CANADA

Condition critical

BRUCE WALLACE June 1 1998
CANADA

Condition critical

BRUCE WALLACE June 1 1998

Condition critical

CANADA

BRUCE WALLACE

When part of the furious mob swarmed her as she tried to leave last week’s public meeting at the Ottawa Civic Hospital, Marion Dewar decided it would be prudent to simply take the abuse rather than argue back. Some people called her “garbage” and “trash.” They screamed profanities, one raging that the former Ottawa mayor and onetime New Democrat MP had “sucked Canada dry and was now trying to destroy it.” The 70-year-old Dewar had been one of the few to rise that night to defend the hospital board’s hiring of onetime Parti Québécois candidate David Levine as its new president. Competence, not politics, she argued, should be the reason for hiring and firing. Wrong, said most of the other 500 people in the hall, whose vein-popping explosion of anti-separatist fury and cries of treason turned a community meeting into something resembling The Jerry Springer Show. “People were so angry,” Dewar later recalled, “that really the only thing to do was to stand there and listen.”

The hospital’s decision to choose a man with a separatist pedigree kicked up a storm the board members never saw coming and seemed incapable of defusing. Ultimately, the overall obnoxiousness of the anti-Levine crowd may have frightened enough of his softer critics that the board felt comfortable confirming the appointment two days later. But until then, the hospital was facing a spiralling backlash. No one questioned the 50year-old Montrealer’s abilities as an admin-

istrator. They were just mystified that a hospital in the national capital would seek the expertise of someone currently serving as the PQ government’s representative in New York. The controversy was prodded along by local media, with both Ottawa daily newspapers demanding Levine be fired and radio talk shows cranking emotions higher. “The meeting is your chance to thunder, to tell this board to fire Levine or else,” wrote Ottawa Sun columnist Earl McRae. Ontario Premier Mike Harris amplified the fight, suggesting it was preferable to hire a

government. “It is illustrating, in an absolute way, that there are two nations—there is ours and then there is the other,” declared Quebec’s deputy premier Bernard Landry.

The PQ’s gloating overlooked an aspect of the Levine affair that was damaging to their cause: evidence that nonQuebecers can get equally z emotional—even irrational— I about national unity. The out| burst in Ottawa, a city that g wears its sedateness like a £ badge, demonstrated the flaw I in Péquiste claims that cool1 headed negotiations for an § economic union would autoS matically follow a vote for Que! bee independence. But, in the “ short term at least, the tempest helped make it a happy week for Lucien Bouchard. The Quebec premier also got a boost from his four-city swing through the United States, as the governors of Massachusetts and Illinois backed his assertion that the spectre of separatism does not discourage outside investors.

Bouchard chose last week’s American journey for one of his occasional displays of generosity towards Canada, extolling the virtues of Montreal’s bilingualism and calling Canada “a great country, a great democracy,” language he almost never uses at home. He also used the Levine case to call for greater tolerance, although he and his entourage suggested at several turns that their own tolerance towards dissent had limits. The Bouchard road show was shadowed by Montreal Anglo rights activists, whose protests outside Bouchard’s luncheons in Boston and Chicago outraged Jean-Claude Scraire, president of the financial services powerhouse Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. “I think we should be a little less tolerant with those who do damage to Quebec,” said Scraire.

Bouchard also suggested that “sometimes, if you use [free speech] too much, you can wear it out.” He also added that “extremists on our side are more restrained.” That was a sadly debatable assertion during a week in which Le Journal de Montreal columnist Pierre Bourgault wrote that Ottawa’s reaction to Levine’s hiring showed “the mad dogs of English Canada are leading us down the road to catastrophe. Their virulent racism,” he suggested, “is leading straight to civil war.” Overblown rhetoric, for sure. But the forces of tolerance on all sides were on the defensive last week, a reminder that, at the very least, it is getting ever easier to provoke an uncivil war of words.

Anti-PQ fury stuns an Ottawa hospital

non-Canadian for the job than a separatist.

All of this aroused collective resentment in Quebec. Just across the river on the streets of Hull, some residents complained that Ottawa’s anger was thin veneer for anti-French racism—despite the fact that Levine comes from Montreal’s English-speaking community. Quebec’s nationalists and federalists bonded to condemn the treatment of Levine, but the issue was political manna for the PQ

BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa