IS SEPERATISM DEAD?
The spat between Bouchard and Parizeau strikes at the heart of the movement
If a picture is worth a thousand words, there were volumes in the one that appeared last week on the front page of almost every newspaper in Quebec. It captured Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard rubbing shoulders at the gathering in Montreal of an organization dubbed, ironically enough in the circumstances, Partners for Sovereignty. The two paramount leaders of the forces of Quebec separatism sat side by side, even managing to summon a tight smile for the benefit of the cameras. But not once did they look each other in the eye. And little wonder. For the Quebec premier and the Bloc Québécois leader are not exactly on speaking terms at the moment. They are, in fact, locked in a hitherto private but now very public feud that threatens to tear asunder the movement they both pretend to command. ‘There’s panic all over the place,” says former Bloc MP Jean Lapierre, now a prominent Montreal broadcaster. ‘The separatists are now led by a two-headed monster. Who knows where it’s going to take them?”
It may well lead in a direction that few in the movement now dare to contemplate. Few Quebecers, either separatist or federalist, foresee approaching doom for the secessionist cause as a result of the open dispute between Parizeau and Bouchard. Indeed, many in the sovereigntist camp, in public at least, welcomed the unfolding debate as a sign of the movement’s robust health. “Having two leaders instead of one does not bother me at all if it can help our cause,” argued Deputy Premier Bernard Landry. But others predict much more dire results—even the death of the sovereignty movement, at least in the form that Canadians have known
it for the past generation. “It is just further proof that the separatist movement is over, finished,” declares Quebec City constitutional lawyer Guy Bertrand, who mounted a losing bid in 1985 for the PQ leadership as a hardline separatist candidate. Though still a PQ member, he no longer believes in the party’s goal of independence. ‘We have to admit that our people simply do not want to split the country,” says Bertrand. We’ve failed. The dream is over. For Quebecers, Canada is our country.”
That, to be sure, is still very much a minority opinion among nationalists. Bertrand, in fact, has been reviled by the separatists ever since he shook the movement’s establishment in January by publicly announcing his change of heart. He was roundly booed by separatist onlookers in February when he appeared before one of Parizeau’s rov-
ing sovereignty commissions to argue against the PQ program for independence, describing the entire referendum process as not only illegal but doomed to failure as well. Even federalist voices have tended to dismiss his views concerning the imminent demise of the independence cause. “The sovereigntists may be in the process of slicing themselves apart right now, but it is absurd to jump to the conclusion that Quebec separatism is dead as a result,” says Montreal economist Kimon Valaskakis, an unsuccessful Liberal candidate in the last federal election whose appointment as Canada’s new ambassador to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development will soon be officially announced.
Still, few deny the deep «nalaise that has overtaken the separatist movement. Its drive for independence is clearly stalled. The most recent public opinion poll, published in La Presse on April 7, suggested that 59 per cent of Quebec’s electorate would vote against secession,
compared with 41 per cent in favor. Those results are roughly in line with dozens of previous surveys—and almost exactly reflect the outcome of the failed 1980 referendum on sovereignty, showing that Quebecers have scarcely changed their basic views despite 15 years of separatist campaigning. Even the massive multimillion-dollar campaign that Parizeau’s PQ government has waged almost from the moment it was elected last September has failed to budge the province’s voters. Those bleak indications for sovereigntist prospects lie at the centre of the simmering feud between Parizeau and Bouchard that flared into public view during the Bloc Québécois’s annual convention in Montreal from April 7 to 9. “The polls are the key,” observes Lapierre. “It’s an argument that has everything to do with winning and nothing to do with principles.”
Bouchard provoked the dispute with a dramatic and thinly veiled attempt to hijack the separatist agenda for his own purposes. Adding insult to injury, he carried out the task in a brazen, almost brutal, manner that recalled his earlier break with another erstwhile ally, former prime minister Brian Mulroney. For three days in a row, the Bloc leader repeatedly challenged Parizeau’s command of the sovereignty movement and called into question the premier’s strategy for leading the province to independence. In the end, he went so far as to drop a broad hint that he might not even take part in a losing referendum effort. “One thing I do not want,” he declared, “is to be involved in a referendum campaign that will in no uncertain terms lead to a defeat.” When Bouchard was asked whether he was signalling his intention to bow out of the referendum battle completely if conditions were not to his liking, he replied ominously: “I did not say that. At least, I did not say it yet.” Bouchard’s assault began with his opening speech to the Bloc convention, in which he called for a virage, or sharp tum, in the direction of the drive for independence. In order to broaden the appeal to an obviously wary electorate, he called for an economic union between Quebec and Canada similar to that spelled out by the 1991 Maastricht treaty governing relations between the member states of the European Union. While Bouchard took pains to portray the recommendation as a
radical departure, there was little in the demand that has not already been spelled out in detail in the PQ’s own program. But Bouchard carried the proposals one step further by advocating political links between Quebec and Canada, something that Parizeau has long and strenuously resisted.
