CANADA

SEPARATIST KICKOFF

The Yes forces face an uphill battle

BARRY CAME August 28 1995
CANADA

SEPARATIST KICKOFF

The Yes forces face an uphill battle

BARRY CAME August 28 1995

SEPARATIST KICKOFF

CANADA

The Yes forces face an uphill battle

The setting, deep in Quebec’s nationalist heartland, was as close to perfection as possible. The audience, too, was well primed, prepared by a travelling caravan of politicians armed with promises. And the principal players, all three of them, were in fine, fighting form. Young Mario Dumont was there, eager to polish his new credentials. Jacques Parizeau was on hand, in an appropriately avuncular mood. But the evening belonged to the other member of the province’s separatist triumvirate, Lucien Bouchard. A faintly tragic figure, he struggled to mount the podium—a painful reminder of his bout last December with the so-called flesh-eating disease, which cost Bouchard his left leg. But the Bloc Québécois leader soon electrified the overflow crowd that was jammed into the triple-tiered atrium of a shopping complex last week in Bouchard’s home town of Alma, Que., not far from the shores of Lac St-Jean.

“We have no more alibis, no more possible excuses, no more intellectual contortions available to avoid making the right decision,” he solemnly declared, adding in ringing tones that Quebecers had no choice now but to vote for independence. “There are no other doors open to us.”

Billed in advance as the coup d’envoi—the kickoff—for the referendum campaign that is almost certain to unfold in Quebec this autumn, the event more than fulfilled the expectations of the province’s separatist leadership. Bouchard’s rousing speech, a masterful blend of indépendantiste passion and biting wit, was delivered before 1,200 cheering, flag-waving sovereigntist faithful inside the Complexe Jacques-Gagnon—as well as viewers across Quebec who watched the proceedings live on television. And it set the tone for the coming struggle, a plan of battle that will be quick to seize

on any signs of disarray within the federalist camp while attempting to soothe Quebecers’ deep fears about independence. The separatists’ ultimate goal is to portray the option as not much more than a long-overdue opportunity to create a new, more equitable “partnership” with the rest of Canada.

Both campaign themes were heavily in evidence last week as the separatist forces, led by a busload of some 30 elected politicians from the Parti Québécois and the Bloc Québécois, descended into the nationalist strongholds in the Saguenay region. For two full days, Péquiste cabinet ministers, PQ

A LOW PRIORITY

A poll of 1,036 adults conducted Aug. 11 to 15 by Montreal-based SOM Inc. suggests that sovereignty is not a top-of-mind issue for most Quebecers. Respondents were given a list of six issues and asked to say which among them should be the Quebec government’s top priority. Responses:

Employment/economy: 52%

Maintaining health services: 20%

The deficit: 14%

Quality of education: 7%

Sovereignty: 6%

Road maintenance: 1%

MNAs and BQ MPs blitzed the area.

They visited 13 separate towns in the isolated valley north of Quebec City, hosting more than 50 lunches, dinners and news conferences and haunting the radio talk shows. In the process, the politicians freely dispensed pledges worth millions of taxpayers’ dollars—everything from $100 million for a new superhighway from Alma to La Baie, to $6 million to develop the tourism industry. The entire affair culminated with the Aug. 15 evening rally in Alma, where the separatist trinity of Parizeau, Bouchard and Dumont appeared together on a public platform for the first time since they signed a manifesto in June, which formally linked Quebec sovereignty to an offer of political and economic association with the Canada that remains.

All three leaders, cognizant perhaps of new public opinion polls underlining most Quebecers’ continued attachment to Canada, took pains to stress that the independence they are asking voters to endorse does not mean an irrevocable break with the rest of the country. “Our proposal is not against Canada; it is for Quebec,” said Dumont, the leader and only sitting member of the Parti action démocratique. BQ Leader Bouchard, standing by, quickly agreed. “Sovereignty is a project that is generous and open, for Canada will always be our neighbor,” he said. Even the oftencantankerous Quebec premier joined the loving chorus, arguing that he was in favor of “extending a hand to our neighbor.” Parizeau told the assembled throng: “We cannot turn our backs on Canada. We cannot turn our backs on the ties we have created, the friendships we have inherited, the projects that we can still undertake together.”

