Splitting up: Two theoretical scenarios on how Quebec could say farewell to Canada

RICHARD SIMEON October 1 1971


Splitting up: Two theoretical scenarios on how Quebec could say farewell to Canada

RICHARD SIMEON October 1 1971



Splitting up: Two theoretical scenarios on how Quebec could say farewell to Canada

Let us assume for the moment that separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada is inevitable and the moves toward it irreversible. The question then immediately arises: How might it come about? How do two complex societies which have been associated in a federal union for more than 100 years go about the difficult process of disengagement? Can it be done peacefully, without bloodshed — or will it inevitably lead to bitterness, mutual reprisals, or even war? And, since the two societies will continue to share the northern half of the continent, will they be able to work out some stable relationship which will govern their future?

These are not idle or mischievous questions. Separation is no longer a remote possibility advocated by a small group of militants. It is a respectable political movement. It may well succeed. If this is the case, then English Canadians must begin to ask themselves some difficult questions and think seriously about how it might happen. Only by doing this will they be able to retain some control over events. In asking these questions I am not assuming that is inevitable, much less that it is desirable. But

by thinking about them, perhaps both sides can gain some insight into what is at stake and how relations could be conducted through what would be, at best, a difficult process. One way to approach the problem is to sketch out some alternative scenarios about disengagement. The discussion will, of course, be hypothetical and speculative. The reader will undoubtedly be able to think of other scenarios and of variations on the two presented here: 1. The optimistic scenario: separation and sovereign status can be negotiated amicably; English Canada and Quebec will, after sepa-

ration has been achieved, continue to cooperate and will indeed create a mutually advantageous “Canadian Union,” with a common market and joint overall economic policies. This optimistic scenario’s main proponent is the leader of the Parti Québécois, René Lévesque, and it is most fully developed in his book, An Option For Quebec (McClelland and Stewart). 2. The pessimistic scenario: separation

Assistant Professor, Department of Political Studies, Queen’s University

and sovereign status cannot be achieved peaceably. English Canadians will not tolerate it, and are likely to use force to prevent it. Quebec, whether successful or not, is likely to become a fascist state. If separation is achieved, future relations will be hostile and noncooperative. Mutual reprisals will replace peaceful negotiation. Economic relations will be similar to those between the United States and Cuba. This pessimistic scenario predicts something approaching civil war. Bits and pieces of it have been suggested many times, but it has never been spelled out in complete detail. In order to evaluate the optimistic and pessimistic scenarios, a great number of relevant factors must be considered. Few, if any, can at this stage be delineated with any degree of certainty. Broadly, there would be three stages in the disengagement process. The first is the preseparation stage; it includes all events leading up to the decision by Quebec to separate. The second is the separation stage itself; it focuses on the immediate actions and reactions of the participants after the decision has been made. Third is the post-separation phase. Assuming the

achievement of separation, this stage involves the working out of a fairly stable set of relationships which will govern the parties for the future. The events at each stage will be greatly affected by the preceding ones; to a great extent each will determine the future ones. As a result, the initial stage leading up to separation is the most crucial: it will set a pattern of expectations by both sides which will likely be difficult to change. In the pre-separation stage, what will be the developments in Quebec leading to separation? Will the final decision result from a long, gradual, cumulative process, or will the break be brief and abrupt? How will the decision to separate be made: by referendum, by an act of the legislature, by a coup, or in some other way? What will be the overall goals of the Separatists: primarily a symbolic disengagement, or a total and complete break with the rest of Canada? Equally important will be the goals and attitudes of the Sepa-

ratists on a number of other matters, such as treatment of English Canadians and English-Canadian business in the province. It will also be important to know how united the French-Canadian population will be, and how strong the authority of the government is.

Answers to these questions will, in turn, affect the responses of English Canadians to the act of separation. Of particular importance are such questions as these: What will be the reactions of ordinary citizens to the event, and what pressures or demands will they make on the government leaders? What will be the reactions of newspapers, businessmen, interest groups, and the like? How will the governmental authorities react?

