COVER

'PLAN B' HITS A CHORD

The poll supports Ottawa's tougher line with Quebec

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 29 1997
COVER

'PLAN B' HITS A CHORD

The poll supports Ottawa's tougher line with Quebec

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 29 1997

'PLAN B' HITS A CHORD

The poll supports Ottawa's tougher line with Quebec

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Through all the national unity battles fought between Ottawa and Quebec City, it is likely that no one has ever defined the challenge confronting both sides more succinctly—or bluntly—than former premier Jacques Parizeau. In the early 1980s, Parizeau, according to author and journalist Graham Fraser, observed to associates at a din-

ner party: “We are elected by idiots. In Quebec, 40 per cent are separatists and 40 per cent are federalists—and 20 per cent don’t know who is prime minister of Canada.” And, Parizeau added, “it is that 20 per cent that makes and breaks governments.”

While Parizeau’s dismissive description may raise eyebrows, few strategists on either side question his math. For years, most of Quebec has been frozen into two voting blocks—while the future of Canada rests upon the one-fifth of voters who shift their support between federalism and sovereignty with startling alacrity. And Parizeau is not the only one to find those undecided voters both mystifying and frustrating. Federalists grind their teeth over polls showing that many undecided voters—along with some firm sovereignty supporters—believe that, even after a Yes vote

in a separatism referendum, Quebec would still be part of Canada. But now the Maclean’s/CBC News poll indicates that the federalists, led by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his aggressive intergovernmental affairs minister, Stéphan Dion, are clarifying the picture for those undecideds—in a manner that is helping the federalist cause in Quebec, and winning support in the rest of the country. In percentages that are often strikingly similar, both Quebecers and other Canadians feel more strongly than they did a year ago that the chances of the province becoming sovereign have decreased since the close-call referendum of Oct. 30,1995.

“The sovereignty problem,” says pollster Allan Gregg, “is getting smaller in the minds of the public.” In fact, while just 17 per cent of Quebecers believe sovereignty has become more likely, 48 per cent feel the prospects have diminished (up from 37 per cent in last year’s poll). In the rest of the country, 16 per cent deem sovereignty more likely, but 43 per cent think the contrary (again, up from 38 per cent last year). Even starker is the contrast with the 1995 year-end poll, taken within three weeks of the referendum. Then, 64 per cent of Quebecers predicted a majority would vote Yes in another referendum within five years—and 38 per cent of other Canadians agreed.

Tough love • Belief that Ottawa’s tougher line will — persuade Quebecers to remain part of Canada:

— make Quebecers more likely to support separation:

Rest of Canada:

21%

As for the cause of that shift, respondents credit—or blame, depending on their perspective—the federal Liberals’ toughened approach to Quebec. For most of the past year, Dion and other members of Chrétien’s government have been hammering away at the negative potential consequences of a Yes vote. One measure of that is Ottawa’s involvement in a case before the Supreme Court, challenging Quebec’s right to unilaterally declare itself sovereign. With a ruling likely next fall, that initiative has enraged sovereigntists, led by Premier Lucien Bouchard, who says the court case threatens Quebecers’ “democratic right to choose their future.” A negative ruling by the court, Bouchard has suggested, may provoke a snap election in Quebec.

But Ottawa’s tougher strategy is working, say 67 per cent of respondents outside Quebec—a sentiment supported by 55 per cent even within that province. Those findings confirm some of the worst fears of sovereigntist leaders, who have conceded in recent months that their support is falling. With a view to shoring up its backing, Bouchard’s governing Parti Québécois considered holding a prereferendum referendum, simply asking Quebecers whether they consider themselves “a people.” The idea was to gain momentum with a massive Yes vote—which most strategists considered likely— before calling another sovereignty referendum. But Bouchard reject-

Not tough enough • Belief that Ottawa has still been too soft in its dealings with Quebec:

23%

ed the idea at a recent PQ convention after it became clear it faced strong opposition

from committed sovereigntists— * including Parizeau. That group, which has always been suspicious of Bouchard’s personal commitment to sovereignty, fears that

a softer referendum would only serve to delay another real referendum. *, The poll also provides encouragement for Dion to

continue his high-profile, ag-

gressive stance towards Quebec. Among other things, he has repeatedly challenged PQ assertions that a sovereign Quebec would automatically maintain its present boundaries. To the contrary, Dion argues, if Canada is to be regarded

as divisible, so, in turn, must Quebec. Although most Quebecers regard the notion of partition as anathema, the poll finds considerable resonance for Dion’s efforts.

