A semi-fictional history of the rise and fall of the Republic of Quebec

Alexander Ross December 1 1967


A semi-fictional history of the rise and fall of the Republic of Quebec

Alexander Ross December 1 1967


A semi-fictional history of the rise and fall of the Republic of Quebec

Alexander Ross

PRIME MINISTER STANFIELD had a special telephone installed in his office for the occasion, and when it rang at 3.11 on the afternoon of February 3, 1971, everyone in the room knew that it was all over but the formal announcement. The call was from an RCMP security man, reporting that the French and Soviet ambassadors had just taken off from Ottawa's Uplands Airport in a chartered Fanjet Falcon. Their destination was Quebec City. In their attache cases, the RCMP knew, were letters of accreditation to the government of the new — and so far undeclared — Republic of Quebec. “Well, this is it,” said Stanfield to no one in particular. Then, helpless, he turned to the TV set in the corner where Norman DePoe, wearing a heavy overcoat, was interviewing the waiting crowds outside the Quebec Legislature.

The announcement came exactly 58 minutes later, when Quebec Premier Jean-Noël Tremblay stepped through the double doors leading into the legislative chamber and walked slowly to his desk. He stood there for almost a minute as the House rose in applause

— long enough for Bill Boyd of the Toronto Telegram to whisper irreverently to a colleague, “The bastard’s playing it for everything it’s worth.” Then, with a careful glance at the TV cameras that had been set up in the gallery, and in a voice that sounded firm to some listeners and shrill to others. Tremblay spoke the words that created one nation and almost destroyed another: “Mes concitoyens, je declare la République du Québec!”

The next few moments were strangely moving. As the House cheered and church bells throughout Quebec rang obediently on cue

— the Cultural Affairs Ministry had seen to that — Tremblay left his desk and crossed to the speaker’s chair. The mace was removed and Tremblay, speaking now as president of the new republic, gave a speech which the correspondent of the Times of London later referred to as “a Gallic version of blood, sweat and tears.” He called for dedication in the difficult months to come, pleaded for patience and tolerance, and even added a few carefully cordial words for “nos compatriotes, les Québécois de langue anglaise.”

In Montreal, at that moment, a fleet of Brinks armored cars was drawn up in front of Place Ville Marie escorted by 86 Pinkerton men armed with grenades and submachine guns. They loaded nearly two billion dollars in cash and securities and. with unauthorized sirens screaming, raced westward. By suppertime, the head-office assets of the Royal Bank of Canada were safely across the border in Ontario. In Maillardville, British Columbia, as Tremblay spoke, gangs of teenagers smashed store windows belonging to Frenchspeaking merchants. Near the legislature. Major Jean-Paul Labcllc. VC. DSO, walked away from the TV set in the Royal 22nd Regiment's officers’ lounge, strolled into the washroom and shot himself with a 9mm FN automatic. In Belleville, Ontario, the mayor phoned the radio station to announce that he'd declared a day of civic mourning. The Winnipeg Tribune had an extra on the streets only 38 minutes after Tremblay's declaration. Its headline faithfully reflected prairie sentiment: QUEBEC QUITS - THANK C.OD! And in a seventh-floor suite at Ottawa's Chateau Laurier, Provincial Affairs

Minister Dalton Camp was already writing the speech that Stanfield would give to the nation at seven that evening. It was one of Camp's best efforts: literate and almost witty, it managed to sound both firm and conciliatory at the same time. But it was Stanfield himself, in two unscripted sentences at the end of his television address, who provided the most memorable slogan of all. “Long live Canada," he said — and then, with only a flicker of irony, “And vive le Quebec libre!”

AND SO BEGAN the sad, attenuated history of the Republic of Quebec — a nation conceived in failure and frustration, dedicated to the proposition that a people of six million could endure in defiance of economics, and destined to return, after less than a year of chaotic independence, to an uneasy state of association with Englishspeaking Canada. It was an experiment, and a revolutionary one. But it was carried out in a peculiarly Canadian manner, with surprisingly little bloodshed,1 much futile negotiation and, considering the circumstances, a not undue amount of lasting damage. According to the Quebec-Canada Joint Economic Committee on National Reconstruction, Quebec's economy should be restored within 10 years to the position it occupied in 1967. The lasting effects — those that may be felt for generations — are personal, psychological and spiritual. The estimated 100,000 English-speaking Quebeckers who fled the province as political refugees before and after independence now constitute a permanent, and highly vocal minority in Ontario — and a serious embarrassment to the Ottawa government’s efforts to re-establish what Prime Minister Stanfield has called “a meaningful dialogue between Canada and Quebec.” The so-called “St. Boniface Massacre”2 has permanently poisoned relations between the two language groups in Manitoba. And no one can predict when cither Canada or Quebec will recover from the effects of the so-called Great Emigration, when more than 200,000 Quebeckers and Canadians — most of them from the technical and managerial elite — pulled up stakes and moved to the U.S.