In the separation stage, we ask what the immediate actions by each side are. How do the French-Canadian leaders conduct themselves, and what reactions does this provoke on the part of English Canadians? Again there are several factors to be considered here. Are there incentives for both sides to take “hard” positions, and, conversely, are there incentives to promote agreement? What are the levels of hostility or cooperativeness, trust and distrust between leaders of each side? What are the actual issues to be negotiated? And, finally, how do third parties like the United States or France behave?

Let us first examine the option advocated by the Parti Québécois. René Lévesque believes strongly that independent status for Quebec can be achieved without severe conflict, in a peaceful and orderly way. Moreover, he argues that the achievement of sovereign status for Quebec will be mutually beneficial for both sides. This is because, he argues, the present federal system effectively frustrates both Quebec in its aspirations for control over its own destiny and English Canada in its desire for “simplifying, rationalizing and centralizing.” Continuing the existing federal regime makes mounting conflict and hostility inevitable: the two majorities “will inevitably collide with one another repeatedly and with greater and greater force causing hurts that would finally be irreparable.” “Tomorrow,” he writes, “English Canada would be grateful to Quebec for bringing it [separation] about.”

In addition, Lévesque does not envision a total separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada. Instead, there would be an association of the two countries, which would include common currency and monetary systems, a com-

mon market and coordina

tion of fiscal policies. A cynic might say that Lévesque’s plan is not so very different from the present state of affairs — and certainly no different from many of the projects for special status — with the exception that in the future Quebec would possess all the symbols of

sovereignty. The pre-separation phase of the separation process under the Lévesque option would

be relatively peaceful and democratic. The decision to separate, itself, would be achieved through legitimate constitutional means. He expects that in a short time Quebec will elect to the National Assembly leaders pledged to establish a sovereign Quebec. Once in office, the new government will not immediately declare independence. There would instead be a three-year transition period, during which, presumably, there would be negotiations between Quebec and English Canada. In these discussions, Quebec would combine “unshakable firmness with a polite insistence on speaking calmly.” During this period, too, Lévesque expects English Canadians would undergo a period of “psychological development” by which they would come to accept the inevitable and thus be willing to “sit at the same table without too great a gap between us.” It would therefore be possible to negotiate peacefully the “Contract of Association.” Both parties in these negotiations would have an incentive to agree: Quebec would not want to lose the benefits of economic association with Canada; Canada would not want to lose the Quebec market, or risk disruption of its basic economic and monetary system. It also seems clear from Lévesque’s arguments that Quebec’s economic policy would not greatly threaten existing investments and economic arrangements, thus limiting the danger of major opposition from economic interests. Similarly, Lévesque has made fairly clear that the political form of a sovereign Quebec would not likely be repugnant to most English Canadians’ values. Lévesque himself — though there are major differences of opinion within his movement — would also not provoke deep English-Canadian hostility through denying rights of English Canadians and other minorities in Quebec.

In the second stage, therefore, all sides will have strong incentives to reach agreement, on both political and economic grounds. It is assumed there will be a few pressures or incentives to take hard or inflexible positions. There will be little overt hostility and much desire to cooperate. There will be many issues to be negotiated; Lévesque does not spell them out but assumes they can be negotiated successfully. He assumes no third-party involvement by the United States, France, or other countries. As a result, the two independent countries will move into the post-separation phase with a high degree of cooperation in a wide variety of fields, and a stable relationship, beneficial to both sides, will emerge.

Assuming the decision to separate is made along the lines Lévesque suggests, and English Canadians do indeed decide to negotiate its achievement peacefully, how might these negotiations take place, and with what results? What issues would have to be negotiated? The list would be very long, including, to mention only a few examples, the rights and guarantees of English-speaking minorities in Quebec and, to a lesser extent, French-Canadian minorities outside Quebec; the status and future of English-owned corporations located in Quebec; links with the Maritimes; trade relations; monetary arrangements and the machinery for fiscal cooperation; and the disposal of federal property in Quebec. Agreement on some matters at the early stage would undoubtedly make agreement on later issues easier. The large number of issues, with complex variations within each, would allow the possibility of considerable trading of concessions both within and between issues. In addition, on very complex issues winning and losing become much less clear-cut, with a greater possibility that both sides could feel they have “won” and that conflict on them would be blurred.

