COVER

A NEW CAN OF WORMS

Liberal strategists fear that the separatist infighting could ultimately hurt the federalist cause in Quebec

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 24 1995
COVER

A NEW CAN OF WORMS

Liberal strategists fear that the separatist infighting could ultimately hurt the federalist cause in Quebec

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 24 1995

A NEW CAN OF WORMS

COVER

Liberal strategists fear that the separatist infighting could ultimately hurt the federalist cause in Quebec

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Dissension between supposed allies, anger over a federal politician telling the Quebec government what to do, dismayed predictions of post-referendum chaos: in a country as constitutionally challenged as Canada, those elements seem as much a part of everyday life as bickering between regions, bitching about the United States and belittling Toronto. But sometimes—as in the past two weeks—the more things appear to stay the same, the more they actually change. Witness the fact that it is sovereigntists, not federalists, who are feuding, and that the federal politician in question is Bloc Québécois leader and avowed sovereigntist Lucien Bouchard. And it is sovereigntists’ turn to issue gloom-anddoom pronouncements about the likelihood of a No referendum vote, and the seemingly inevitable disasters that would surely follow.

It should all be enough to make committed federalists outside Quebec roar with contented laughter—or, at least, in cautious English-Canadian fashion, to pass their hands discreetly in front of their faces to hide a quick smirk. But that would require that some Canadians develop a sense of humor about the country’s longest-lasting political soap opera—and laughter is a commodity in short supply on both sides of the debate. Instead, last week, the apparent disarray in the sovereigntist camp gave federal politicians in Ottawa new worries, provoked a debate about whether to rethink their pre-referendum strategy, and evoked inevitable warnings against complacency.

Until now, the federal Liberals’ strategy towards Quebec has essentially amounted to saying little, and promising even less. For the most part, that has worked remarkably well: for all the talk about how Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is reviled and Bouchard is revered within their home province, the most recent poll conducted by Gallup Canada Inc. showed that the Liberals lead the Bloc by a margin of 51 per cent of respondents to 42 per cent. That restraint has extended to their counterparts among the provincial Liberals, who have been largely absent from sight since their defeat in last September’s election. The provincial and federal Liberals were widely criticized when they first said they would boycott provincewide hearings on sovereignty. But as a result of that move, the commission hearings were devoid of the usual partisan bickering between federalists and sovereigntists, and served only to highlight the doubts and skepticism of many ordinary, politically unaffiliated Quebecers towards the coming referendum.

But somewhat surprisingly, advisers to Chrétien, instead of being pleased by the split between Bouchard and Premier Jacques Parizeau, now find new causes for concern. With polls showing support for sovereignty stalled at a maximum of 45 per cent, federalists want a referendum as soon as possible—and they want Parizeau to stick to his promise to hold one in 1995. A delay, they suggest, affects the entire country by prolonging uncertainty, which, in turn, depresses the value of the dollar on international markets. Another oft-repeated refrain is that the short-term gains for the federalist side caused by sovereigntist infighting could be followed by long-term pain for the rest of the country. There is, for example, the question of whether Bouchard is launching a pre-referendum strike to replace Parizeau as head of the Parti Québécois, and as premier. ‘With Parizeau in charge, everything is so clear-cut—and'-so are the poll results in our favor,” said one Chrétien adviser. “So we have some reservations about anything that changes the mix too much.”

In fact, polls repeatedly show that Bouchard is not only Quebec’s most popular politician, but also is seen within the province as the person best able to defend Quebec’s interests. If Bouchard were to replace him as premier, his new status might well be enough to increase the PQ’s popularity—and, in the process, bump up support for sovereignty. More to the point, Bouchard’s emphasis on maintaining links with the rest of Canada would be reassuring to the “soft nationalists” within Quebec—the 15 per cent or so of Quebecers who are perpetually undecided on which way to vote.

Paradoxically, another important factor is one that sees Chrétien and his advisers in agreement with hardliners within the sovereignty movement. That is the notion that despite the obvious differences in style between Bouchard and Parizeau, there is not a great deal of difference in the substance of what each proposes. Both stress the need for Quebec to become an independent state; both say that political and economic links with the rest of Canada would only be discussed after that. Both men also insist that the rest of Canada would be forced to negotiate ties with an independent Quebec out of self-interest.

But Bouchard’s approach, Chrétien advisers say, carries a greater element of risk for both sovereigntists and federalists. By linking the notion of political and economic association to independence, Bouchard diminishes the emotional and practical significance of Quebec becoming a country. “It is hard,” says an-

other Chrétien adviser, “to argue the urgency of leaving Canada even as you stress the logic of remaining tied to it.” On the other hand, the promise of association also appears to lessen the risk of independence.

Still, the real wild card is that Bouchard, whether or not intentionally, has now effectively invited the rest of Canada to join the debate. Even federalists in Quebec usually argue that the province has the right to determine its own future within or outside of Canada—but any links with the rest of Canada would require the approval of other Canadians. Some sovereigntists hope—while federalists worry—that a noisy rejection of association by political leaders outside Quebec before the referendum would cause hurt feelings in the province, and a rise in support for sovereignty.

But that, says an official in Chrétien’s office, “is a game we will not play.” Instead, Chrétien, when he discusses the issue publicly, will remind Quebecers that the foremost issue in a referendum is whether they wish to leave Canada, with no guarantees as to what comes after. Similarly, Labor Minister Lucienne Robillard’s appointment as the federal government’s point woman in referendum planning was accompanied by veiled reminders to other cabinet ministers from Quebec that they should leave public discussion of the issue to her. Among the more notable by his silence is Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet, long regarded as one of the most ferocious anti-sovereigntists within the party.

Now, Bouchard and Chrétien confront almost perfectly mirrored problems in making their arguments to the country. Bouchard must reassure Quebecers that a Yes vote will not have great consequence in their daily lives even as he tells the rest of Canada that it must be prepared to agree to tumultuous change in the event of a Yes vote. Chrétien, on the other hand, must appeal to the rest of the country to keep its collective cool before a referendum vote even as he emphasizes to Quebecers the dramatic consequences of the decision they will make.

At the same time, both sides must consider the vastly different interpretations that Quebecers and other Canadians attach to the outcome of a referendum vote. Outside Quebec, many Canadians, such as Ontario Premier Bob Rae, argue that a strong majority No vote would encourage a new warmth and openness towards Quebec that would lead to eventual new powers for the province. Within Quebec, even some federalists, such as Conservative Senator Jean-Claude Rivest and former provincial Liberal cabinet minister Claude Forget, say a strong No vote would rob Quebec of the bargaining power it needs for future constitutional negotiations. That, in turn, leads to another argument against complacency among federalists: the worry that if many Quebecers regard a No majority result as a certainty, they might follow such logic and vote Yes in the hope that a close result will increase the chance for renewed federalism.

For most Canadians, all that scheming amounts to an even more arcane constitutional version of the old philosophical question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The depressing reality, however, is that the issue of Quebec’s place within or outside of Canada will continue regardless of the referendum result—or even whether one is held. If Quebecers vote Yes, the entire country must decide what to do next. If they vote No, or if the referendum is postponed indefinitely, Quebec will still continue to be the only province in Canada that has not accepted the existing Constitution. And Quebecers will continue to expect the right to be brought into the Constitution alongside other Canadians “with honor and enthusiasm,” as Bouchard wrote in a speech he prepared for Brian Mulroney on election day, Sept. 4, 1984. Or eventually, like Bouchard, they will renounce their enthusiasm, and their desire for that right. □