CANADA

Searching for the spark

The separatist forces cast about for a way to reignite their drive for Quebec independence

BARRY CAME April 3 1995
CANADA

Searching for the spark

The separatist forces cast about for a way to reignite their drive for Quebec independence

BARRY CAME April 3 1995

Searching for the spark

By his own account, lucien Bouchard is feeling “dangerously good.” At least those were the words he chose to describe the state of his health last week as, four months after losing a leg to the so-called flesh-eating disease, he finally re-emerged on Quebec’s referendum trail. Judging from the tenor of the remarks he delivered to mark the occasion, the Bloc Québécois leader did appear to be in fighting trim. Called upon to breathe life into Premier Jacques Parizeau’s flagging independence campaign, Bouchard responded with a patented, fiery effort. He chided his fellow Quebecers for harboring a “belt-and-suspenders syndrome” marked by fear of the consequences of separation. He warned them that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s mouth is “already watering at the prospect of putting Quebec back in its place.” And he called upon them to stop “hesitating before the only door that is open to us—beyond whose threshold lies the path to a future we will ourselves control.”

It was a rousing speech, typical of Bouchard in its direct appeal to the nationalist sentiments that stir within the breast of most French-speaking Quebecers, separatist and federalist alike. And it was delivered in an appropriate setting—an elegant old mansion perched on the lip of majestic Montmorency Falls outside Quebec City, overlooking the very stretch of the St. Lawrence River shore line where the French presence in North America first took root. But even Bouchard’s eloquence may not be able to light a spark in the independence campaign—at least not yet. For the effort is clearly fal-

The separatist forces cast about for a way to reignite their drive for Quebec independence

tering, so much so that even senior members of the Parti Québécois now appear to be engaged in an increasingly desperate search for face-saving reasons to postpone the referendum, pushing the date for the critical vote back from this spring to sometime in the fall.

The reasons are obvious, as Bouchard himself recognized in his address before the inaugural session of Parizeau’s newly constituted National Commission on the Future of Quebec—a body made up of the chairmen of the 18 regional roving commissions that conducted provincewide hearings in February and March, as well as Bouchard, Parizeau and Mario Dumont, the leader of the tiny Parti Action Démocratique. “I am among those who think that a second No from Quebecers on a sovereignty referendum would have very serious consequences for Quebec,” said Bouchard. A negative vote, he argued, would give Ottawa a free hand to pursue “imperialstyle” federalism, treating Quebec as a province like any other. “We have not struggled for more than 30 years,” Bouchard asserted, “just to surrender in that fashion, to vindicate Pierre Trudeau and his executor, Jean Chrétien.” Many of the regional commission chairmen appeared to agree. Each presented a report summarizing the results of the month-and-ahalf-long series of hearings in which some 53,000 Quebecers participated. With the notable exception of the staunchly separatist Saguenay-Lac St. Jean area, all echoed similar fears that a No vote, following upon the federalists’ 60-per-cent victory in the 1980 referendum, would not only extinguish the dream of Quebec independence, but also rob the province of crucial bargaining power in dealing with the rest of Canada. The underlying problem, they said, is a lack of a clear idea among the people of the province about how independence would affect them. “People want to know how it will change their lives,” said Jules Bélanger, chairman of the Gaspé commission. “They need information.”

That may not have been the message that Parizeau hoped to hear when he conceived the idea of a massive public consultation to build pro-sovereignty momentum. But now that pro-separatist momentum

has failed to materialize, he may have the excuse he needs to delay the referendum. Significantly, there is much talk in separatist circles of the need for a so-called projet de société, a concept first broached by Marcel Masse, the former Conservative federal minister who chaired Montreal’s regional commission and who is likely to be rewarded soon for his efforts with a senior executive job at Hydro Quebec. The concept is a typically Gallic construct, unfamiliar to the Anglo-Saxon style of governance and has no real English equivalent. But essentially, it involves drafting a comprehensive set of guidelines for the overall shape of society in an independent Quebec.

For the PQ’s strategists, the great virtue in Masse’s idea is the fact that it would require some time to put together, certainly more time than exists between now and late June, until recently considered the most likely time for the referendum vote. Bouchard lent his support to that approach last week, suggesting that “a considerable effort in reflection, clarity of vision and imagination is called for” before Quebecers are ready to vote on independence.

But for the record, Parizeau continued to insist that no decision had yet been made on the timing. Once again last week, with Bouchard by his side, the Quebec premier reiterated his pledge to hold the vote sometime in 1995. And even Bouchard, pressed to offer his opinion, supported that plan. “I think we should do it this year,” he declared, “as soon as possible, and I think as soon as possible means as fast as bloody possible.”

To that end, the PQ is still clearing the decks to allow a vote this spring if conditions are right. In early April, the government will table its first budget—with a forecast deficit of $5.7 billion. Soon after, the national commission that began work last week will issue its report. And sometime later in April, a new electoral law setting up a permanent electoral list as well as a shorter campaign period will be in place. Clearly, neither Bouchard nor Parizeau is yet ready to give up the search for the spark that has so far eluded them.

BARRY CAME