Canada

A nation divided against itself

ROBERT LEWIS July 1 1976
Canada

A nation divided against itself

ROBERT LEWIS July 1 1976

A nation divided against itself

Canada

In retrospect, it was fitting that elaborate Parliament Hill ceremonies to mark 109 years of nationhood were canceled July 1 for reasons of economy. It seemed scarcely the occasion for a birthday party. Not for many years had the Frenchand Englishspeaking communities been so bitterly divided—and the division went to the heart of Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet. Never in his eight years in office had Trudeau’s political raison d'etre been so stunningly assailed. Suddenly, there were mounting doubts about the country’s will to hold together.

The nightmare started when Transport Minister Otto Lang signed an agreement June 28 with pilots and air traffic controllers after a nine-day strike over the issue of bilingual air services at Quebec airports. In the end, the only accomplishment seemed to be that travel resumed in time for the opening of the Montreal Olympics.* The settlement was aimed at quell-

*Meantime, barely a week before the scheduled opening of the Olympic Games, a solution was being sought to Canada’s refusal to allow Taiwanese athletes to participate as the Republic of China, and, in fact, blocking their entry into the country from Detroit. The games ran into further trouble when Tanzania announced its withdrawal because New Zealand, condemned by black African nations for allowing its national rugby team to play in South Africa, is taking part. Barring a last-minute change of heart by the Tanzanians, the decision wiped out the anticipated confrontation between Filbert Bayi and John Walker of New Zealand in the 1,500 metres, which games organizers had been promoting as the race of the century (see page 28).

ing irrational fears in English Canada that the government was more concerned over bilingualism than air safety. English Canada may have been temporarily calmed, but French Canada reacted in massive opposition to what was seen as a rebuke to francophone aspirations to use its own language at home. The “memorandum of understanding” signed by Lang and the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association (CATCA) and the Canadian Air Line Pilots’ Association (CALPA) seemed, in the view of French-speaking pilots and controllers (represented by their own Association des Gens de l’Air du Québec), to be stacked in advance against two-language services in Quebec.

In Ottawa, French ministers also felt that Lang’s agreement was loaded with concessions that were unfavorable to the cause of bilingualism: CATCA, among other things, was allowed to approve the third judge named to a commission of inquiry that will evaluate a transport ministry study on the safety of two-language control in Montreal (see box); the government undertook to bring in bilingual air control only if the judges write a unani-

mous report of approval, and the commission was told that it must “justify beyond a reasonable doubt” why long-held objections to bilingual control by anglophonedominated CAICA and CALPA “should not prevail.” Serious rents in cabinet unity soon became painfully evident. Communications Minister Jeanne Sauvé, in a highly public break with Lang, told the Commons that “faced with a bunch of fanatics, we were forced to accept an agreement that will be difficult to live with.” Health and Welfare Minister Marc Lalonde confessed to associates that he felt hurt and humiliated by the terms. Lang, who met twice after the agreement with the Gens de l’Air to persuade them to participate in the study, reiterated that “there is no move by this government away from our fundamental commitment to bilingualism.”

The most dramatic protest by far came with Jean Marchandé resignation as Environment Minister on the grounds that “I could not stay in a government that is prepared to negotiate bilingualism.” Though it broke publicly with stunning abruptness, Marchand’s departure followed a series of emotional meetings within the Trudeau government. At a meeting of a cabinet committee following Lang’s disclosure of the settlement with CATCA and CALPA, Marchand assailed Lang. He subsequently told Trudeau that he would quit, and the PM was unable to change his mind. And then, at a special evening meeting of the Quebec Liberal caucus—a unique gathering of the family—Lalonde turned the floor over to Marchand. At first, Marchand spoke ; of the accomplishments of the past 10 'years in Ottawa by French-Canadian federalists. Then he pulled out his hand-typed letter of resignation and read it aloud. For most of the next two hours, individual MPS rose in an attempt to persuade Marchand to stay,

some with tears in their eyes. One member sobbed uncontrollably. Trudeau nodded at some points he himself had used in attempting to keep Marchand in the cabinet.