How COULD IT HAPPEN? Why, with so many moderates and so much goodwill on both sides, did French and English Canada fail to resolve their differences? It was certainly not inevitable. And the separation clearly had nothing to do with economic necessity, for it was the harsh realities of economics that strangled the new republic before its first anniversary. D. W. Brogan, the British historian, probably provides the soundest explanation. “Never,” he used to advise his students, “underestimate the stupidity factor as a determinant of history.” / continued on page 80

1 A recent Justice Department study, drawing on previously unpublished material from the archives of Quebec’s Ministère de la Sécurité Nationale, has found that no more than 28 violent deaths were directly attributable to the political turmoil surrounding independence.

2 So called by French-language newspapers, although the incident in question was essentially an accident. During the anti-French Winnipeg riots of February J970, seven French Canadians were mistakenly shot as looters.

WHEN QUEBEC QUIT CANADA continued from pape 17

Warning signals: separatism ahead

Certainly there was an abundance of recklessness on one side, and plenty of complacency on the other. But there were real grievances, too. Quebec — admittedly of her own choosing and in the interests of survivance — had entered the 1960s under the Union Nationale as a reactionary, inward-looking backwater, and as a poor member of the Confederation partnership. As late as 1963 — the year the so-called "Quiet Revolution" hit its stride — Quebec's standard of living was still 27 percent below that of Ontario. Fully 40 percent of Canada's unemployed lived in Quebec. And though it was situated in one of the best-endowed regions of the most prosperous continent in world history, Quebec's per-capita income in 1963 was actually lower than Belgium’s.

The Quiet Revolution managed by Liberal Premier Jean Lesage and his lieutenant. René Levesque, from I960 to 1966, might have altered Quebec’s inferior status if it had been allowed to continue. Instead, the electorate chose the Union Nationale government of Daniel Johnson in 1966 and inaugurated a period of cryptoseparatism which eventually acquired a sort of eerie momentum of its own.

Johnson himself foreshadowed the new' emphasis on election night, when an interviewer for the French TV network asked him howhe felt about taking office with only 40 percent of

the popular vote. “If you leave out the English vote of Montreal." Johnson replied, “and the immigrant vote of Montreal, and the Jewish vote of Montreal, you’ll find we have a good majority of French Canadians."

The blandly racist undertone of remarks like these did not reassure Quebec's English-speaking minority. Neither did his pro-separatist Cultural Affairs Minister. Jean-Noël Tremblay, who in the autumn of 1967 announced a plan to encourage Quebec businesses to adopt French as their main language. If the plan did not succeed by voluntary means. Tremblay warned, legislative measures would be considered. Worst of all. of course, was the state visit of French President Charles dc Gaulle. By snubbing federal officials and ensuring that few Canadian flags appeared along the parade route, the Johnson government used the occasion as a golden opportunity to épater les Atipláis. De Gaulle himself, with his astonishing "Québec libre” speech on the balcony of Montreal’s city hall, worsened the situation. It was as though Churchill, on a state visit to France, had declared himself in favor of reuniting Alsace and Lorraine with Germany.

Johnson was no separatist. But he was a sufficiently shrewd politician to exploit separatism's appeal through one side of his mouth, and preach federalism through the other. One

month, he’d be found in the money markets of Toronto and New York, assuring bond dealers of his government's eternal devotion to Confederation. The next, one of his ministers would be declaring that one of the party’s major goals was “to make Quebec the national state of the French-Canadian nation.”3

It was a difficult balance to maintain. And it became more so in September 1967. when Jean Lesage's former Natural Resources Minister. René Lévesque, declared himself in favor of an independent Quebec that would be linked to English-speaking Canada by a common market, and by a military, monetary and postal union. The Lévesque proposal, although it was resoundingly rejected by the Quebec Liberal Party a month later, continued to grow in popularity.