Another important factor that would help shape the negotiations is the institutional setting in which they took We could agreement to be much more diffi-

cult if there were no relatively agreed, clear-cut forum and procedures for working it out. It would also be more difficult if either side were disorganized and did not have a spokesman who was accepted as legitimate both by his own society and by the other side. In fact, of course, existing federal-provincial negotiating machinery suggests a model that could well be followed with very little modification in the negotiations about separation. The recognized form of these negotiations is government-to-government bargaining in a quasi-diplomatic way. The major spokesmen for provincial interests are provincial governments, rather than, say, provincial party activists, federal Senators or federal MPs. In addition, a striking characteristic of ethnic conflict in Canada is that it has usually taken the form of conflict between governments rather than direct conflict between individuals. It may be expected that these precedents would continue in the negotiation of separation, and that they would facilitate finding agreement. There would, of course, be some important problems with the existing machinery — what role, for example, would the English-Canadian provinces wish to play? They have been suspicious of bilateral negotiations between Ottawa and Quebec in the past, but it seems reasonable to believe that in the kind of national crisis separation implies provincial governments would rally to the federal government and would consider it the logical spokesman and bargainer for English Canada. Again, however, there could well be some differences among the provinces. Another factor which would affect the chances of a successful negotiation is the degree of unity on each side. If there were wide disagreement about the appropriate attitude toward the Quebec decision and about the most desirable goals and tactics to be used, the authority of the spokesman at the bargaining table might be limited. A likely development would be for the officials of both Quebec and Ottawa to be pressed toward harder positions by extremists — by French Canadians arguing for a more complete break and impatient of protracted negotiations; by English Canadians unwilling to accept the fact of separation itself and pushing for a punitive line. These pressures would, in one sense, strengthen the bargaining power of the participants in the negotiations, but, in another sense, they would obviously make agreement much harder.

Recent manifestations of widespread social tensions within Quebec call into question the likelihood that the Quebec government would have complete authority within the province. Separation itself could have the effect of rallying and unifying Quebec opinion. But it could have the opposite effect, too. And disagreements within the population could grow rapidly if wages dropped, unemployment rose, and so on. The social mobilization of recent years which has increased nationalist demands in Quebec has also increased internal cleavages and disagreements. These could well severely complicate negotiations between the two sides. So, of course, would a separation achieved by leaders who are also radical socialists. Such a development might not only preclude any agreement between French and English Canadians, but also lead to great internal conflicts in which some French Canadians might well call on English-Canadian aid to put down the Revolution. There are strong elements of such a scenario in the reactions of the Quebec and Montreal governments to the FLQ kidnappings.

Another factor affecting the course of negotiations once begun is the amount of political resources, or bargaining power, available to each side. Both would have considerable levers to employ, but it seems likely that English Canada would be in a stronger bargaining position. It would always possess the threat of physical

violence — even though its use would be costly and probably repugnant to most English Canadians. It could also pose a series of other threats which Quebec would have trouble countering, such as economic blockade. Clearly, English Canada would be in a much stronger position to use these kinds of tactics than Quebec. Paradoxically, indeed, English Canada might find itself in a stronger bargaining position after separation than it is in present negotiations with Quebec.

Today, Quebec’s bargaining power is partly based on its being the only province that can make any sort of credible threat to break up the country. Any federal government with maintenance of national unity as a major goal is then motivated to make concessions on many substantive issues. This was clearly evident during the Pearson years. It has been less obvious since 1968, partly because a French-Canadian prime minister can challenge Quebec government leaders’ claims to be sole “representatives” of the French Canadians. Nevertheless, even since 1968, it is obvious that a great many federal policies have been modified in advance to accommodate the Quebec position. But with separation already a fact. Quebec’s ultimate threat would be removed.

English Canada would also probably have stronger support in the international community, especially from the United States. Probably more important is the fact that in a real bargaining situation French Canada would need to establish “normal” relations and economic partnerships with English Canada more than English Canada would with Quebec. Quebec would have both more to gain from negotiations and more to lose; it would thus be motivated to make many concessions to English-Canadian interests, though always, of course, short of giving up the claim to sovereignty itself. Breaking off the talks might hurt English Canada; it would hurt Quebec more.

