Finally, the battle was joined. After weeks of studiously avoiding any hard challenge to the separatist aims of the victorious Parti Québécois, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau late last month opened his keenly awaited counterattack in the heart of the province. Addressing a devoutly Liberal audience in a Quebec City church basement, Trudeau lashed out at the “gangrene” he said is being fostered by “Quebec nationalists who come from a land of illusion and preach independence.”
In a later speech to the Chambre de Commerce, Trudeau seemed to strike the tone with which he will be most comfortable in the months ahead. The promised referendum on separation, he said, will be more than just a challenge. “It will be a way of answering the question Hamlet asked: ‘To be or not to be?’ ” The Prime Minister argued that Premier René Lévesque can fulfill nearly all his promises while keeping Quebec as a province of Canada. Said Trudeau: “Don’t talk about independence. It’s happened. Get down to business, monsieur.” The referendum, he added, “has to be clear. It has to be relatively soon, it has to be final and definitive.” Appearing to relish the prospect of the coming struggle, Trudeau told his receptive audience that the referendum offers both a danger and an opportunity. “It is also our chance to affirm ourselves as Quebeckers and as Canadians. We can be both, I think.”
But the real purpose of Trudeau’s sally into his home province was to set the tone for the coming campaign to win five federal by-elections in vacant Quebec ridings, a contest that Trudeau himself now says will serve as a mini-referendum on the future of Canada and on his own future as national leader. Should the Liberals “lose massively,” says Trudeau, “my party might like to change its leader at that point.” In fact, however, the Prime Minister seemed to be on fairly safe ground. The Liberals expect to win at least four of the five by-elections, likely to be held in
May or June, and to have a good shot in the fifth, Témiscamingue. Nevertheless, Trudeau’s personal popularity has slipped badly, even in the traditionally Liberal bastion of Quebec where a Gallup poll in December showed only 35% of the respondents approve of the way the Prime Minister is doing his job, compared with 46% last May. To strengthen his hand, Trudeau appointed Urban Affairs Minister André Ouellet as campaign manager for the by-elections and apparently has decided to make separatism a central issue, presenting himself and the Liberal Party as
the only ones capable of overcoming the PQ challenge in the long run. In Ottawa, there were reports that the PQ may enter candidates in the by-elections in an attempt to prevent Liberal victories, or at least give its backing to Conservative contenders, as it did with great success in a 1975 Quebec by-election when Tory Jacques'Lavoie walloped Pierre Juneau. Meanwhile, Trudeau’s attacks on Lévesque and the PQ promised to be both blunt and direct.
Said Trudeau: “Mr. Lévesque says that (after independence) Quebec will right
away be good friends with its neighbor, Canada—maybe a common market, maybe a customs union, maybe even monetary union. Do you believe that? Six million Quebeckers negotiating with 17 million from English Canada? Can you be stronger on the outside than you can be inside the shop?” Some of the Prime Minister’s comments in Quebec were directed at a well-publicized speech made by Lévesque January 25 to the influential Economic Club of New York (see box). While failing to restore confidence among U.S. investors troubled about the province’s future, Lévesque was even more outspoken than usual in stating his aims. Canada, he said, had become an obsolete political contraption and Quebec independence was “as inevitable as it was for the American states 200 years ago.” Trudeau was quick to seize on the speech as a ready-made vehicle for opening the by-election campaign. It was time, he said, for Quebeckers to realize that the real aim of the PQ is to isolate Quebec in an unrealistic cocoon. In Ottawa, meanwhile, Quebec cabinet ministers were reportedly vetoing federal grants to community groups in the province if their membership had ties with the Parti Québécois, while Trudeau was trying to arrange a meeting with notable figures from all fields to discuss ways of fostering national unity. The Prime Minister also plans an official visit to Washington February 21-22 when, in addition to meeting President Carter for the first time, he’ll have a chance to rebut Lévesque’s New York speech in an address to the U.S. Congress. IAN URQUHART / GRAHAM FRASER
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.