Lévesque’s statement forced the two major parties to end their fencestraddling on the constitutional issue. Both the Liberals and the Union Nationale, when thus forced to choose, issued statements expressing confidence in federalism. As events were shortly to prove, their declarations were expressions of hope, rather than statements of emotional realities. For the fact is that, in late 1967. there were a great many submerged factors that strengthened the separatist cause.

Primary among these was the astonishing fact that, although French and English Canada had been debating the constitutional issue since the Quiet Revolution began in 1960, not a sinf>le proposal for constitutional chaniie had been advanced, by either side, as a basis for actual barpaininfi! In Quebec, a legislative committee and the so-called Etats fiénéraux had spent months and years discussing the question, without arriving at a consensus. And in Ottawa, a succession of ineffectual justice ministers had left the constitutional status quo absolutely unchanged between 1960 and 1967. The only significant provincial initiative during this period was the “Confederation of Tomorrow” conference called by Ontario’s Premier John Robarts. Although this meeting began and ended on a note of optimism, its actual results were nil. Views were exchanged, but the conference brought the nation no closer to a realization of what to do.

There was also the fact that Quebec's separatist parties, although never capable of forming a government, had a considerable evangelical effect. Their appeal to youth was potent — and it was an appeal that could be felt at the polls, since the voting age had in 1963 been lowered to 18. thus enfranchising more than 250.000 of the most articulate, energetic and patient people in the province. The effect was also enhanced by the fact that the French-language press, the CBC, the National Film Board and the entire Quebec cultural establishment was overwhelmingly indépendantiste. It was a time when the English-speak-

3 Jean-Noël Tremblay. Quebec City news conference, October 067.

4 E.g.: Q: Why does it take three pepsis to go ice-fishinfi? A: One to eut the hole, two to push the boa! under. Another example: Q: Why does it take six pepsis to make popcorn.' A: One lo hold the pan. five to jiggle the stove.

ing population was busy exchanging anti-French “pepsi" jokes.4 And in enlightened French circles, it was fashionable to refer to Ottawa politicians as fédérastes — a crude, barely printable pun that summed up the attitude of the opinion-molders far better than all the hopeful manifestos.

The situation, in other words, was ripe for a radical initiative. The opportunity came sooner than anyone expected. In May 1970, Premier Johnson retired suddenly for reasons of

health that were not publicly disclosed.

Paul Dozois. Finance Minister and Acting Premier, automatically became head of the government. It quickly became apparent, however, that he was not its strongest member. Amiable and well-intentioned, Dozois was continually outflanked in cabinet meetings by Jean-Noël Tremblay and his chief ally Marcel Masse, the youthful and strongly nationalist education minister. Johnson, in an anti-separatist purge early in 1968. had forced Trem-

blay to resign from the cabinet. But Tremblay, a bachelor, a former Conservative MP. an able hater and a fanatic for cultural purity, regained his former post in Cultural Affairs after Johnson's departure.

The confrontation came less than three months after Johnson's resignation: the day after Premier Dozois issued a cabinet directive cautioning against “inflammatory statements,” Tremblay told a St. Jean-Baptiste gathering in St. Hyacinthe: “Con-



federation is dead, and Pierre Trudeau killed it. Vive le Quebec libre!” From that point on, it was Diefenbaker and Dalton Camp all over again. Within six weeks, Tremblay and Masse succeeded in calling a party convention which voted Dozois out of office. Tremblay became the party’s acting leader and interim premier. And then, giving the mini-

mum notice, he called an election.

This time, Tremblay had impressive support. In a Chateau Frontenac hotel room the week before, he’d met with Gilles Grégoire and Pierre Bourgault, the two separatist leaders who’d recently merged their parties, and with René Lévesque, who’d spent the year since his departure from the Liberal Party building a strong, independent power base among the urban young. Although their ideological differences were vast, all agreed to submerge them

in the interests of winning an election for the indépendantiste cause. The Liberals were still in disarray after Levesque’s resignation. The provincial economy was weakened by the postExpo doldrums and the continued flight of nervous capital. Victory had never looked so certain.