Marchandé move to the front row of exTrudeau cabinet ministers—who now number six—was particularly poignant. Throughout the Quiet Revolution and the early years in Ottawa, he was a kind of

mentor for Trudeau, and the PM’S link to the gut of Quebec. But of late Marchandé performance had grown erratic and, touched by innuendo and unproven charges of scandal, he probably would have been out in the next cabinet shuffle. With Gérard Pelletier in Paris as Canadian ambassador, Trudeau is now the sole survivor of the “Three Wise Men” from Que-

bec who decided in 1965 to enter federal politics and make the French presence felt in the capital. Trudeau’s feelings were perhaps most clearly revealed when Pelletier arrived on official business the day Marchand resigned and was consulted on the crisis. Trudeau adviser Pierre Juneau was also active in the crisis.

The reunion was part of Trudeau’s at-

tempt to put his bilingualism policy back together. He left no doubt of his intent at the weekly Liberal caucus meeting July 7. Stung by the government’s evident failure to sell the policy, Trudeau argued passionately that the party must now mount “a massive effort to win acceptance.” Otherwise, said one minister, “we sit on our hands and pack it up.” Said Jean Chrétien, President of the Treasury Board: “Perhaps as a party we felt this problem was settled—and it wasn’t.” Added Lang: “A commitment in the House of Commons and in a limited circle is not enough. There needs to be broader understanding of what the policy is and what it is not. When you start affecting people either directly in jobs or indirectly in their lives, they’ll lose patience.” This time Ottawa’s drive to sell bilingualism will be different: Englishspeaking Liberals, rather than their francophone colleagues, have been ordered to carry the fight to English Canada. “I’m not going to carry the burden of selling bilingualism in English and French Canada on my back anymore,” declared a senior French-speaking cabinet member. “I’ll speak in Quebec from now on.”

Given the government’s low standing in the polls and considerable anti-Trudeau sentiment in English Canada, the question was whether or not the Liberals could succeed. Trudeau kicked off the effort by accepting a long-standing invitation to take part in an hour-long Radio Canada interview, during which he was questioned by three French-language editors. The task of selling bilingualism, he said, could not be accomplished without strong support in Quebec and Ontario. “We need to have Quebeckers believe in bilingualism,” he submitted. Any suggestion, he said, that French was a language only for Quebec and English for the rest of Canada “would be the end of the country,” that only bilingualism could prevent separation. Questioned by the editors, who were skeptical of the air agreement, Trudeau conceded that he had not been consulted by Lang on such specifics as the proposed free vote in parliament that would determine the ultimate fate of bilingual air services (at the time of the negotiations, the PM was in Puerto Rico for an economic summit meeting). In fact, Trudeau allowed, “I don’t believe in free votes. I see that things could have been done differently, but I wasn’t the negotiator.” Yet he stoutly defended Lang’s handling of the situation, calling him one of the strongest defenders of bilingualism among his English-speaking ministers.

It seemed ironic that a national crisis could develop over an attempt to introduce a system of air traffic control that is used in much of the world. The International Civil Aviation Organization stipulates that air-ground communications be in the local language, but that English— the lingua franca of the airlanes—should be available. In Canada, the regular use of any language other than English has only

been permitted at five smaller Quebec airports—Sept-Iles, Baie Comeau, Quebec City, St. Jean and St. Honoré—which are allowed to use French. With the growth of private aviation and the proliferation in recent years of francophone fliers in Quebec, pressure had mounted to expand two-language services to Montreal. As the government studied the problem, a war of nerves developed. Two controllers were suspended in Montreal last December for using French, while English aviation personnel spread horror stories about the alleged safety hazards involved in the use of two languages—stories eagerly played up by the media. Concern over job security for anglophone personnel in Montreal was obviously a factor, but there was also a feeling that CATCA and CALPA were out to fight bilingualism. In 1974, for example, CATCA president James Livingston refused to sign the French-language version of a contract with the government.

In the long run, the hope is that all sides will participate in, and abide by, the studies on safety initiated and nurtured by the government. Given goodwill, plus those technical studies and the examples of the European system—chances look good for bilingual communications at Quebec airports that will prove both workable and, more important, not dangerous. As Harold Merritt, transport ministry director of air traffic control, observes, “two languages are perhaps less convenient, but certainly not less safe.” For its part, the Transport Ministry is satisfied that, in the words of one official, when the studies are finished

“the case [for bilingual control] will be unassailable.” As it is, major repairs on the fabric of the nation lie ahead. The issue already has done damage, noted a FrenchCanadian federalist, that “will take years to correct.” ROBERT LEWIS