It was only a war of words, but the blistering exchange between the federal government and Quebec appeared to signal a darkening mood in the unity debate. Ottawa’s usually low-key minister of intergovernmental affairs, Stéphane Dion, was first off the mark early last week, firing off a four-page open letter to Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard. In strikingly direct language, the former University of Montreal political science professor called into question key planks in the separatist platform, beginning with the vexed question of whether Quebec has the legal right to secede unilaterally. Quebec deputy premier Bernard Landry— acting on behalf of a vacationing Bouchard—shot back with a scathing five-page missive, denouncing Dion’s letter as antidemocratic and an attempt to “change the rules of the game.”
In an interview, Dion told Maclean’s that one of his goals was to stir up public debate, suggesting that Bouchard would prefer not to discuss the process of secession until after a Yes vote. “The difficulty with Canadians is that we don’t have any sense of tragedy,” the minister said. “Many other countries envy us for that, but it’s a quality that can become a fault.”
Dion’s latest move suggests that Ottawa is warming up for another showdown with Quebec. This fall, the federal government will try to convince the Supreme Court of Canada that a unilateral declaration of independence would be unlawful. Even though Quebec plans to boycott the case—politics, not law, will decide the issue, Bouchard says—the court’s findings are sure to inflame the unity debate. Already, there is speculation that Ottawa is toughening its stance on Quebec, focusing less on the benefits of federalism—“Plan A”—and turning up the heat under “Plan B,” which emphasizes the perils of sovereignty. While Ottawa has often denied that either plan exists, Dion has acknowledged the difference between the two approaches: the first involves reconciliation, while the second, he says, are the “rules of secession.”
Even so, the federal government is still treading too carefully, according to an increasingly vocal group of Quebec anglophones. For them, strong talk is overdue. At a raucous city hall meeting last week in the Montreal suburb of Lasalle— which voted overwhelmingly for the No side in the October, 1995, referendum—complete with police and a flurry of Canadian flags, about 1,000 people showed up. They angrily demanded that the city council adopt a unity resolution that supports partition from the rest of the province in the event Quebec opts to leave Canada. Federalist Mayor Michel Leduc refused to go that far, but he was clearly unsettled by the incident. “I’m not interested in a sequel to the Plains of Abraham,” he said after the meeting.
It was earlier activities by such demonstrators that set the stage for the dustup between Dion and Landry. In July, New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna wrote a letter to a pro-partition group in Montreal, supporting their federalist views but stopping short of specifically endorsing partition. When Bouchard heard of the letter, he went on the offensive, attacking McKenna during the annual pre-
miers’ conference earlier this month in St. Andrews, N.B. In an open letter at the time, Bouchard sharply rebuked McKenna and accused him of lending credence to partition, which he condemned as “one of the most reprehensible aspects of Plan B.”
But while McKenna appeared disconcerted at having offended Bouchard on the eve of the premiers’ meeting, Dion seemed to welcome the attack as an opportunity to score points for the federalist cause. Bolstered by a recent Southam/COMPAS Inc. poll showing that 45 per cent of francophones agree that partition may be an option for those who oppose independence, Dion came out swinging in his letter to Bouchard. Among other points, he attacked the Quebec premier’s assertion that there is no support for partition in international law. Hammering the point home, he cited the views of two prominent Quebec separatists, Bloc Québécois MP Daniel Turp and Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe. Both men have acknowledged that territorial concessions might have to be made for aboriginals who wish to remain in Canada.
Landry shot back the next day, taking issue with Dion’s contention that a Yes vote of 50 per cent plus one would fall far short of the consensus required for such a significant change. Quebec entered Canada with a parliamentary majority of only a few votes,
Landry pointed out, and Newfoundland’s decision to join the federation was supported by only 52 per cent of island voters. “According to you,” Landry concluded, “does a simple majority suffice to enter Canada but not to leave it? That would be absurd.”
If Dion’s letter and the unilateral declaration of independence case are indeed part of a hardening Liberal approach to the sovereigntists, then it is “working well enough” up to now, says Benoit Pelletier, a constitutional law professor at the University of Ottawa.
He cautions, however, that such manoeuvres could backfire in Quebec if pushed too far. Others are prepared to go further, warning that Plan B tactics will only help the sovereigntist cause. “It’s clear in polls that each time Quebecers are provoked by Plan B, or one of its ramifications, the Yes [vote] goes up,” says Jean-Marc
Léger, president of the Montreal polling firm Groupe Léger & Léger.
But while tough talk may incite some Quebecers, it plays well outside the province. ‘The rest of the country wants some assurances that, in the event of a Yes vote, Ottawa is going to act to preserve its interests,” says Glen Williams, the chairman of political science at Ottawa’s Carleton University. Others put it more bluntly. “Dion’s letter was right on,” former federal Tory minister John Crosbie told Maclean’s. “The people of Quebec have to understand what the situation is going to be if they leave Canada. It’s not going to be, ‘Kissy, kissy, goodbye—we’re going to miss you.’ We’re going to go for their gonads and they’re going to go for ours.”
Those sorts of warnings are precisely what Quebec’s partitionists want to hear. By early last year, there were at least 10 such groups in the Montreal area and about a dozen more scattered around the rest of the province. In the past year, one Montrealbased group has been particularly aggressive. Headed by Montreal air-conditioning contractor Gary Shapiro, the Quebec Committee for Canada bought ads in bus shelters in June and sent out 500,000 postcards to sovereigntist areas warning of the costs inherent in political uncertainty. Shapiro, 42, readily admits that his group wields the threat of partition to counter separation. “This is the sovereigntists’ biggest fear,” he asserts. “They have no reply to it because it mirrors exactly what they’re doing.” Shapiro’s group has also been instrumental in convincing several Quebec municipalities with large English-speaking populations to pass unity resolutions, most of which openly support partition. So far, 40 municipalities, mainly along the Ontario border and on the island of Montreal have adopted resolutions. But the campaign has not been entirely successful. The council meeting in Lasalle last week developed into an edgy confrontation outside when a small
group of young sovereigntists joined the crowd, shouting: “Vive le Québec libre.” One man trampled the Canadian flag.
On the other side of the debate, 63-year-old Barbara Mcllwaine, decked out in red and white, had to surrender the stick in her handheld Canadian flag as she passed through the security check at the front door. Like many anglophones, the Lasalle resident has become more politically active since the 1995 referendum. “I think English people are very placid,” said Mcllwaine. “I think now we have to start fighting.”
In the end, Lasalle Mayor Leduc told the crowd that the proposed resolution was not municipal business. Like some other federalists, Leduc believes the partition movement risks doing more harm than good—a view shared by Westmount Mayor Peter Trent. The mayor, who calls the concept “a recipe for violence,” believes few francophones favor the division of the Montreal region. “Right now, what we need to do is talk to the francophone federalists out there,” says Trent. Once more, Canadians may find they are drawn into an apparently intractable debate, whether they like it or not.
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