When René Lévesque arrived late at 24 Sussex Drive for dinner with the other nine provincial premiers and Pierre Trudeau this month, the anticipation of welcoming “the new boy,” as one premier called him playfully, was in the air. Lévesque was steered into the centre of the official group photograph—as it turned out, an asymmetrical mix of first ministers, standing and sitting, that seemed to evoke the current sense of national imbalance. By the time the 11 men finished the smoked salmon and veal, however, some of the “old boys” were chastened to discover that “René” had no intention of joining their club.
The focus shifted to Lévesque during a discussion of the Constitution. The Prime Minister had just stated his desire to get on with patriation of the British North America Act and several premiers responded that the issue should be placed on “the back burner.” Despite Lévesque’s public statements on his plans to work toward independence, his election had left several premiers confused about what course to follow on the Constitution. Accordingly, Lévesque was prodded, in effect, to indi-
cate how his vision of Quebec could be accommodated with their concept of Canada. Lévesque, growing impatient at the tone of the queries, finally replied, “You know what my position is,” adding he would send them all copies of his proposed scenario for independence as outlined last July in the quarterly, Foreign Affairs. Three of the premiers replied that they had already read the article. What they wanted to hear directly from him, New Brunswick’s Richard Hatfield pressed, was what Lévesque’s real objectives were. Frustrated, the Quebec premier retorted pointedly, “My intentions are to get out.” Pressed to specify the date of his referendum, Lévesque hedged, not willing to tip his hand. “Thirty days to four years,” he replied. As for indications in polls that an overwhelming majority of Quebeckers do not favor independence, Lévesque interjected: “Don’t rely on that 18% [for independence] figure”—then he winked playfully, suggesting he would pick the right time. In case anyone missed the message, Lévesque explained that if the first referendum was lost, there would be another, and another. Some premiers were angered.
“I’m all for British Columbia taxes being used to equalize poorer provinces,” Premier Bill Bennett declared heatedly, “but I’m damned if our taxes are going to be used for revolutionary purposes.”
In all, the dramatic confrontation took about 30 minutes of the three-hour session. Lévesque left the party early while Trudeau took some consolation from the evident education process the dinner had been for several premiers. “I hope they’ve had their eyes opened once and for all,” said one Trudeau confidant.
The evidence of that came next day when the premiers grudgingly agreed to Trudeau’s compromise on federal-provincial finances, the main item on the agenda at the day-and-a-half of formal talks (see box). Lévesque’s main plank was that federalism is finished; that being “gypped” in “devious arm-twisting” by Ottawa was proof positive. “I don’t buy it anymore,” he declared. The premiers, who came to Ottawa as a “common front,” could have confirmed that view by joining Lévesque in his denunciation of the system. Instead they accepted the agreement with modest qualifications. In effect, as Bennett put it
later, they decided “that in the national interest, we’d be cooperative.” Observed Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney of Lévesque: “I have fallen victim to his charm. Obviously I’m going to have to see to it that I do not come to accept his views—and I hope not too many other people do.”
Added Hatfield, who never doubted Lévesque’s aim, “His mandate from his party is to come here and discredit all federal institutions and systems. We’ve got to be very careful we don’t use Mr. Lévesque in the short term and find out we’ve lost the country in the long run ... Canada changed on November 15 [Lévesque’s election], whether we like it or not. His political campaign [for independence] began then. His first big rally was the federal-provincial conference.”
Trudeau exhibited a considerable willingness to improvise in the face of the threat that the “common front” of premiers would hold and denounce federalism. But after the fateful dinner meeting the night before, the other premiers agreed with his assessment that “I can never be flexible enough to satisfy Mr. Lévesque: his flexibility is opting out of Canada.”
Trudeau’s offer of more flexible tax
sharing had three essential aims: to counter criticism that he is a rigid centrist who fanned, not fought, separatism; to defuse the “common front,” a term popularized by Quebec’s militant labor unions which tumbled uneasily from the lips of the English premiers who used it; and to convince his fellow Quebeckers that there is a place for them in a confederation that allows “the free development of the different cultures and our communities” (a new plural usage by Trudeau which was noted with interest).
