CANADA

Parizeau’s summer offensive

Quebec’s premier accuses Ottawa of organizing a ‘plot’against the province

BARRY CAME August 7 1995
CANADA

Parizeau’s summer offensive

Quebec’s premier accuses Ottawa of organizing a ‘plot’against the province

BARRY CAME August 7 1995

Parizeau’s summer offensive

CANADA

Quebec’s premier accuses Ottawa of organizing a ‘plot’against the province

Although the leaves are still on the trees all over Canada, the first unwelcome harbinger of approaching autumn appeared in Quebec last week. It arrived with Premier Jacques Parizeau, who came home from a European holiday bearing a sobering midsummer reminder that the country faces yet another divisive referendum on Quebec independence this fall. Within days of his return from the south of France,

Parizeau launched a political offensive, accusing Ottawa of conspiring with the nine English-speaking premiers to “gang up” on Quebec. And to support his charge, he unveiled with much fanfare a set of “secret” papers filched from the federal bureaucracy that he described as a “bear trap,” proof of a countrywide, Ottawa-inspired plot to thwart the Parti Québécois government’s drive for independence. “I say,”

Parizeau intoned with righteous indignation, “Quebecers beware.”

The source of Parizeau’s ire, carefully manifested in televised news conferences in two cities during two days last week, was a 16page draft document stamped secret and labelled a “Preparatory Strategy” for the “Autumn Referendum 1995.” It was written last April by federal civil servants attached to the Unity Group, the special referendum operation that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien created inside the Ottawa bureaucracy’s nerve centre, the Privy Council Office. While Parizeau attempted to portray the document as a dark federalist scheme, it consists largely of a number of obvious proposals, recommending that Ottawa focus on the dangers of separation; sow doubts about the likelihood of a political and economic union between Canada and an independent Quebec; and attempt to avoid making Quebecers feel rejected. “Where is the vast anti-Quebec plot in this document?” a bemused Lucienne Robillard, the federal minister in charge of referendum strategy, asked in the wake of Parizeau’s stage-managed drama. “Where is the vast conspiracy against Quebec?”

For Parizeau, the answer lay in a proposal in the document that suggests the federal government should co-ordinate plans with

provincial premiers and consider “the possibility of a common statement” at the premiers’ annual conference scheduled to take place in St. John’s, Nfld., from Aug. 22 to 25. The Quebec premier seized on the suggestion last week as proof of his claim that Robillard and others in Ottawa had embarked on a campaign to pressure the premiers into talking about Quebec in St. John’s instead of concentrating on tearing down interprovin-

cial trade barriers. He accused the Manitoba premier of leading the effort, claiming that Gary Filmon, at Robillard’s urging, had been asking premiers across the country to endorse a joint position on Quebec. And in a supreme irony, he said that Newfoundland’s Clyde Wells, who played the key role in scuttling the Meech Lake constitutional accord in 1990, was the only provincial leader refusing to lend his support to the supposed plot. “I’m trying to discuss trade and jobs,” Parizeau complained as he announced his intention to “spend a few hours” at the Newfoundland conference. “The federal government says the hell with trade and jobs. For the moment what is important [for them! is that the No forces win.”

Parizeau’s charges were quickly denied by Ottawa and other premiers. “The idea of a plot is ridiculous,” declared federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Marcel Massé. “Absolute nonsense,” said Filmon. “I have no knowledge of any plot, any strategy or anything else of that nature.” New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna added that he

had not talked to anyone in Ottawa about the future of Quebec for several months, and doubted that any other premier had done so either, largely because almost all were too preoccupied with creating jobs and getting their public finances in order. Alberta’s Ralph IGein, who earlier in the week had helped to spark the drama by frankly declaring that he would never agree to a political union with an independent Quebec, said he was not aware of any conspiracy against the province. “If there is a common front,” said Klein, “it’s a common front without me.”

Still, there were no denials from Ottawa about the authenticity of the document that Parizeau had so gleefully brandished. Both Massé and Robillard stressed, however, that it was merely a set of draft proposals, not official policy. At the same time, neither minister saw much wrong with the recommendations. “I see nothing suspect in this document,” said Massé. “We have a referendum strategy and it’s normal we should have one. Our job is to defend national unity.” Robillard simply accused the Quebec premier of “seeking confrontation with the rest of Canada and the other provinces” to score political points in Quebec.

On that count, Robillard was not far off the mark. For despite his feisty reappearance in Quebec last week, Parizeau is clearly mired in difficulties. On a political level, his government continues to labor in the face of Quebec voters’ stubborn reluctance to enthusiastically endorse the idea of independence (the most recent polls, taken at the end of June, show the electorate split evenly down the middle). And he remains haunted by his own indiscretions, in particular his now-celebrated comparison of Quebec’s voters to lobsters caught in a trap. He attempted to sidestep that last week by dismissing the controversy as nothing more than “discussions between journalists to see whether the lobsters were in a cage, boiled or served à la Parisienne.” If Parizeau was trying to divert attention from his own problems last week, he had some success—even if the respite proves as fleeting as a summer breeze.

BARRY CAME in Montreal