are certain to add to the spreading sense of panic in the separatist camp. Even before the new poll findings were released, there were increasing signs of disarray among Parizeau’s troops, particularly within the PQ caucus. Faced with a barrage of complaints from nervous caucus members, the premier shuffled the key players on his referendum campaign team. He placed his chief of staff, Jean Royer, a trusted adviser, in overall charge of the campaign, moving aside Normand Brouillette, a former trade union official with little political experience. He hauled a score of tried and tested veterans of past political wars out of retirement, or from the party’s back rooms where they had been languishing since last year’s provincial

election. And he abandoned the so-called intellectual campaign approach that had been advocated by, among others, the journalistturned-political adviser Jean-François Lisée, embarking instead on a blunt appeal to some of Quebec voters’ more base fears. “I’m happy to see there’s going to be a turnaround,” commented PQ MNA Claude Bellechasse. “Faced with the adversaries we have before us, it’s clear we better have some old hands around.” Those “old hands” did not take long to exert their influence. Shrill ads soon began to appear in newspapers across the province, dwelling on alleged insults and threats issued by various federalist spokesmen. The ill-considered call to écraser—crush—the separatists in the referendum issued by Claude Garcia, president of Canadian operations for Standard Life Assurance Co., was featured heavily in the print ads, portrayed as yet another example of the alleged humiliation

that Quebecers face from the rest of Canada. The same theme was trumpeted in subsequent radio commercials, broadcast 20 times a day for three successive days on 37 stations in all regions of Quebec. In a similar vein, sovereigntists attacked Johnson for telling an audience composed largely of Quebecers of Italian origin that “we are all immigrants.” Bombardier Inc. chairman Laurent Beaudoin was castigated for describing an independent Quebec as “a shrunken state.” And Jean Chrétien’s prediction that the separatists were “going to take a beating” at the polls was twisted to imply that the Prime Minister was waiting for a No vote in order to finally erase all trace of Quebec nationalism.

The same tone crept into speeches by leading sovereigntists. When federal Finance Minister Paul Martin, in a powerful Montreal speech, carefully dismantled the separatists’ entire economic program, he was accused by Quebec deputy premier Bernard Landry of “strident demagogy.” Bloc Leader Lucien Bouchard reacted to the same speech by vowing that in the event of Quebec independence, “English Canada would run after Mr. Parizeau to ask him, to beg him, to sit down and discuss” Quebec’s share of Canada’s $578-billion national debt. And in a clear sign that Martin had managed to strike a sensitive nerve, Bouchard also attempted to compare the Chrétien government’s approach to social security reform to “the simplistic and heartless solutions of Mike Harris”—a reference to right-wing measures announced last week by the Ontario premier’s new government (page 24).

Parizeau himself joined the chorus, warning Quebecers that a No vote would likely imperil their old age pensions, unemployment insurance, medicare and other social welfare programs. He exercised behind-the-scenes influence to coax leading government-owned corporations—Hydro Quebec, the provincial lottery corporation and the provincial liquor agency—to resign from the Conseil du patronat, the province’s main employers’ association, as a protest against the overwhelming federalist sentiment of big business in the

THE REFERENDUM CAMPAIGN

• Two new polls gave the No side the lead, confirming the findings of earlier surveys. One poll, taken by CROP Inc. of Montreal, found 55 per cent of Quebec voters ready to vote No to sovereignty, compared with 45 per cent for the Yes side. The second survey, conducted by Groupe Léger & Léger, put No support at 53.2 per cent, and Yes support at 46.8 per cent.

• Premier Jacques Parizeau demanded that a planned referendum TV debate between him and Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson be expanded to include Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Lucien Bouchard

of the Bloc Québécois. Chrétien rejected the suggestion, saying that Parizeau is afraid to face Johnson alone.

• Franco-Albertans went to Montreal to argue that French would be better protected in a united Canada, while leaders of the English community in Quebec travelled to Alberta and warned Reform party Leader Preston Manning to stay out of the Quebec debate. Michael Hamelin, president of the English-language lobby group Alliance Quebec, advised Manning that he is playing into the hands of the separatists by questioning Chrétien’s tactics in the referendum fight.

province. The premier even attempted to make a campaign issue out of four separate acts of vandalism against sovereigntist property last week, including attacks on the houses of two separatists and breaking windows at a Yes committee office in Montreal, blaming federalist forces for inciting the incidents. ‘The excitement they are seeking to provoke through insults, slander and yelling can result in these things,” Parizeau declared.

To be sure, Quebec’s liberals were not entirely blameless. Certainly, Standard Life’s Garcia did not help the federalist cause with his provocative comments. But Garcia was not alone. When Johnson launched a three-day bus tour last week to drum up support in the lower St. Lawrence region, he was constantly dogged by the questionable tactics of some of his supporters. He faced a polite but clearly hostile crowd of trade unionists at a Bombardier plant in La Pocatière, angered by company president Beaudoin’s aggressively outspoken support for federalism. Further downstream in Mario Dumont’s hometown and riding of Rivière-du-Loup, he listened in pained discomfort as Liberal youthwing president Claude-Eric Gagné played with the Parti action démocratique leader’s name, describing him as “Mario Ducon”—roughly, Mario the stupid bastard. At the same meeting, France Dionne, the Liberal MNA for Kamouraska/Témiscouata, offered a murky comment about the state of Bloc Leader Bouchard’s marriage to his American-born wife,

Audrey, and the future residence of the couple’s children. Separation is “what Lucien Bouchard is offering his children,” she said, slyly adding,

“if they stay in the country.”

Even Johnson found himself accused of engaging in personal slurs involving the diminutive PQ house leader, Guy Chevrette. The previous weekend, Chevrette said Canada’s premiers would be “on all fours” begging to trade with an independent Quebec. In response, Johnson replied that if the premiers were on all fours it would be in order to see eye-to-eye with Chevrette, who is barely five feet tall. The Liberal leader subsequently telephoned Chevrette to apologize, but not before the separatists had seized on the remark as yet another example of federalist arrogance.

There was some truth to the charge. For Quebec’s federalist camp, buoyed by public opinion polls as well as their continued success in rattling the separatists, is clearly in a combative, even cocky mood. But there are dangers in adopting too triumphant an attitude. “The campaign is only beginning,” warned federal Conservative Leader Jean Charest last week in Rivière-du-Loup. “We’re facing a very determined adversary. I don’t think it’s wise to underestimate the pitfalls that lie ahead.” Chief among those is an electorate that is growing weary of watching politicians sling mud at each other. It is not an edifying sight, no matter whether the politicians are trying to build a new country—or hold together the one that already exists. □