Debating Quebec on the Potomac

Allan Fotheringham December 16 1996

Debating Quebec on the Potomac

Allan Fotheringham December 16 1996

Debating Quebec on the Potomac

Allan Fotheringham

washington, postThanksgiving, pre-Christmas, is in a holding pattern. The ice rink in front of the Willard Hotel, where Abe Lincoln used to sleep, is not yet in operation. Neither is Bill Clinton, who has been taking a leisurely time in picking his new cabinet, preferring to golf with Greg Norman in Australia.

All the young men, as usual, look terribly serious on their rounds, knowing the world’s fate rests on their decisions.

No shirts too young to stuff. All the young women carry briefcases, the secrets to Bosnia and Rwanda held therein.

It’s not the natural place where one would expect to find the answer to the Quebec puzzlement, but we take things where we find them. One must never ignore casual insights, lest they flee and are gone.

The Canadian Embassy, towering in white beneath the shadow of Capitol Hill, hosts a half-dozen times a year a collection of Canadians who work in the vast network of international organizations that speckle the Washington landscape. Starved for real hockey, they gather over warm white wine for important news from afar—such as the newest quote from Sheila Copps, or Mike Harris’s skills with the English language.

On this occasion, there are some 30 guests from Quebec: industry representatives, consultants, federal government types. Jacques Parizeau could not be detected behind his moustache. At an evening soiree across the Potomac in a Virginia restaurant that serves lobsters the size of a catcher’s mitt, the scribbler encounters one such guest. She is very serious, 55, divorced with two kids, has worked her way up the ladder on her own, fuelled by intelligence and fierce determination.

I suggest to her, in my theory that Quebec will never separate, that when the crunch comes in the voting booth, Quebecers vote their wallet, also known as their belly. “You are wrong,” she says. “It’s somewhat higher than the belly.” She points somewhat higher than the belly. She points to where her heart is. “It’s passion,” she explains. Passion will keep Quebec within Canada. She has, in her government positions, seen Lucien Bouchard at work in both Ottawa and Quebec City. She sees him as an opportunist.

There is a clever young man from Quebec-Telephone in the gather-

ing. He travels to Bolivia, to carry abroad the expertise developed in his own province. When Quebec is so respected abroad, he reasons, why would it want to risk the economic perils of becoming an independent country. There is the senior executive of SNC-Lavalin International Inc. who knows Africa like the back of his hand and just shakes his head in weariness when asked about the question that so puzzles so many people.

The Canadians in Washington were surprised that Michel Gauthier had resigned as head of the Bloc Québécois—mainly because most of them had never heard of Michel Gauthier. I told them not to feel bad,

neither had most Canadians at home. The findings of a poll that Preston Manning was more known in Quebec than poor Gauthier finished him off.

The separatists have a problem. They have only one god. God is named Lucien Bouchard and all beneath pale before his brilliant sheen. Gauthier, a decent man, never had a hope. Neither will whoever succeeds him.

The game is all being played in Quebec City. The Bloc has become irrelevant in Ottawa, its shiny star gone to another jurisdiction—where he is finding to his disturbing surprise there are such things as unions and deficits.

The Canucks on the Potomac, who miss hockey, view in wonderment the activities above the border in somewhat the same fashion as do the Americans— who just think we’re all nuts. They used to think we were just dull; now they think we’re also nuts to get into this situation. Can dull people also be nuts? I guess so.

The Americans cannot solve the problems of their inner cities, the locale for too many of the 12 per cent of the population that is black. The number 1 crime in the United States is young black men shooting other young black men, usually in turf wars over drugs. Canada cannot as yet solve the problem of two founding races who came here four centuries ago. The Americans, after first trying to kill off the original inhabitants, seem by now to have treated them much better than Canada has. We both still have inner turmoils.

Electing prime ministers from Quebec for 27 of the last 28 years obviously has not solved the problem. It is not really going to help when Jean Chrétien, after waltzing to victory again in the spring, hands the wand off some time in the future to Paul Martin, who is from fading Montreal.

What the country needs, so obviously as to be a no-brainer, is a leader from The Rest of Canada who can seriously face Quebec with a mandate that matters. Peter Lougheed shied from it, because of his lack of confidence in his non-existent French.

Some once thought David Peterson could do it, but he fell on his own self-supplied sword. There is no Anglo outside Quebec who has the smell of a giant on him. TROC has only itself to blame. It’s got to produce its own leaders.

What is needed, somewhere down the road, is a political equivalent to the Plains of Abraham. A faceoff.