THE ILLUSION OF ALTERNATIVES AND THE NOTION OF CHOICE
THE VIEW FROM QUEBEC
THE ILLUSION OF ALTERNATIVES AND THE NOTION OF CHOICE
The Town of Mount Royal, in Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s home riding, is one of Montreal’s most prosperous neighborhoods. It is locally referred to as “The Town” or “Westmount's little brother,” and its residents are proud of their community. Even on a grimy winter’s day, when the bleakness of other parts of the city is etched in slush and grey snow, the homes in this suburb manage to evoke images of prosperity and propriety. It is not a likely setting for passion or for scandal.
Yet I’m on my way to talk to a man called Victor T. Podd, an alderman and a former president of the Mount Royal Property Owner’s Association, whose name has recently appeared in newspapers across the country. Podd has also become the target of unpleasant phone calls and bitter feelings. All this because Podd, a former director of the Mount Royal Liberal Association, chairman of Trudeau’s publicity committee in the 1965 election, and a member of the Mount Royal fund-raising committee in 1968, has switched his allegiance to the Progressive Conservative Party because of a “loss of confidence” in his MP, Pierre Trudeau.
Podd, home for lunch from his job as a sales executive, shows me into the den.
He’s a cordial, soft - spoken man who shows no sign of ill feeling toward his former political associates. I mention to him the trouble I had getting his telephone number from his former colleagues, and that I was told, with great emphasis, that Victor Podd had never been a member of the executive of the Mount Royal Liberal Association.
“I’m amazed,” he smiles. “I’ve been a Liberal Party member all my life. This distinction between being on the board of directors and the executive is just a way of downgrading my decision. It doesn’t bother me. Even a two-dollar member should have a say.”
We start at the beginning. Podd recalls that at the time Trudeau was “parachuted” into the Mount Royal riding there was some bad feeling about it and “one person resigned over it.” Podd, however, was an enthusiastic supporter.
“I became disenchanted about a year ago. No, it was not any one thing in particular but a general feeling of disappointment with what is happening to Canada under Trudeau. The government’s tax reform legislation was a key to my final disillusionment. More than anything I'm disturbed by the economic situation, the unemployment and inflation, and the unfavorable climate for business. Also I’m upset by the inconsistent manner in which bilingualism is handled across Canada.
“There is nothing personal in this decision. I respect Trudeau as a man. But I cannot go along with policies that discourage industrial development. After all, we're a young country that needs industrial expansion and a positive attitude toward business. Instead, this country is caught in the vise of incompetent government policies and lack of planning. I feel very strongly that what Trudeau is doing is not in the interests of the people in Canada. We have moved without reason or planning into an era where free enterprise is severely limited and claims toward greater social responsibility are not substantiated by facts.”
As Podd continues to elaborate his conservative position, one begins to wonder whether all existing political parties would not turn out to be somewhat to the left of him, the Conservatives as much as the Liberals. This is particularly evident when we come to the matter of bilingualism. Podd’s statements on this subject are of the kind that have recently embarrassed Robert Stanfield and had him apologizing during a preelection visit to Quebec. Podd believes that the Trudeau government favors the French language and is not interested in protecting the English language in Quebec. As an example, he mentions Ottawa’s attitude to the language situation in New Brunswick.
“Look at Gérard Pelletier, blasting away at the mayor of Moncton because he won’t give in to the demands for more French. But there is no criticism of what’s going on in Quebec. Like what? Well, the Trans-Canada Highway, for example, is subsidized by federal funds, but in Quebec the signs are all in French. They’re advocating bilingualism across Canada but they are not enforcing it in Quebec.”
I ask Podd, who was born in Montreal, whether he speaks French. “I understand it. I used to be bilingual,” he replies, “but I lived in Toronto for a while. I didn’t use it there, and I don’t get much opportunity to use it now in Quebec. In my business it’s mostly English that counts.” I point out what seems to me an obvious contradiction: if Podd can live and work in Montreal without ever really being forced to use French, while his French counterpart could not manage even for an hour anywhere outside of Quebec without English, wouldn’t it seem that there is very little cause for alarm for the English language in Quebec?
Podd does not see it this way. From his vantage point, in Mount Royal, where the English-French ratio is three to one, he sees no need for making any concessions to Quebec nationalists. In his view the government “is doing nothing to discourage the trend toward French unilingualism.”
Before the interview ends he reminds me that this riding has not elected a Tory since 1935. Yes, I agree, one cannot readily accuse him of political opportunism in his shift. There is no doubt that he sincerely believes the views he has just expounded to me. As I leave the Town, I realize that many of his neighbors probably share his political outlook.
But Trudeau’s reelection in this riding is not in question. Podd’s defection may be interesting in its own right but it is no threat. In fact, it may even enhance Trudeau’s position by creating a false sense of polarity. The illusion of alternatives, the notion of choice, so essential to curbing growing public cynicism, are built on incidents such as this one. But the real opposition is yet to be heard from. In Quebec it seems very unlikely that it will emerge in a prosperous and predominantly English-speaking community such as the Prime Minister’s riding. ■
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