CANADA

Summertime blues

Jean Chrétien’s Quebec strategy is fine for now, but it may just be the calm before the storm

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 31 1995
CANADA

Summertime blues

Jean Chrétien’s Quebec strategy is fine for now, but it may just be the calm before the storm

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 31 1995

Summertime blues

One of the nice things about a country as mannerly as Canada is that even its political crises are predictable. If we are not bemoaning our too-close political links with the United States, we are worrying that those ties are not close enough. Late autumn and early spring are when we get most angry with politicians, because during the former season they are getting ready to raise our taxes and cut our services, while during the latter, we are conscious that they have just done so. The rest of the year, there’s always the weather to worry about.

Not to mention Quebec. As surely as spring is too late and short, the onset of each summer is accompanied by politicians, journalists and other rogues and wastrels worrying about the size of Montreal’s June 24 Fête nationale parade, and what that says about the state of nationalism in the province. If the crowd is too big, it causes alarm; if too small, it requires sombre warnings that nationalism is dormant, but not dead. Seldom in the history of political combat have the actions of so many been watched with so much interest by so few.

Then, there are the polls, which show support for sovereignty rising at about the same rate as the scorching July temperature. What do Quebecers think of political sovereignty coupled with economic association? The correct answer is that they don’t, any more than other Canadians lie awake at their lakefront cottages at night pondering, say, the consequences of privatizing the St. Lawrence Seaway. Conduct a poll on that, and the results would be statistically just as valid: in both cases, the responses don’t reflect the fact that people of both official language groups and all political persuasions recognize that an issue can be deathly important but too deadly dull to seriously contemplate from a strategic spot on the hammock.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is right not to disturb midsummer dreams with the nightmare of more constitutional talk. But just as general managers in professional sports use the off-season to shore up weaknesses in their lineup, Chrétien—and Daniel Johnson, the provincial liberal leader and official head

BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Jean Chrétien’s Quebec strategy is fine for now, but it may just be the calm before the storm

of the No forces— need to recognize their many organizational problems. Privately, federalists are disappointed in the performance of Johnson since last September’s Quebec election. Only the prospect of the referendum has kept his backbenchers from openly challenging him. The provincial Liberal organization, which was much stronger than its federal counterpart, has crumbled, and in some regions outside of Montreal, federalist organization is almost non-existent. Maddeningly, some provincial Liberals still want to spend time crafting new constitutional proposals. Federal Labor Minister Lucienne Robillard, Chrétien’s designated pointperson for the referendum, is well liked in provincial and federal circles but lacks the aggressive political instincts and charisma needed for her position. The best speaker so far for the federalist side is Michel Bélanger, a retired bank chairman and civil servant —which says it all about the lack of charisma on the No side. Then, there is Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest, who will be effective only if he is given a podium, and an audience.

Chrétien’s handling so far of the Quebec issue has been impeccable. His silence has highlighted two prominent, though unwitting, allies of the federalist cause: Premier Jacques Parizeau and his bombastic vice-premier, Bernard Landry. Both have a remarkable propensity for silly and offensive remarks, and both seem to send their shirts out to get stuffed •on a regular basis. But the next steps are all too predictable. As summer ends and full-fledged referendum talk resumes, the value of the dollar will drop, interest rates will rise, and annoyed Canadians will return from the cottage to find their mortgage rates going up—along with their tempers. Patience will become even more of a virtue on all sides.

Does Chrétien have a referendum strategy? Yes, and a remarkably successful one so far. Does he have the quality and organization of troops that he needs? The answer to that might be the one issue worth pondering—just briefly, in between the sports pages and the crossword— in the hammock this month.