Quebec, of course, would not be powerless; its resources would stem from possession of several things desirable to English Canadians, especially control over English minorities, access to the Maritimes, possession of national governmental assets, and English-Canadian industry. This pattern of resource distribution should ensure both that the parties would be motivated to seek agreement and that each would be prepared to make concessions. But it also suggests that, given English Canada’s acquiescence on the basic issue of Quebec’s sovereignty, and given a willingness on both sides to negotiate, English Canada would be able to negotiate a set of future relationships which would achieve most of its major goals, and which would probably come closer to English Canada’s desires than to Quebec’s.

What that end-point would be is unclear. For Lévesque it is a common market, common monetary system, and cooperative fiscal pol— / continued on page 73

SEPARATISM from page 25 icy, with decisions being truly joint. If the analysis is correct, these mechanisms, while benefiting Quebec, would also operate substantially to the advantage of English Canada, especially Ontario and the Maritimes. With its bargaining strength, English Canada might, for example, retain a preponderant weight in determining f}ie major joint economic policies.

In addition, we could assume that much of the existing economic interdependence between the two countries would be retained. At the governmental policy level, there would be coordination. At the private economic level, with free movement of population, goods and investment, there is no necessary reason why there should be much change from the status quo. True, there might be initial flight of capital from Quebec, but a moderate government, coupled with successful negotiations, could presumably recover it. At another Jevel, too, the societies would remain highly interdependent. Just as the Canadian government now is unable to introduce many policies which differ radically from policies within the United States, so the Quebec government would find itself constrained by English Canada. The policies of both countries would continue to have important spillover effects, though, of course, there would be freedom for some variations in policy. Thus, the likely outcome under Lévesque’s scenario is only a very partial disengagement — a disengagement at the political level, without much disengagement in the complex structures of the modern state.

However, one should not use the word “merely” in describing this outcome. The model would be very similar to the existing relationship between Canada and the United States, where Canada’s freedom in economic and other policies is strictly limited, and where, in the private economy, Canada and the U.S. are essentially one. But this does not necessarily mean that what differences remain are trivial. Indeed, the Canada-United States experience shows that questions of political sovereignty and economic relationships are only very indirectly related. For example, while a very large majority of Canadians maintain the desirability of political separation from the U.S., much smaller numbers argue for a severing of the economic ties. The one can and does exist without the other. Canadian political sovereignty is a real, meaningful and satisfying concept to most Canadians; few would argue that because we exist interdependently with the United States in so many other ways this political distinctiveness should be abolished,

though many of us wish Canada did have more freedom of action.

To summarize, the Lévesque scenario is a plausible and persuasive one. It is possible to envision a situation in which Quebec’s decision to separate was accepted — albeit with reluctance and with many areas of opposition — by English Canadians. If this is the case, it is also possible to envision a series of negotiations that would be to the advantage of both sides, that would result in some form of “Canadian Association.” One can predict with some plausibility how these negotiations might be carried out and what the outcome might be. The separation, in Lévesque’s case, would not be total. But it would be a severe blow — psychologically more than materially — to English Canada. The key question, assuming a certain legitimate process leading to a decision to separate by Quebec, is just how strong a blow to English Canada this would be — for that is what would determine the initial and vital reaction.

The second scenario suggests something approaching a civil war if Quebec were to separate. English Canadians, it is assumed, are likely to oppose violently any attempt to separate; they would not accept a Quebec decision as legitimate; if separation were achieved, they would likely adopt punitive policies toward the new state..

One can easily imagine such developments occurring. If they did, the possibility of a peaceful accommodation would be very small, and the potential for violence great. One could, in such a case, envision a progressive hardening of lines and a growing likelihood of armed conflict which could be mutually destructive.

The experience of civil wars in other settings, from the American Civil War to the Nigerian, might provide strong disincentives for Canadians to carry conflict to that point. But one cannot consider the possibility of this militant reaction of English Canada without considering some of the other factors in the equation. Thus, we can suggest a series of conditions that would make the violent, response more likely. Most have to do with the attitudes and goals of the Separatists. The more thoroughgoing the degree of disengagement sought, the more likely stiff resistance. If the Separatists wanted to win not only symbolic sovereignty but also wished to disturb all existing economic arrangements and transportation systems, for example, resistance would come from more quarters and be more violent. Similarly, if the Separatists threatened the rights and livelihood of EnglishCanadian minorities in Quebec, reaccontinued on page 75

SEPARATISM continued

tion would be angry. At the extreme, outright persecution of non-Frenchspeaking minorities would almost certainly provoke violence.