On the night of December 21. 1970, the front populaire managed by Tremblay, Lévesque, Masse, Grégoire and Bourgault won 78 of the legislature's 108 seats. Lévesque, still chain-smok-

ing and as chummy as ever with English-speaking reporters, analyzed the victory in his customarily candid manner: “Sure, we knew we’d win,” he told a news conference, “and what we beat was the English-dominated Establishment that’s run this province and the Liberal Party since God knows when. Are we going to separate? Sure we are, and Ottawa knows it. We’ve got a sort of blank cheque now. All we’ve got to do is agree on the time and the terms.”

To forestall a panic, the new government moved cautiously for the first few weeks. Lévesque, by privately threatening to resign as finance minister, persuaded the cabinet's hardliners to postpone their plan to proclaim French as the sole official language in Quebec. But the scramble to get out had already begun. Between 1967 and the end of 1970. the chartered banks closed 368 branches in Quebec, since thousands of depositors had already transferred their accounts to Ontario. A seat on the Montreal Stock Exchange could be bought for the distress-sale price of $1.200, and a typical house in Westmount. which sold for $85,000 in 1966. changed hands three years later for $42.000. The president of Simon Fraser University. in a package deal that caused a sensation in academic circles, hired McGill’s entire political-science faculty. and used a chartered C-54 transport to fly their household effects to BC. That was the beginning of the so-called “Montreal Airlift.”

Within weeks of the new government’s taking office, the flight of capital and personnel became a flood. A run developed on the Banque Canadienne Nationale and, in a near-riot outside one BCN branch in east Montreal, an elderly depositor was trampled to death by a policeman’s horse. Three days later. Lévesque declared a bank holiday. The General Motors plant at St. Thérèse. Quebec, shut down soon afterward. In Toronto, an organization calling itself the Quebec Refugee Aid Society set up a kiosk in Union Station to help arriving Montrealers find accommodation.

In Ottawa, attitudes were hardening. too. Prime Minister Stanfield, in a TV interview with Blair Fraser, was firm and imperturbable: “My government’s attitude is simply to wait. They haven't separated yet, and I don't think the Tremblay government can last six months.”

But when the legislation finally passed at 5.10 a.m. — the lieutenant'■governor had been kept up all night so he could sign it immediately — Stanfield was ready with a statement. “The legislation is clearly unconstitutional.” he told a pre-breakfast news conference in his office, “and the government will accordingly disallow' it.”

This w'as the crunch. In the legislature debate. Tremblay had warned Ottawa that if the legislation were disallowed, he w'ouid be “forced to consider alternate measures that will assert Quebec’s right to secure her own welfare and security.” Did disallowance mean separation? The nation waited.

So did the world. As the RCMP already knew', the Soviet ambassador had been in secret contact with the Quebec government, offering instant recognition and economic aid if the province chose independence. The Americans, of course, had been active. too. Two months before. Lévesque had met secretly with U.S. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg in a Vermont hunting lodge. Bluntly. Goldberg had spelled out American policy: they were against separation — but if it came nevertheless, the U.S. wanted firm assurances that U.S.-owned corporations in Quebec would not be interfered with.

Stanfield was informed of that meeting. What he didn't know, of course, was how firmly Washington had the situation under control. The Pentagon had developed a contingency plan that would have put the U.S. Marines in command of Montreal and Quebec within 18 hours. The CIA. by “bugging” the cabinet room, had secured transcripts of every cabinet meeting, and most of Tremblay's private huddles as well. The Canadian Labor Congress (CLC). a CIA-supported operation since 1968. was primed to deliver a paralyzing general strike whenever the word was given. U.S.-owned nuclear w'arheads were quietly withdrawn from the Bomarc base at La Macaza. Dependents of U.S. consular staffers in Montreal were flown home.

Lévesque, concerned by the consequences of a separation that was unsanctioned by Ottawa, tried to avoid the showdown. He asked his old friend Eric Kierans to phone Stanfield and ascertain Ottawa’s willingness to negotiate common-market arrangements in the event of an independence declaration. Twenty minutes later. Kierans was back with an answer. “What he said. René, was no dice.” Kierans reported. “If you go. you go alone.”

“Then we can’t go at all.” Lévesque said. He hadn’t slept for 53 hours.

