Canada

That Day of Reckoning is closer at hand

GRAHAM FRASER September 5 1977
Canada

That Day of Reckoning is closer at hand

GRAHAM FRASER September 5 1977

That Day of Reckoning is closer at hand

Canada

General James Wolfe and Lord Durham notwithstanding, Quebec has become the world’s largest unilingually French territory. At 6.28 p.m. on a Friday at the end of last month, only a few hundred yards from the Plains of Abraham where New France fell 218 years ago, the Parti Québécois government brought an end to five months of sometimes acrimonious, often frustrating but mostly merely tedious debate over its Charte de la langue française. For Montreal’s English-speaking minority which had lived in self-imposed cultural segregation for 11 generations, it was all over but the conjugating. From now on English Canadians moving to Quebec will find they are treated much like immigrants to a new country. The language law takes Quebec closer to its Premier’s dream of independence by turning the province’s back on pan-Canadian bilingualism.

But the linguistic withdrawal from Confederation is only the prelude to the real fight for a mandate from Quebeckers aimed at breaking existing constitutional links with English Canada. The mechanics unveiled by Parti Québécois House Leader Robert Bums for the eventual referendum vote have made it evident that the Quebec government could press a

heavy thumb on the scales of democracy. A victory for its souveraineté-association option suddenly seemed at least as possible as a Parti Québécois victory appeared 10 months ago, just before the November 15 election. Since then, Premier René Lévesque’s government has neglected vital issues, particularly the economy, as parliamentary energies were consumed by Bill 101’s push to purge English from the advertising landscape, impose French as the dominant language of business and close off access to English schools to all but descendants of Quebec-educated anglophones.

But it did prove the government’s strength and adamancy. Very little was ceded from the tough policy enunciated last spring by Cultural Development Minister Camille Laurin. Grudgingly accepting warnings of impending flight by ever more decision centres from the declining Montreal business community, he added hvater to the wine of language-of-work

provisions, allowing wider use of English in company head offices. But other firms still don’t know just what they must do to conform to the law’s requirement they operate in French. (One Quebec businessman’s encounter with Bill 101 is described on page 47.) It was the approaching school opening that caused the government to invoke closure to end debate. If opposition obstruction had succeeded, English classes would have been open to any child demonstrating proficiency in the language.

The new rules of Bill 101 mean all newcomers to Quebec, including those from other provinces, must enroll their children in the majority school system unless they can prove they are assigned to work in the province for fewer than three years. Protesting that the English schools were condemned to a fatal decline, their boards at first balked at applying the restrictions but soon caved in under the government’s threat to cut off funding. Schools and businesses were not the only points of protest. The government had to rush police reinforcements to native settlements in northern Quebec, where Inuit councils unex-

pectedly rebelled against having to communicate in French with provincial authorities. Warned Inuit leader Charlie Watt: “If Quebec secedes from Canada, the Inuit will secede from Quebec.”

Passage of the new bill put the ball clearly in Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s court. As Lévesque must have known, the bill poses a dilemma for the federal government because, while it is obnoxious to English-speaking Canadians and a threat to Confederation, it is generally popular with French-speaking Quebeckers. Faced with this dilemma, the Trudeau government procrastinated on the issue and expressed vain hopes that the bill would be amended before passage. Now that that possibility, never more than remote, has ended, Trudeau must act, and speculation mounted in Ottawa that he would seize the opportunity to call a fall election.

Trudeau has said in the past that, if Bill 101 were not amended, he would press ahead with a proposal to the provinces for entrenchment of minority language rights in the Constitution,which would override the Quebec bill. Such a move would normally mean a federal-provincial conference, but Quebec has already stated its opposition to constitutional entrenchment of language rights and would probably boycott such a conference. In that case, Trudeau has said, the federal government might move unilaterally to amend the Constitution, but only if it had “a specific mandate from the people.” That means an election.

To head off this opening for Trudeau, Lévesque had proposed “reciprocal” agreements with the other nine provinces, whereby each would agree to respect minority language rights in education. Regardless of the merits of Lévesque’s proposal, it soon became politically untenable because Trudeau condemned it as “black-

§ mail” and any premier agreeing to a reciprocal arrangement with Quebec ran the risk of appearing to give in to the separatists. The premiers did consider the Lévesque proposal at their annual meeting last month, in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, but most had rejected it even before attending the conference.

Just two days after the premiers’ conference, Trudeau returned to Ottawa from his vacation in Western Canada, with his children, to face renewed calls for an election from the “hawks” in his office. However, no new arguments for an election had arisen since Trudeau boarded his private railway car for the swing across Canada, and the old arguments failed to convince him then. Bill 101 gives Trudeau something of an issue, but that was foreseeable long ago. To counterbalance the pressure of Bill 101, there was Trudeau’s estranged wife, Margaret, who seemed bent on re-

conciliation after a brief fling on her own.

But that possibility aside, Trudeau is expected to continue pressing toward a longtime goal—the entrenchment of minority language rights in the Constitution. The premiers have already been sounded out about a federal-provincial conference on this subject in October. If Trudeau decides to go to the people first, an election could be called for November 7 or 14.

The PQ, in its own politicking, is touting its proposed referendum mechanics as a copy of that used by the British in 1975 to confirm membership in the European Common Market. It thereby hopes to deflect what is bound to be a hail of complaints that the vote will be heavily biased in its favor. Each option—and it is likely there will be not two, but three—is to be defined by the government and all arguments pro or con must be channeled through official committees controlled by members of

the National Assembly. If that plan is adopted unchanged by the assembly, campaign financing and voting will borrow from election practice, with the government calling the vote 35 to 60 days beforehand. The crucial change from the British model is that spending by each of the opposing committees is to be strictly limited and funded by public grants and contributions from individuals and Quebec political parties. While in Britain any person or organization could join battle, Canadian individuals, companies or unity groups can legally spend only by contributing to the official referendum committee closest to their views.

The full potential of the committee system blossoms only when it is applied to a possible referendum offering three options: separation, souveraineté-association and existing federalism. The Parti Québécois could take effective and disciplined control of both pro-independence committees, thereby controlling two thirds of the money allocated for the whole campaign. A three-option referendum would also greatly increase the attractiveness of the government’s goal of political sovereignty within an economic association with Canada. It would appear as a moderate compromise. All the while refusing to say whether that scenario in fact dominates strategy planning, PQ House Leader Burns did admit its relevance and even volunteered a hypothetical result: “If you have, say 43% in favor of souveraineté-association and another 20% for outright independence, I think we would be able to draw the necessary conclusions. So would the federal government.”

Referendum results cannot be binding on British parliamentary governments, a situation the referendum planners gleefully hold up as reason to avoid setting any threshold majority needed to provide the government a mandate. Not only the timing and the wording, but the interpretation of the results are the government’s.

DAVID THOMAS/IAN URQUHART/ GRAHAM FRASER