The ideological makeup of the Separatist movement would also be important. A movement that was not only Separatist but also Marxist or Fascist, or that threatened to nationalize all industries, would be more bitterly opposed, because a wider range of important English-Canadian values would be threatened. Again, the way in which separation would be achieved is vital. The more the decision can be shown to be legitimate and democratic, the more likely English Canadians are to accept the decision, even if unpleasant. But if separation came after some kind of coup, or if a referendum showed only a slim majority in favor, demands for intervention would likely grow. Similarly, reaction might be more militant if separation was accomplished quickly rather than being prepared over a longer period.

A crucial factor here is the degree of unanimity and the strength of political organization in Quebec. If Quebeckers themselves were deeply divided, it would be very difficult for English Canadians not to take sides. That might begin on an individual basis, but quickly expand to the governmental level. Instead of a clear-cut Quebec-Canada conflict, there might instead be a complex set of alliances between elements in each area. Negotiations in such a situation could well be impossible. Deep disagreement with Quebec is likely to be associated with some sort of breakdown in social organization. Political leaders could lose their authority and influence. Militant groups like the FLQ would become more active and stronger. If this were the case, it would become extremely difficult for English Canadians to deal with Quebec, the likelihood of threats both to English-Canadian minorities and English-Canadian property would grow, and intervention would be more likely. Therefore, it is in the interests of English Canada to avoid adopting policies that would prompt these developments and threaten Quebec elites.

From this we can distill the following summary. If separation is achieved by orderly, legitimate political process, if it poses little threat to English-Canadian political values other than unity itself, and poses little danger to English-Canadian minorities or industries, if it is achieved gradually over time and is guided by political leaders who share a common sense of the most important rules of the game with English - Canadian leaders and who maintain a fair degree of authority within Quebec, then English-Canadian

reaction is likely to be moderate, and English Canadians will ultimately accept the inevitability of separation. In this case, the outlook for maintenance of at least some degree of cooperation is bright. But if separation is achieved through manifestly undemocratic means, such as a coup, if it is accompanied by much social disorganization and wide internal dissension within Quebec, if the separatist doctrine is associated with other political doctrines English Canadians find repugnant, or with actions threatening to English-Canadian minorities and property interests, then we can expect a militant reaction from English Canadians, up to and including demands for military repression.

This suggests that the attitudes, goals and behavior of the French Canadians would be decisive influences on the English-Canadian reactions. The converse is also true; the ways in which English Canadians react would influence French Canadians. In particular, a threatening posture by English Canada would be likely to produce pressures for more militant Quebec action, for repressive measures against English-speaking minorities, and so on. Similarly, an English-Canadian policy of economic sanctions, if successful, might greatly increase the chances of widespread social disorganization and unemployment in Quebec, thus increasing the chances of the formation of extremist political movements. Thus, one hears it said that a Fascist government in Quebec would be intolerable: to some extent at least, English-Canadian attitudes would determine whether the conditions for such a development existed. Such predictions may become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Hence, the conditions for a spiraling escalation oí the conflict could easily exist. Hostility on one side would breed hostility on the other. Such a spiral once started becomes very hard to break, especially with the absence of a third party to intervene. Therefore the initial reactions and behavior of both sides are crucial.

Factors other than the ways in which separation is achieved would also affect the likelihood of English-Canadian repression. English - Canadian elites would have to be responsive to pressures from their constituents. Undoubtedly, in whatever form separation occurred, there would be demands for armed repression from some voices. The question is how strong would they be and how easily could they be resisted? Hostility to Quebec, and to separation, would not necessarily take the form of “Stop them.” It could as plausibly take the form of “Good riddance, continued on page 77

SEPARATISM continued and let them go.” We might expect great regional variations here: perhaps in the West, where the feeling that Quebec gets too much attention already appears to be widespread and where a sense that Quebec is really part of Canada seems attenuated, this “good riddance” reaction might be typical. Few might be willing to exert much real effort to keep Quebec in. In the Maritimes, perhaps, with the most at stake if separation occurred, reactions might include far more willingness to force Quebec to remain.