Within Quebec, while 37 per cent say the federal

stance is “too tough,” another 34 per cent deem it “about right” and 23 per cent consider it “too soft.” In the rest of the country, only five per cent think the government is being too tough, while 32 per cent think it is “about right” and the majority—55 per cent—think it is still not tough enough.

Those findings help explain why sovereigntists pounced on a supposed “new tone” in remarks that Chrétien made in early December at a Liberal party convention in Quebec City. In comments to journalists, the Prime Minister said his government would negotiate with Quebec if the Yes side won a strong majority in a referendum. “In a situation like that,” Chrétien said, “there will be negotiations with the federal government, no doubt about that.” But he also listed conditions—including the requirement that the referendum question be clear and unambiguous.

To many people who follow politics closely, the Prime Minister was simply asserting the obvious, since the federal government could hardly ignore a Yes vote in such circumstances. In fact, Chrétien has made similar comments in the past, including in a presentation in 1991 to Quebec’s Bélanger-Campeau commission studying the province’s constitutional future. But in the nuance-rich world of

national unity strategy—in which every comment is carefully parsed by allies and opponents for new meaning—sovereigntists cited Chrétien’s remarks as an important admission and a breakthrough for their side. For their part, advisers to Chrétien insist he was merely saying what he has always said—as well as furthering Ottawa’s recent strategy of spelling out its positions in order to give Quebecers a “better understanding” of the choices they face.

None of that seems likely to drastically affect Chrétien’s standing on the national unity front. As always, he faces credibility problems in his home province. But on a national level, he is easily the favored overall choice among the five federal party leaders when it comes to deciding who would best represent the federalist side in another referendum. That is the case by a wide margin, with 39 per cent of poll respondents choosing Chrétien, comfortably ahead of Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest (30 per cent), Reform Leader Preston Manning (12 per cent) and New Democratic Party leader Alexa McDonough (five per cent).

Even in Reform’s power base in the Prairie provinces, Chrétien appears to have a slight edge, with 31-per-cent support compared with Manning’s 28 per cent. Still, Chrétien has a worse problem on his own home turf: he is the first choice of only 25 per cent of respondents in Quebec—a distant second to Charest’s 50 per cent, but still far ahead of McDonough or Manning (at five per cent each).

And for now, at least, the efforts of other First Ministers on the national unity front are regarded as a positive influence in all parts of the country. In the wake of September’s Calgary declaration—in which the nine premiers from outside Quebec and the two territorial leaders agreed on a set of general principles aimed at keeping the country united—the poll asked if such provincial initiatives “help or hinder” unity efforts. Outside Quebec, 69 per cent reacted positively, and only 20 per cent negatively, while even within Quebec, 51 per cent said such talks are a help—and 38 per cent consider them a hindrance. The higher opposition in Quebec, federal strategists say, reflects the traditional preference within that province for dealing with constitutional matters on a bilateral basis, between Quebec City and Ottawa.

The challenge that lies ahead on the unity front-will be, as always, for the federalist side to try to balance views that are sometimes completely contrary. Many Quebec federalists, for example, like the Calgary declaration’s reference to the province as “unique” because it carries, in their minds, an implicit promise of special powers. On the other hand, many people outside Quebec who support the document, including Reform’s Manning, do so precisely because they see no such promise in it. While the tougher stance towards Quebec seems so far to have worked, aides to the Prime Minister caution against the possibility of a backlash if that strategy is carried too far. “You always,” says one, “have to guard against extremes.”

There is probably no one more aware of that than Chrétien, whose political successes are built in large part on his enthusiasm for the middle ground. On one of the few occasions where the Prime Minister broke with that strategy, the results were uncertain at best. In the wake of the razor-thin 1995 referendum victory, he tried to build an immediate consensus on behalf of constitutional change in the rest of the country, only to be rebuffed by the premiers. Two years later, the country is no closer to a constitutional resolution—as was clear after a two-day First Ministers’ meeting in early December that achieved no clear consensus.

In the meantime, the stakes of sovereignty have become clearer. That and the decided lack of enthusiasm among sovereigntists for another immediate referendum are helping Chrétien. For now, the federalist policy of tough love is working. Coupled with declining momentum on the sovereigntist side and its foot-dragging over another referendum date, that brings new meaning to an old adage— they also serve who only sit and wait. □