— Federalism and sovereignty; the conflict comes of age with the Bourassa Years
WALTER STEW ARTJune11970
The New Quebec:
— Federalism and sovereignty; the conflict comes of age with the Bourassa Years
WALTER STEW ART
AN ELECTION FREEZES the picture of a people at that instant when, every promise and prejudice weighed and balanced, voters mark and fold their ballots. The picture of Quebec reflected by the election of April 29 — despite the surprisingly easy Liberal win — is confused and contradictory, and faithful to the people of the province. Some of the less ephemeral aspects of that picture:
On a back road near the tiny village of Chute-St-Philippe, Henri Jolicceur, 60, takes my hand to say good-by, takes it and holds on hard while he tells me: “We don’t want to be separated from Canada, to be shut up again in our own little corner. We have helped you, now you must help us. Go and tell them we must not be separated. That would crush Canada, that would crush Quebec. Go and tell them, Monsieur.” He gets out of my car, walks over to his own, turns and repeats, “Aidez-nous.” Then he drives off.
In the battered back room of Le Collège de Vieux Montréal, two students — Roch Poirier and Paul-Pierre Roy, co-ordinators of the independence - minded Ça Urge movement — insist calmly that the question is not whether Quebec will separate, but what kind of independent Quebec will emerge — a democratic socialist one, they hope. What counted in this election, they say, was not the Liberal win, but the
strong Parti Québécois showing among young voters, soon to be a majority of the province. “Don’t ask about independence,” Poirier warns, “that question is already settled.”
Outside a Liberal campaign room in the pulp and paper centre of Grand’Mère, a loudspeaker chants, over and over, “On veut des jobs . . . on veut des jobs . . . on veut des jobs.”
On a Montreal street, a convertible, driven by a pretty girl and plastered with Parti Québécois stickers, pulls up beside a taxi, and the girl asks for street directions. The cab driver gets out, walks across, looms over the convertible. “Why don’t you ask René Lévesque?” he snarls, and turns on his heel.
In a hotel lobby in Noranda, a commercial traveler is musing aloud about how he will vote. “I always voted Union Nationale,” he explains, “but what a mess they made ... I like René Lévesque. I think he’s the only honest man in the race, but you know what will happen, eh? I will get into the polling booth intending to vote Parti Québécois. I will get the ballot, look at it, and I will end up voting for the Liberals. I’m too old for separatism.” He laughs hugely.
On the edge of the little park opposite the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, two calèche drivers, one middle-aged, the other young, are arguing politics. Suddenly the
older man jumps up. “I don’t understand what you’re getting at,” he says angrily, “I don’t understand a damn thing in this province any more.”
At a shopping centre in Montreal’s east end, Robert Bourassa moves through the crowd, shaking hands. His smile comes easily, a big change from the strained and plastered grin with which he opened this campaign. His hand chops down readily to grasp the hands of well-wishers, his Adam’s apple bobs in sympathy. Then he comes upon a knot of Parti Québécois supporters, all young, all wearing stony faces and “Oui” buttons. Bourassa shrugs. “Let’s shake anyway,” he says. One youth pulls back his hand as if to avoid infection: Bourassa
tries a second, and a third, but the reaction is the same. Just for an instant, his face tightens. Then he smiles, waves, moves off.
In the gymnasium of Mother Secord school, in his own Laurier riding, René Lévesque, who has conducted a deliberately cool, reassuring campaign, stirs to sudden anger. Under the goad of a Montreal Star editorial that was condescending to French Canadians, he begins to lash “the WASPs,” “the exploiters,” “the white group” who have dominated Quebec “like a bunch of Rhodesians.” The crowd reaction is fierce and favorable, but the attack leaves a small, sick feeling
that Lévesque has loosed a genie of hate he may not be able to re-bottle.
In short, there was nothing clear-cut about the mood of the province in this election, and there was nothing finally settled by its result. The campaign was fought on two main issues — Quebec’s faltering economy, and the question of independence. Well, the economy is still faltering. The vote has not changed Quebec’s high unemployment rate (9.2% in March, when 206,000 Quebeckers were out of work, 38% of all the unemployed in Canada), nor increased capital spending (a study by economist R. B. Macpherson indicated last fall that it would take $ 10billion a year in new investment to bring Quebec up to Ontario’s standard of living
— last year’s capital investment in the province was just under $3.5 billion. It has not reduced the skyrocketting direct provincial debt ($36 per capita in 1960, $208 in 1969). Premier Bourassa’s new team of economic technologists may restore some stability — indeed, it is their main commitment and first order of business — but they are unlikely to make any real breakthrough while the province rests in the shadow of uncertainty on the sovereignty issue.
