Sooner or later, somebody had to say it. But it took an old political warrior with nothing left to lose to tell English-speaking Canada the unpalatable truth: no matter how much the politicians talk about job creation and the social safety net, the ever-present question of how to keep Quebec in Canada still hangs over the coming federal election like a nasty storm cloud. “The plain fact,” the most reviled ex-prime minister in the country’s history told 1,000 well-heeled listeners in a downtown Toronto hotel room last week, “is that if Canada’s Constitution cannot help guarantee security in the next century, many Quebecers—and I say this with profound regret—would rather try to achieve it as an independent state.” Until that moment, national unity was the election issue that dared not speak its name. Brian Mulroney’s words seemed almost cathartic: after long months of tiptoeing around the matter, suddenly the political world was again talking about “the Quebec Question.” If he wanted to create a stir, the former prime minister was successful— his speech grabbed headlines during a week in which the government unleashed a startling round of pre-election house cleaning. Within the space of days, Ottawa signed a new agreement giving British Columbia shared control over the West Coast fishery, partially opened up the East Coast cod fishery, introduced legislation aimed at curbing motorcycle gang violence in Quebec and inked an out-of-court settlement to end the Pearson International Airport privatization case.
But as driven as a government might be by a looming election, some problems just refuse to be swept under the carpet. Fed up with conditions on Indian reserves throughout the country and the lack of response from Ottawa to the November, 1996, report of the royal commission on aboriginals, natives tied up traffic across the land last week in a co-ordinated day of protest.
Then there was the re-emergence of the age-old national unity issue. “It is the government’s Achilles heel,” stressed Stephen Harper, a former Reform MP and now executive director of the right-wing National Citizens’ Coalition. “Things could get viciously partisan.”
Sensing this, perhaps, the official Liberal line was to dismiss Mulroney as discredited—and his wake-up call as simplistic. Instead of running scared, the Chrétien government erected a calm front, maintaining that its policies, which Mulroney referred to as “tiny, timid steps of incrementalism,” continue to offer the
best hope for keeping Quebec in Canada. ‘What in the hell did Mulroney ever do?” snapped a senior adviser to federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion. ‘We’ve made real progress.”
Up to a point. The Liberals no longer meddle in such areas of provincial jurisdiction as forestry, mining and tourism. The federal government has extended its veto power over constitutional change to the country’s regions. Just last week, the Chrétien government, at Quebec’s request, promised to introduce a constitutional amendment to transform Quebec’s religious-based school system into one based on the French and English languages. And a joint Ottawa-Quebec deal on manpower training seemed right around the corner.
Why, then, are the Liberals suddenly besieged by critics on all sides? Last week, Quebec lawyer Guy Bertrand filed a brief before the Supreme Court of Canada—where Ottawa has asked for a ruling on the legality of Quebec separation. Bertrand, a former sovereigntist turned federalist, came out swinging not only at sovereigntists but also at the federal government, urging a tougher stance against separatism. Even worse, many politicians and commentators nodded agreement when Muironey blast ed Chrétien for failing to demonstrate that the Liberals had a concrete game plan for dealing with the issue of Quebec. "Where is the feder alist message?" asked Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow.
The unity debate intrudes on the Liberals' efforts to clean house
The response was resounding silence. Faced with the possibility of defeat in the Oct. 30,1995, referendum on Quebec sovereignty, a desperate Chrétien promised to revisit the province’s constitutional demands. Empty words so far: six weeks after the referendum the government did manage to push a meaningless resolution through the House of Commons recognizing the distinct nature of Quebec—which allowed Chrétien to sidestep the issue while claiming to have lived up to his word. Even if, as some predict, the party’s election platform includes a promise to enshrine a distinct society clause in the Constitution, the matter depends on provincial co-operation.
So far, Dion has convinced a few premiers to unreservedly support a distinct society clause—among them New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna and Newfoundland’s Brian Tobin. But British Columbia Premier Glen Clark says no. Ontario’s Mike Harris, who turned down Chrétien in person after the Prime Minister asked him, three days after the referendum, to support a distinct society clause, does not even want to talk about the issue. The most Alberta’s Ralph
Klein seems willing to concede is that he will consider an amendment that does not confer any special status on Quebec. Even then, under Alberta law, any constitutional proposal would have to be passed by referendum—in a province where distinct society has always been highly unpopular. Another critical provincial player—Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard—has always rejected outright the idea of participating in another round of constitutional talks.