On the subject of their federalist adversaries, however, the separatist trio was less fulsome. Offering a glimpse of the tactics that lie ahead, not to mention the acrimony, all three leaders jumped at the chance to exploit an apparent split in federalist ranks that erupted last week after Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson, bending to pressure from his party’s youth wing, resurrected the prospect of a renewed round of constitutional bargaining. Such a proposal is anathema to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien—not to mention a majority of English Canadians—and both he and his senior ministers scrambled to distance themselves from Johnson’s suggestion. “At the moment the problem is the referendum and the referendum is on the separation of Quebec,” Chrétien told reporters in Ottawa the day after Johnson’s speech. In Alma, the separatist leaders heaped scorn on the

Quebec Liberal leader. “We know Johnson won’t have to wait,” said Bouchard, his voice dripping with disdain. “He got his marching orders today from his masters in Ottawa. They all said to him, ‘It’s not you who speaks for the No side. You’re not allowed to have ideas and initiatives for Quebec. You, Daniel Johnson, should lie down and shut up.’ ” Stung by the personal nature of the attack, and clearly embarrassed by Ottawa’s chilly response to any mention of new constitutional talks, Johnson struck back. He convened a news conference to leap on Bouchard’s claim, delivered in Alma, that Quebecers face the choice of either giving up their identity by adopting Canadian federalism or preserving it by getting out of the system altogether. “What is it that permits Lucien Bouchard, on high from I don’t know what pulpit, to grant a Quebec identity to one person over another?” Johnson testily demanded. “I’d like Lucien Bouchard to come and tell me and prove to my face, to me, a Quebecer, that I will no longer be a Quebecer if I vote No.”

The exchange may be a harbinger of what the immediate future holds for Quebecers— and for other constitutionally fatigued Canadians. Last week’s foray by the separatists in the Saguenay is the clearest signal yet that Parizeau has already decided on the date, perhaps even the question, that will soon be placed before the province’s voters. The most likely timing is on or around Oct.

30, setting the stage for the Quebec National Assembly to reconvene in early September to officially launch the adventure.

In the meantime, the travelling separatist caravan that appeared in Alma last week is scheduled to repeat the same performance in virtually all of the outlying regions of Quebec, winding up its effort on Aug. 25. The reception, however, may not be so warm elsewhere. For it was no accident that the separatists chose the Saguenay to fire the opening salvos in the battle. René Lévesque did the same for the 1980 independence referendum. The inhabitants of the valley responded by casting 65 per cent of their ballots in favor of Lévesque’s sovereignty-association proposition, the only region in Quebec to return a majority Yes vote. That may well happen again. But the separatists were not merely preaching to the converted last week. Parizeau and his troops require as massive a Yes vote as possible in the Saguenay, as well as other areas of the hinterland, to counter the equally massive No vote that appears to be building in and around Montreal and most other urban areas, with the notable exception of Quebec City.

In fact, public opinion polls released last week showed that the separatists continue to face an uphill battle. A previously confidential survey conducted late in March by the respected Montreal firm Centre de recherches

sur l’opinion public (CROP) for the federal government’s unity operation—and obtained last week by The Globe and Mail—suggested that 65 per cent of Quebecers believe the province should remain part of Canada while 30 per cent are opposed. Even more damning for separatists’ hopes was a survey carried out between Aug. 11 and Aug. 15 by SOM Inc. for the Montreal Gazette and Quebec City’s Le Soleil. Factoring in the undecided vote, the poll suggested a 60-40 split against independence, virtually the same as the results obtained a year ago and almost exactly a mirror of the 1980 referendum outcome. In the SOM survey, even francophones were divided evenly on the question of separation. Among anglophones and allophones—Quebecers whose first language is neither French nor English—the response was an overwhelming 91-9 against independence.

Both the CROP and SOM figures run counter to the claims separatists were making last week as they kicked off their referendum campaign. PQ leaders said that internal party polls suggested support for their proposition was running at slightly more than 52 per cent in favor—which presumably explains why there were so many confident smiles on separatist faces. If the new polls are correct, it may be difficult to keep those smiles from fading.

BARRY CAME in Alma