The election lightened but did not dispel that shadow. The Parti Québécois fared far better than anyone anticipated when the election was called on March 12, though not as well as polls taken during the campaign suggested they might. The elation in other parties over the defeat of Lévesque and the low number of Parti Québécois seats tended to muffle the fact that this new party
— dismissed disdainfully by Prime Minister Trudeau a few months ago — gained more than 20 per cent of the vote, second only to the Liberals, and, except for a distorted electoral map, would have won many more seats.
The chief result of the campaign was to help polarize opinion, and to politicize thousands of Quebeckers
who, until now, had no strong feeling about sovereignty one way or the other. The Liberals won, in part, because Lévesque did so well that he scared the daylights out of a people who are, in their hearts of hearts, still inclined to the status quo. Just before the election was called, the Liberals commissioned a private survey that showed only 6% of the electorate cared about the constitutional issue, and the party designed its appeal for power along purely economic lines. But when public opinion polls began to show astonishing PQ strength, the ground rules changed: sovereignty became the issue. On that issue, the Union Nationale began to shatter and the Liberals to adopt a stronger federalist line. However, the process of polarization was not complete by election day: there were still many voters who were drawn to the PQ by Lévesque and his social program, many others drawn to the Liberals despite an inclination toward provincial sovereignty. Two separate polls showed that more than 45% of those who voted PQ opposed total separation from Canada — one poll showed that 17% of the Liberals, 26% of the Créditistes and 41% of the Union Nationale voters were in favor of independence, provided it included an economic union with Canada. Bourassa moved at least part way to
meet this feeling. Early in the campaign, he promised to initiate a study on the economic aspects of separatism, so that the province could at least argue its pros and cons from a base of facts. On the night of his victory, when he might have been expected to clasp confederation to his bosom, he instead planted a kiss on its cheek. “The challenge of the Liberal Party in the next few years,” he said, “is to show that Quebec can stay in Canada. We will face that challenge, taking into account the fact that Quebec is not a province like the others.”
Bourassa’s victory was not a definite yes or no to federalism — at most it was a resolute maybe. It is ironic that when the polls indicated the Parti Québécois might win between 19% and 24% of the vote, English Canada recoiled in horror; when the PQ did in fact win just about 24% of the vote, English Canada said: “Thank God for that.” What the polls had not shown was what the undecided vote — 35% of the survey four days before the election — would do. That vote plumped for the Liberals — in part because of the survey.
With the election past and the new premier firmly entrenched (although his party got a smaller share of the popular vote than it recorded while losing in 1966), the process of polarization continues. The Union Nationale is visibly tearing apart, with its federalist wing drawn to the Liberals, its nationalist wing to the PQ, while the Créditistes remain a small, profederal knot on the Liberal right. Quarrels with Ottawa have not ceased — if anything, they will grow more serious (although they will be conducted in more moderate tones) because Bourassa faces the same problem as any Quebec premier, that of trying to make shrinking revenues cover expanding costs, while the federal presence becomes ever more obtrusive in the provincial budget (in 1964, Ottawa covered 8% of Quebec’s budget, in 1969, 20%). The new premier has indicated he is ready
to take the leadership of eastern Canada in a struggle for a more equal sharing of the nation’s riches, which means, in plain terms, that like every Quebec premier before him, he will soon be attacking Ottawa, demanding a new fiscal and constitutional deal.
When the first bloom of electoral elation wears off, and the province’s economic ills refuse to evaporate instantly, the independence issue will begin to simmer once more.
This election was an important one, but it did not solve the problems of Quebec, or Canada. Barring some miracle, when Quebec troops to the polls again four years from now, it will be to grapple once more with its destiny — and ours. □
The enlightened polls
The Quebec election was fought under what is probably the most enlightened voting legislation in Canada. Quebec election law limits the amount any man or party can spend. It also provides for provincial subsidy of candidates, which, of course, keeps them out of the control of wellheeled backers. Under a complex formula, the law provides that in an average riding of 30,000 voters, a party is limited to spending $7,500 and an individual to $15,000. There is no reimbursement to the party, but a candidate who spends the maximum in such a riding can get $9,000 back from the province. To prevent nuisance candidates, only those from the government or the official opposition, or those receiving at least 20% of the vote qualify for the subsidy. The law not only kept any party from flooding the province with television propaganda, it also put poorer candidates on a roughly equal footing with their wealthier rivals, and thus helped both the Créditistes and Parti Québécois. The reforms were introduced in 1964 by the Lesage Liberals — who promptly lost the next election.
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