Details aside, it was the nature of Bouchard’s attack, as much as the content, that infuriated Parizeau. “He feels that he has been publicly humiliated,” said one Péquiste close to the premier. Indeed, while the Bloc leader disappeared on vacation immediately after the BQ convention, Parizeau found himself under pressure on several fronts. The separatist ranks were divided between moderate factions, who welcomed Bouchard’s intervention, and hardliners— the so-called pur et dur sovereigntists. The divisions reached into Parizeau’s own cabinet. Surprisingly, among the first to endorse Bouchard’s proposals was the premier’s own second-in-command. “Bouchard has given us a blessed helping hand,” said Landry, describing the Bloc leader as a “brilliant and charismatic” figure prepared to put “all his fabulous potential at our service in a different way.” Parizeau’s hardline allies mounted their own offensive. Veteran Péquiste Camille Laurin castigated the media for falling into what he described as Bouchard’s clever “trap” of selling a “change in direction that was no change in direction.”
Parizeau even managed to garner a measure of support, albeit backhanded, from an unlikely source—federal Conservative Leader Jean Charest,
who remarked that “we lived with this kind of thing when [Bouchard] was a member of our own government.” The comparison was perhaps inevitable, given Bouchard’s betrayal of his old pal and patron Brian Mulroney in 1990 when he stormed out of the Conservative party over the imminent failure of the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Many observers, in fact, had supposed that Bouchard was not likely to act publicly against Parizeau precisely because his betrayal of the former Tory prime minister still haunts his reputation. But Bouchard clearly felt moved to do so. There are several explanations why. The generous view is that Bouchard sincerely believes that a No vote in a second referendum would severely damage Quebec, robbing the province of its bargaining power with the rest of Canada. But it may also be true that Bouchard’s recent brush with the death in battling necrotizing myositis, the so-called flesh-eating disease that cost him his left leg, has made him more determined than ever to achieve his objectives. “He wants to get on with his life,” says Lapierre, “and that has made him a lot more impatient than he used to be.”
Whatever the justifications, the always mercurial Bloc leader certainly managed to roil the waters in Quebec. By the end of last week, Parizeau was beginning to bend to the pressures that Bouchard provoked. While publicly holding firm to his promise to stage a referendum this fall, he nevertheless admitted in the national assembly that some form of political association might be included in the question that is
VOICE OF THE PEOPLE
Maclean’s correspondents Liz Warwick and Mark Cardwell spoke to a wide range of Quebecers last week about the rift between Lucien Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau—and what it means for the future of their province. Excerpts:
François Rebello, 24, is a student at the Université de Montréal and president of the Fédération Etudiante Universitaire du Québec, a province-wide student group.
I think Bouchard did the right thing. I admire the kind of leader who’s capable of saying, ‘I’m heading in that direction. You can follow me or not, but that’s where I’m going.’ I think it’s obvious that economic union is essential. Even if there isn’t a formal agreement, there will be an economic union because it exists now. There’s not a businessman who’s going to accept the loss of an important market. And Quebec is a very important market.
I admit that I was surprised by Bouchard’s comments because he had never given any previous signs or discussed his ideas concerning an economic union with Canada. But I wouldn’t say that it represented a break with Parizeau. It only stands to reason that we would need to look at our future association with our biggest neighbor. Bouchard has only provoked a discussion aimed at finding the best option. Whatever one or the other leader or their party members might say or think, the bottom line is that we fundamentally agree on the need for separation.
Danielle-Maude Gosselin, 41, is president of the 50,000-member Quebec Civil Servants Union, and a member of the National Commission on Sovereignty and the Future of Quebec.
I honestly believe that the most beautiful gifts that Quebec and Canada could give each other would be to allow each other to become two independent countries. Canadians are satisfied with strong, central government and a multicultural population. Quebecers want a more open and accessible society, but one that reflects and protects French culture. Is the separatist movement dead? God, no!