No wonder the Liberals are so reluctant to reopen the question. Party strategists do not want the country reminded of Chrétien’s fumbling of the referendum, which many critics say allowed Quebec to come within a razor’s edge of voting for separation. Letting national unity dominate the campaign in Quebec, where the Grits hope to make gains—and where Chrétien may personally face a tough reelection battle in his riding of SaintMaurice—would be an unmitigated disaster. As Jean-Marc Léger, head of the Montreal-based polling firm Léger & Léger Inc., puts it, “If the Liberals can keep the economy, where the government is strong, at the centre of the campaign they will perform well. But if the campaign takes place on the constitutional terrain, the Liberals are in trouble.”
Ironically, analysts say the separatist Bloc Québécois would also prefer not to be drawn into a constitutional debate that involves the question of renewing the Canadian federation. But it may have no real choice. Bouchard has been angered by Liberal television ads that show him and the Prime Minister side by side during last January’s Team Canada trade mission to Asia—and imply that a unified Canada can continue to function well. As a result, he is determined to play a role in the campaign—and analysts say his presence would automatically thrust the national unity issue into the spotlight.
Outside Quebec, playing the unity card is also fraught with danger for the Liberals. Polls show that while Canadians are boneweary of the endless debate, they still fear for the country’s future. But the Western-based Reform party will be trying to win new votes and solidify old ones by arguing that appeasing Quebec is a mistake for any government. Reform would love to heat up the national unity debate, since it would enable them to label the Liberals and Tories as old-fashioned panderers to Quebec. “I haven’t talked to anyone who would agree that distinct society should be on the table,” said B.C. Reform MP Jim Hart. “It is not something Westerners will support.”
But the Liberals are not the only ones haunted by the Quebec question. Tory Leader Jean Charest, the federal politician with the most credibility within Quebec, cannot afford to be too vocal on the issue either. Although his party supports distinct society, the Tories want to distance themselves as much as possible from Mulroney, who twice failed to put together a constitutional package that would unite the country. That means underplaying the issue and, especially, their own call for a distinct society clause, which was the main feature of Mulroney’s failed Meech Lake accord. “There is no one who really wants to deal with it, even in Quebec,” Charest conceded. But, he added, “in the end, Canadians do expect their national leaders to resolve this issue.”
Last week, Chrétien and his Liberals had no magic answers for the unity question. They did, however, manage to solve a host of long-simmering problems from coast to coast—and the announcements seemed to owe plenty to politics. A case in point was the new West Coast fishery deal, which gives co-management rights to British Columbia and includes a joint commitment of $30 million over three years to restore salmon habitat. Chrétien and Clark trumpeted the agreement as proof that federalism can work and that Ottawa and the provinces can get along. But critics immediately pointed out that the deal clearly served another purpose. For Clark, whose popularity has plummeted since taking office, it provided an opportunity to demonstrate that he can play hard ball with Ottawa. For Chrétien, whose party currently holds only six of 32 seats in British Columbia, it was a chance to curry favor on the West Coast—and show that he is attentive to the province’s needs.
On the East Coast, where the 1992 moratorium on the cod fishery has devastated the local economy, the good news from Ottawa also smelled like blatant electioneering.
Since last October, when the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council recommended that a limited catch be allowed in the southern region, Fisheries Minister Fred Mifflin has been under intense pressure in his home province of Newfoundland to let fishermen go back to casting their nets. While many independent scientists question the wisdom of reopening the cod fishery on even a limited basis—arguing that the stocks were still too small to sustain it—fishermen along Newfoundland’s southern coast called the move long overdue. But many still felt that the timing of Mifflin’s announcement was likely tied to the imminent federal election. “They’re probably throwing a plum to us,” shrugged Earl Johnson, 46, of North Harbor, Nfld., who has fished in the area for nearly 20 years, “hoping that we’ll vote for them again.”
That, of course, is one of the benefits of power. Charest, who was on a pre-election swing through Atlantic Canada last week, dismissed the timing of the announcement as a transparent grab for votes. ‘There couldn’t be a better confirmation that there’s an election on the way,” he said in an interview with Maclean ’s. Unless, of course, it was the way a few words by a vilified former prime minister managed to galvanize the country’s political parties.
With LUKE EISHER in Ottawa, BRENDA BRANSWELL in Montreal and BRIAN BERGMAN in Halifax
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