COVER

Shrugs and hisses

BRENDA BRANSWELL August 31 1998
COVER

Shrugs and hisses

BRENDA BRANSWELL August 31 1998

Shrugs and hisses

COVER

For those curious about the ways of life in the slower lanes of rural Quebec, one good place to visit is Berthier riding, northeast from Montreal. Sprawling in size and more than 90 per cent francophone, it is, like most ridings outside Montreal, represented in the national assembly by a member of the Parti Québécois, in this case 41-year-old Gilles Baril. Reflecting the traditional influence of the Roman Catholic Church, many of the small towns in the riding begin with the word “saint”— including such distinctive-sounding names as St. Zénon and Ste. Emélie-de-l’Energie. Political views, like other attitudes, are fairly homogenous: 63 per cent of Berthier voters backed the Yes side in the 1995 referendum—among the higher percentages of support for sovereignty in the province.

All of that makes it the kind of riding the PQ relies on for support at elections, at referendum time, or during any constitutional dispute. That, in turn, makes the mood among residents last week all the more telling—and challenging—for both sides in the sovereignty debate. From fruit stands to local shops and restaurants, the Supreme Court ruling— cited as “historic” by so many analysts—was regarded with attitudes ranging from ignorance to indifference to occasional antipathy.

Some question what the case accomplished. Sylvain Coutu, 36, a truck driver and furniture-maker, considered the reference case “a waste of money.” After the ruling, Coutu said: “If Quebecers vote by a majority that things should change, what I ask myself is whether the federal government will take

it seriously or if they’ll screw around, as usual.” Some residents expressed other concerns. One 52-year-old businesswoman from St. Jean-de-Matha, who would not give her name, wanted the court to be more categorical in laying out rules for secession. “I get the impression,” says the woman who voted Yes in the 1995 referendum, but still has doubts about the feasibility of Quebec going it alone, “that we’re going around in circles.” On the other hand, François F’esperance, 40, who owns a dry-cleaning business in Favaltrie and supported the federal decision to refer the case to the court, believes the decision will result in a clear question in the next referendum. A federalist, L’esperance predicts: “With a clear question, the soft nationalists will lean more on the side of federalism.” In Berthier, where agriculture and forestry are the primary businesses, some residents seem more preoccupied with Quebec’s struggling economy and health-care cutbacks imposed by the PQ. Sonia Murray, 30, who owns a convenience store in the town of St. Jean-de-Matha, complains that the PQ has not helped small business. ‘We’ve been in business for four years,” says Murray, “and we don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The PQ’s Baril, a personable figure who projects boundless confidence, insists that people support the government’s deficit-cutting efforts. They may question how the cuts were made, Baril says, but “on the fundamentals they agree—it had to be done.” Baril, who won his seat by more than 6,000 votes of the 36,000 cast in the 1994 election, says that his internal polling shows that he remains popular.

For the opposition Liberals, whose support is strongest in the Montreal area, making inroads in rural ridings is their greatest challenge. Their standing among francophones shot up when Jean Charest replaced Daniel Johnson as leader, but in recent polls the PQ has attracted the majority of Frenchspeaking voters. In a poll by the Montreal-based firm Groupe Féger & Léger Inc., 54 per cent of francophone respondents supported the PQ while 42 per cent chose the Liberals. Pollster JeanMarc Léger says that since the collapse of the Meech Lake constitutional accord in 1990, a majority of francophone voters have shifted to the PQ camp, and remain there. Léger suggests that the Liberals will not win them back “as long as there is no credible and more nationalistic constitutional position.”

Since becoming leader, Charest has seized on the referendum fatigue, often mentioning it in speeches. The weariness is palpable among some voters. In St. Jean-de-Matha, a business owner named Serge says he is only half-satisfied with the PQ government. “They think too much about Quebec separation and not enough about the economy and jobs,” he complains.

But, insists Baril, “there aren’t a lot of people who tell me they don’t want a referendum. They tell me that they want to settle the national question.” During a door-to-door swing through the riding last week, Baril says people latched onto the fact that the court decision would force the federal government to negotiate with Quebec following a Yes vote. He believes the decision will rekindle interest in the issue among some Quebecers. Added Baril: “The Supreme Court has thrown oil on the fire.”

That may be more wish than reality. Early indications in Berthier and elsewhere are that the court decision is unlikely to give the PQ a hot election issue—even as a fall vote appears likely. “It’s really an extremely skilful judgment,” said pollster Léger, who added that he does not think sovereigntists will find sufficient fodder in the judgment to whip up public sentiment. In their relatively stoic reaction in the wake of the ruling, Quebecers appear no closer to loving—or leaving—Canada than they were before.

BRENDA BRANSWELL in St-Jean-de-Matha