Peter Wheeland, 35, is news editor and columnist with the Montreal entertainment weekly Hour. He voted for soverthe 1980 referendum, but intends to vote No this time.
Bouchard and Parizeau represent different versions of what the referendum is. Bouchard says yes, but only if he can win it. But Quebecers are going to remember that it was the Bloc that took them to the brink of a referendum, but when they saw the dark abyss, they pulled back. It does irreparable damage to the credibility of sovereigntists.
I think there is an element of extreme nationalism in the referendum debate. If they lose, they’re going to point at anglophones. But there are a lot of other groups, not just anglophones and allophones [whose first language is neither English nor French], who don’t support sovereignty. Support for a Yes is much lower among women, for example, so will they start pointing fingers at women? Ultimately, in a democracy, you have to accept the will of the majority whether they’re black or white, male or female, anglophone or francophone.
eventually posed if the sovereignty commissions that canvassed opinion across the province in February and March make such a recommendation in their forthcoming report. That report was expected to be released this week. “We will examine it,” said Parizeau, “and we will decide with clarity and without beating around the bush.”
The report may give Parizeau a convenient excuse to change tactics without acknowledging that he is submitting to Bouchard’s demands. At the same time, however, the PQ government has glimpsed an opportunity. They may well be grasping at straws, but several of Parizeau’s ministers indicated last week that they see the prospect of reaping gains if the rest of Canada makes it plain that no political association is possible once Quebec separates. A negative reaction from English-speaking Canada to such a proposal, they hope, could well ignite the nationalist passions that have so far eluded the separatists.
Despite such expectations, the strains that Bouchard exposed in separatist ranks are not likely to be easily contained. The entire thrust of the Bloc leader’s actions were geared to making the separatist option more palatable to an electorate that shows precious few signs of endorsing independence. Without a dramatic change in the prevailing climate, it may well prove to be an impossible task. Former secessionist hardliner Bertrand, for one, thinks it is. “The only way you’ll see separatism revived is if there is some kind of cultural or linguistic aggression against Quebec,” he argued last week.
In a long and reflective interview with Maclean’s, Bertrand offered his own experience as an instructive example of what may well lie in the future. ‘The move-
Ida LaBillois, 36, is a Micmac, and executive director of the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal, an agency serving the urban aboriginal population.
What Bouchard and Parizeau did really helped the No side. They’ve shown a split and I hope the nonaboriginal community realizes that if the two can’t show clear leadership now, that’s an early sign of what we’re going to be living with after the referendum. Who is going to be the leader? I see younger Québécois coming up whose ideas are not so militant. They understand that Quebec has to live with the anglophone and allophone communities. I just wish they’d give a bit more consideration to the aboriginals.
Yves Plante, 60, is a Quebec City native and the owner of a distributing agency that operates throughout Quebec and Atlantic Canada.
Bouchard’s comments sounded the death knell for the separatist movement. He absolutely floored
the separatists and they won’t be getting back up. Saying a referendum shouldn’t be held until victory is assured, that bugs the hell out of me, as it does a lot of people. Both the Bloc and the PQ were elected with the declared goal of holding a referendum. So let’s get on with it. People don’t want to have the issue hanging over their heads for the life of the PQ government. That won’t be good for anybody, particularly those who need help the most: the jobless, the old and the sick.
Nicole Boudreau, 45, is a spokeswomen of Partners for Sovereignty, a coalition of unions and sovereigntist groups, and a former president of the nationalist St-Jean Baptiste Society.
It is legitimate for Bouchard to deal with things in his way, but I don’t think we can talk about diametrically opposed viewpoints. There is one thing we’re still hearing: sovereignty first. If one had said sovereignty first and the other had said sovereignty later, we would have been split apart. But that was not the case. Everyone is keeping the focus on sovereignty.
Anne Meggs, 41, is an adviser to Quebec’s department of immigration and cultural affairs. A native of Toronto, she was the Bloc Québécois candidate in the Westmount/St. Henri byelection in Februaiy.
Parizeau is right in saying that in essence there is not an awful lo new in what Mr. Bouchard was saying. [Bouchard] has not gone bad to the René Lévesque position, where we’re proposing to negotiate something. It’s clearly still a position where we must have a sovereigr Quebec in order to negotiate. He did put the accent on the future links that are possible between a sovereign Quebec and Canada, more sc than had been in the past. It is not a power grab. It is not a major rift. It’s more a change of accent.
ment has come a long way since 1968,” he recalled. “I myself went from being a sovereigntist to a hardline separatist.
And I was a hardliner right up until last year when I took stock of where the movement has led us.” Lamenting Quebec’s economic difficulties over the past 30 years, he laid the blame for what has happened squarely on the separatists’ fixation on the pursuit of independence. “The truth of the matter,” he said, “is that we’ve destroyed our own society and we are now destroying Canada. We have constantly fought and put Canada down for the past 30 years. We have attacked the people we sent to Ottawa and destroyed their reputations. We have boycotted and insulted Canadian symbols. Now, 30 years later, it’s our duty to admit that Canada bent but did not break.”
Bertrand regards the present push for separation as “immoral,” a waste of precious time and money on a doomed issue. “I personally don’t want to spend my whole life trying to separate,” he vowed. “I now want to reconcile and learn to live and work together, French and English, to help bring industry and jobs back to Quebec. Every day we waste talking about separation is another day lost from our future.”
His is an admittedly radical view, particularly coming from someone who still identifies himself as a member of the Parti Québécois. If there are others in the party who share it, they are certainly making no effort to broadcast it. Yet there are signs that Bertrand may not be a lonely voice in the wilderness. He claims that he has been receiving daily “calls, letters and faxes” of support. “Quebecers have had it with politicians,” he argues. “They never tell them the truth, particularly about how much things are going to cost. They know the same thing is true of sovereignty and separation.”
Lapierre agrees, primarily as a result of the evidence he is receiving from the open-line portion of his popular daily radio show. Says Lapierre: “The overall gist of the message I’m getting is, ‘If these guys can’t get their act together well enough to run a province, why should we trust them with a country?’ ” Underlying these attitudes are a host of generational, demographic and economic factors that point toward deeper, long-term problems for the separatist movement. Landry is fond of portraying swelling support for the cause he espouses as virtually inevitable, almost a force of nature. “From episode to episode, sovereigntist ranks have climbed from 30 members 30 years ago to three million today,” he said last week. “It may take a
few more episodes to reach the additional numbers we need for victory.” That is not necessarily the case, however. In fact, support for the independence dream may well have peaked right where is at the moment—and where it was in René Lévesque’s 1980 referendum—at about 40 per cent of voters.
Certainly, the separatists continue to run into a solid wall of resistance in all of their efforts to garner support among the steadily expanding numbers in the non-francophone population. But more ominous for sovereigntists is the apparent indifference of Quebec’s youth, in particular francophone youngsters. Most research indicates that support for the independence cause remains strong among French-speakers in the 35to 45-year-old age group but is falling among those who are younger. “Economic factors carry much more weight with the kids today,” says Liberal Angeline Fournier, a research analyst with Montreal-based Isogroup Consultants. “For a lot of these young people, separatism is a cause that excited their parents, or their grandparents. They’re much more worried about jobs, about carving out a place for themselves in an increasingly competitive environment.”
Despite such signs, however, Quebec separatism is clearly not yet a spent force. “It would be dangerously premature to predict its demise,” warns Montreal economist and political consultant Marcel Côté, author of
the recently published study “If Québec Goes ...” “I think the movement is likely to be around for some time to come, as long as there is a relatively homogenous majority of francophones in Quebec.” In Côté’s opinion, separatism will remain a significant force until the overwhelming majority of Frenchspeaking Quebecers are made to feel at home and secure in Canada.
Precisely how that can be accomplished is problematic. Economist Valaskakis, who also recently published a book outlining the costs of Quebec secession, argues that separatism is a “cyclical phenomenon, more in the nature of a condition rather than a crisis.” And like many a medical condition, it tends to wax and wane. External factors play a role. If the recent past is any indication, separatism surges in reaction to events outside Quebec, as occurred in the aftermath of the Meech Lake debacle, and plunges when francophone Quebec finds something attractive in being a part of Canada.
Therein lies both the root of the problem, as well as a possible cure. “The real danger is that Canada can be cancelled for lack of interest,” says Valaskakis, pointing to what he describes as the absence of any clear vision in English-speaking Canada about what it means to be Canadian. “It’s a fuzzyheaded kind of place right now, unappealing to many francophones,” he continues. “What they require is a positive image of Canada.” Even if Quebecers vote No in Parizeau’s promised referendum, that is likely to result in nothing more than driving the separatist “condition” into a state of all-tootemporary remission, ready to flare up once again when circumstances dictate. And anyone who harbors doubts about that particular prospect need only glance at Canada’s history for the answer.
With MARK CARDWELL in Quebec City