Assuming some acceptance of the legitimacy of Quebec’s decision, it is probable that most English-Canadian political leaders would oppose armed intervention, again because nonviolence is such a strongly held value. In addition, militant intervention would be exceedingly costly in economic and emotional terms. It is hard to imagine what “success” would constitute in such an enterprise. Even the threat of force would be costly, since it would likely only increase Quebec militance. Political leaders, with their superior information, would be most able to perceive such factors and could be expected to counsel actions short of armed intervention.

English Canada could use other forms of reprisal against an independent Quebec, notably economic ones. But again, all would be costly to implement, and the effects would be difficult to predict. It therefore might be more rational for English Canada to hold such reprisals in reserve for use as bargaining counters.

And if that is accepted, then the two sides would again find themselves in a bargaining situation. Since, as I have suggested, English Canada would be in a very strong bargaining position, once it had accepted the fundamental decision to separate, it would then have a very good chance of attaining goals like guarantees of communications with the Maritimes. To the extent that this took place, demands for a militant policy toward Quebec would presumably decline.

Both scenarios we have considered have considerable plausibility; we have been able to visualize situations in which either one could take place. The reality would probably lie somewhere in between —it would not be as painless as the optimists suggest nor as bloody as the pessimists conclude.

In my view, the actual results would much more closely approximate the optimistic scenario than the pessimistic one. Its assumptions in the current Canadian context are more plausible. In Quebec, the most influential Separatist groups do appear committed to attaining separation in a democratic

manner, do have other political goals not widely different from those of English Canadians, and do perceive the need for continued cooperative arrangements after separation. There are, of course, other elements, and these could easily grow — as they have recently appeared to. It is, however, extremely difficult to visualize a militant, violent Separatist group rapidly attaining power in Quebec and leading it abruptly out of Confederation. Outside Quebec, there is little evidence of widespread sentiment supporting “sending in the troops” if Quebec were to separate, though separation itself is deplored. Both on practical and moral grounds, one would expect

Separation would undoubtedly release dangerous passions, difficult to control

most English-Canadian elites to resist a violent response to Quebec actions. They would certainly try to persuade Quebec to change its course, and would have a variety of sanctions to back them up. But if Quebec went ahead, the incentives for both sides to agree and the sanctions each would have for use against the other would likely make both willing to negotiate some kind of modus vivendi.

Separation would be a psychological, economic and political blow to Canada. It would undoubtedly release dangerous passions, which would be difficult to control. But it is unlikely, given some of the basic attitudes in the country and some of the existing relationships between the two societies, to result in civil war. In this, perhaps, the degree to which the two societies are already separated, in language, culture, associational life, legal systems and political institutions, would be important. The two societies al-

ready are largely separate. Conflict between them only seldom takes the form of direct interpersonal hostility at the individual level. Rather it takes the form of conflict among organized institutions, which would be well able to bargain with each other under a new arrangement. Relatively few existing arrangements would be irreparably disturbed by separation — unlike, for example, the question of black separation in the United States, which would imply much greater disruption.

To conclude, as I have, that it is possible for Quebec to separate without bloodshed or violent conflict and that it is also possible to work out a future relationship that approaches that envisioned by René Lévesque, is not to argue the desirability of independence for Quebec or that the future arrangements would be better than current ones. Discussion about benefits and costs of separation, for both sides, belongs elsewhere. What is important is that “separation” has many meanings; it can happen in many ways, in many differing degrees and with many varying reactions. If Quebec were to decide, democratically, to opt for separation, my own desire would be for English Canadians to recognize the legitimacy of such self-determination, to pursue strategies that would encourage maintenance of relatively friendly authorities within Quebec, and to use the considerable bargaining power available to ensure economic cooperation on beneficial terms, protection of English-Canadian minorities and maintenance of transportation and other such links with the Maritimes.

It would be a period of difficult adjustment. Far better is it to pursue strategies in the present that will avert the need for the Prime Minister of Canada one day to respond to a telegram headed “Quebec’s Declaration of Independence.” ■

Condensed with permission of the publisher from One Country Or Two? ed. R. M. Burns. © McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1971.