The encounter between Trudeau and Lévesque, particularly Lévesque’s declaration of independence, turned an exercise in arcane financial summitry into a forum on the larger question—one Canada or two nations? “It’s now a battle for hearts and minds,” says a Trudeau minister. The conference was the first time the two Quebeckers had met since former Quebec premier Daniel Johnson’s funeral in 1968. Throughout the Quiet Revolution both had worked to strike new directions for Quebec. But as they met at the head of the C-shaped table in the Conference Centre, the old, converted union station, their tracks had long since diverged and they
talked with each other, in French, from a distance. “Mr. Lévesque,” said Trudeau extending a hand of greeting. “Hi, how’s it going?” Lévesque replied. With intriguing ambiguity, Trudeau said: “It’s going the way it’s being run and it’s not running well.” Lévesque: “You don’t have to tell me.”
Both men are products of the old, intimate political elite in Quebec, where alliances and feuds in the family historically produced strange bed partners. Lévesque and Trudeau separated in the early Sixties. At the time Trudeau was a law professor with his eye on federal politics and Lévesque was Jean Lesage’s Minister of Natural Resources. Both were also members of an informal group put together by Jean Marchand to discuss provincial matters— in particular Lévesque’s plan to nationalize the province’s hydro companies. As disclosed in Peter Desbarats’ recent biography, René: A Canadian In Search Of A Country, Trudeau and Lévesque almost came to blows one evening when Trudeau suggested that Quebec had better ways to invest $300 million than on a nationalistic pipe dream. Subsequently, Lévesque’s hydro take-over was acknowledged as a major ingredient in Lesage’s election victory in 1962, an event that spurred increasing Quebec demands on Ottawa for more autonomy. Trudeau, moving to the federal field, saw his influence contribute to the end of Lester Pearson’s “cooperative federalism” and the attendant assumption that Quebec was to be treated as a province unlike the others.
Understandably, the other premiers did not bring the same passion to the Quebec issue when they arrived in Ottawa. That much was obvious after Lévesque and Trudeau stated their cases, respectively, for independence and federalism: Ontario’s William Davis was the only leader who took up the PM’S invitation to respond. Even then, he displayed a curiously mercantile approach. Since Trudeau was offering “a more enriching federalism,” Davis noted, he could start by giving in to the demands of the common front.
Shrugging and puffing his way around in a halo of harsh television lights, Lévesque was clearly the media star of the event, which attracted more than 400 reporters and technicians. He basked in the spotlight, allowing people to take his measure—quite literally, in some cases. Ontario Treasurer Darcy McKeough, for example, said he never realized Lévesque (five-foot-six) was so short. Lévesque, a former TV journalist, even reemerged in his old role, tossing off his own analyses and reportage from penciled notes. For the half-dozen reporters who protested against the closed-door sessions by a sit-in on the first day, “analyst” Lévesque reported the talks were really “the dullest bloody thing you ever saw.” Lévesque “the reporter” briefed the press on a sharp exchange between Trudeau and Nova Scotia’s Gerald Regan. Lévesque “the
commentator” circulated at a cocktail party describing Trudeau as “a spent force.”
Already Levesque has perceptibly altered federal-provincial affairs. His determination to discredit the conference forced Ottawa to heed the other provinces’ appeals for decentralization. His election has postponed for several months Trudeau’s personal goal of patriating the Constitution. Above all,his November 15 victory has some of Trudeau’s advisers mulling over the prospects of a federal election.
The conference underlined the shift away from the centralizing tendencies begun in the Pearson years, marked then by the introduction of medicare and other national schemes. Compared to major Western federalist states, Canada is already one of the most decentralized countries, with the provinces having greater access to revenues and powers than their equivalents in the United States^ West Germany and Australia. In a letter to Trudeau in October, Alberta’s Premier Lougheed said on behalf of the premiers that still more provincial control would be sought in other areas such as immigration and natural resources.
But Trudeau has no intention of giving Quebec special power. That, says Health Minister Marc Lalonde, “would be the first step toward complete separation.” Adds another key strategist: “What we have to do now is show the people of Quebec that we too can offer a good, competent government. Let’s hope there’s a limit to scandalmongering. It is also important that English Canadians now show that they care about Quebec. The battle is not going to be won by staging any confrontation.”
The most menacing confrontation festering now is the air traffic control dispute. The English-speaking pilots seemed determined to press on in their campaign to block two-language communication in Quebec—a campaign which, if it draws support from English Canada, plays right into Lévesque’s game plan. The potential for trouble escalated as the plane carrying Lévesque back to Quebec City from the Ottawa conference cleared through the Montreal control region. Defying federal regulations now under review, Lévesque’s pilot communicated in French with the controllers. An English-speaking Air Canada pilot overheard the exchange and lodged a protest. Vowing to place the resources of his government behind his pilot in any legal action, Lévesque declared: “Nobody can tell the pilot of a Quebec plane not to speak French
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