But it was too late. As Lévesque spoke on the telephone, Tremblay’s office was informing the press gallery that the legislature would meet that afternoon at four. And an aide had already cabled a prearranged codeword to the French and Soviet ambassadors in Ottawa: “Venez.” Tremblay. at Bourgault’s urging, had decided he couldn’t back down. At 3.53 his party left the premier’s office, struggled through a crowd of waiting reporters, down the corridor and paused .before the door leading into the legislative chamber. In Tremblay’s right-hand breast pocket was the

1.700-word declaration of independence that he’d spent most of the night drafting. Just before he walked through the double-doored entrance, he turned to an aide and said with a weary smile. "Don’t lose your nerve.” Then he walked into the chamber.

THAT, ROUGHI.Y. IS how it happened on the day Quebec seceded. How the province fared thereafter as an independent state is another tragic story.

The republic, of course, lasted exactly eight months. 18 days and II hours. There were several memorable riots, a staggering economic crisis and — in the only repressive measure that the government managed to perform successfully — the closure by government decree of the Montreal Star and Gazette.

Since Ottawa regarded the act of secession as illegal, they refused to discuss dividing the assets of the railroads. the Seaway, the post office and

other shared services between the two nations. Unofficially, however, de facto channels of co-operation developed automatically, since neither country could function without them. No one. for instance, negotiated the transfer of the CBC’s Quebec facilities to the new government. Instead, the Tremblay government unilaterally took control of their share of the broadcasting network. Then, thanks to a private agreement worked out between advertising and network executives in Montreal



and Toronto, both nations continued to see NHL games — and when Ralph Cowan called this arrangement “treason." no one really cared.5

Not many such arrangements worked out so well. The Quebec and Canadian branches of the post office at first refused to deliver mail to each other. All Canada-Quebec mail had to be routed through the U.S. — an idiotic arrangement that was ended within three months by public pressure from both sides. Dependents on Canadian Forces bases in Quebec were moved out. But despite demands by Quebec for their removal, the troops stayed. Quebec created a small, bluehelmeted paramilitary group known as the Force Publique, but there was never any suggestion that they were strong enough to dislodge the Canadians.

Tremblay's plans for a Quebec citizenship. and his government's decree requiring exit permits for "citizens" crossing into Ontario, never really materialized. The Force Publique set up border posts at airports and on the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway, but their presence was largely symbolic. Stanfield had privately threatened military action if free movement across the border was interfered with. The Tremblay government, just as privately, did its best to avoid such intervention.

The monetary arrangements, if they'd heen allowed to continue, would have caused real hardship. A new Quebec currency, the cru, was introduced. But you could still buy a bottle, a meal, a washing machine or anything else with contraband Canadian or U.S. dollars. Despite the official attitudes of both governments, life went on — and so did many of the forms of co-operation that had existed before.

But when, in October 1971, the government ordered the nationalization of all natural - resources industries in a frantic attempt to stem the flight of capital. Washington and Ottawa moved swiftly. The CLC obediently called a general strike. Stanfield went on TV to call for a "silent referendum”: Quebeckers who wanted their homeland to rejoin Canada. he said, should simply stay home the next day. Nearly everyone did. Then, when 24 unarmed s >ldiers in Canadian uniforms marched through the silent streets and up t • the legislature and requested Tremblay to resign, he did so without hesitation. He knew that 5.000 Marines were poised on the Vermont border, ready to move if he refused. Now. under former Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau. Quebec is negotiating the terms of its new association with Canada. Tremblay lives in retirement outside Paris. And Lévesque, now a lecturer at Laval, recently told an interviewer: "Of course it was a tragedy. But it was a necessary tragedy. Perhaps now well learn to live together. At least we've proved we can't live apart." ★

5 It is interesting to note fluít the Quebec Hroadcastmg Corporation, unhampered b\ an executive echelon in Ottawa, swiftly increased its audience and actually showed a small profit during its seven months of existence.

But Stanfield was forced to act exactly 22 days later. That was the day — February 3, 1971 — that the Quebec legislature, meeting in a special all-night session, passed a package of emergency legislation that was designed to stem the flight of capital, but which was flagrantly unconstitutional. Firms transferring their assets or administrations outside the province would be subject to a heavy transfer tax — "and what that really means.” said Eric Kierans in the angry debate, “is that if a company leaves the province, this government will seize all the assets it’s forced to leave behind.” In addition, the new legislation imposed an eight-percent sales tax on goods entering Quebec from outside the province's borders. “This is purely a revenue measure,” Finance Minister Lévesque shouted back at a jeering opposition.