Downshifts and detours in the quietened revolution
Downshifts and detours in the quietened revolution
The chill autumn air swirling down from the mountain carries an eerie quiet to the once frenetic core of Montreal. Two years ago, downtown streets were smothered in the dust and roar of a building boom. Now the skyline is shaved clean of the spindly construction cranes which vanished with the passing of the Olympic Games and the election of a Parti Québécois government. The shock has subsided. But Quebec, like the sensitive metabolism of its metropolis, is frozen in suspended animation, waiting for a change in drift of uncertain winds that so far bode ill both for true believers in independence and their adversaries, the stalwarts of Canadian unity.
Halfway through its mandate, the
Parti Québécois has undoubtedly delivered on its promise of good government; efficiently functioning public auto insurance, labor peace, free drugs for older citizens and free dentistry for children under 14, exemplary financial housekeeping and the elimination of political corruption have all been implanted with remarkable dexterity. But, to the PQ’s consternation, good government did not induce massive popular clamoring for independence. Nor, to the chagrin of federalists, did two years of the Parti Québécois in power kindle a new passion for Canada.
Hence the masquerade. Independence is suddenly, in public at least, anathema to its once-implacable partisans, while federalists rush to defend Quebec’s national rights. Costuming his formula for sovereignty-association as a para-
gon of reason and moderation, Premier René Lévesque derides independence as “a total rupture.” His education minister, Jacques-Yvan Morin, considered one of the cabinet’s nationalist hardliners, keeps a straight face saying: “Sovereignty-association is the opposite of separatism.” But the unchallenged master of doublespeak is the (professorial) and Machiavellian Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Claude Morin. In the same breath, with a serene self-assurance that would hypnotize a lie detector, Morin lures the leery by decrying the “brutal separation and stupid isolation of Quebec,” while reassuring true believers: “The final and ultimate objective remains the sovereignty of Quebec. There have merely been some adjustments in the route.”
In fact, that route has suffered a
wrenching detour around an insurmountable obstacle: popular support for independence has actually waned since the PQ took power, euphoric in the faith that, once legitimized as government policy, independence would rapidly win the hearts and minds of the voters. That did not happen. So, choosing minor victory over major defeat, the government decided to avoid even the word independence in its constitutional referendum to be held a year or, at most, 18 months from now. Instead, voters will be asked to give the government “a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association.” Even its opponents concede the government can win such a referendum because Quebeckers, though not ready to give the provincial government au-
thority to declare independence unilaterally, are anxious to see Quebec get a much greater chunk of autonomy within the country. Seven private opinion polls conducted over the past year by the pro-federalist Pre-referendum Committee (see box, overleaf) show a remarkably stable 52 per cent of Quebec voters already willing to accord such a mandate.
Thus, Liberal leader Claude Ryan has cast aside his dragon-slayer’s sword to take up a less offensive flyswatter, balancing his laborious and so far yawninducing criticism of the PQ with ringing demands for a “special status” for Quebec and a defence of the province’s right to self-determination: “We affirm, unequivocally, the right of the
Quebec people to decide, democratically and without constraint from within or without, whatever conforms to its aspirations and best interests.”
Not surprisingly, the drift of both sides towards ambiguity has provoked discord in each camp, especially among the Liberals’ beleaguered members of the national assembly who complain that Ryan rarely deigns to talk to them and that his graceless treatment of his leadership rival, Raymond Garneau, has deeply split the party. The cooling of Ryan’s federalist fervor has aroused suspicion within the cause, and then last week the newspaper that Ryan had dominated as publisher rebuked him for acting more like an editorialist than a politician. Le Devoir also reported that
Prime Minister Trudeau’s federal Liberals are so uneasy about Ryan’s commitment to federalism that they have installed their own spy in the provincial leader’s entourage.
But the most spectacular, though least convincing, schism has cracked the facade of the Parti Québécois as Lévesque’s government swerves away from the party program to follow the public mood. At the end of October, the PQ’s executive committee voted to reprove publicly Lévesque’s new promise that there will be no independence without a negotiated economic association with English Canada. Association,
said the party officers, is merely desirable. Sovereignty, however, is indispensable. The loudest disavowal of the jettisoning of the threat of unilateral separation as the government’s biggest stick came from the independence movement’s white-haired guru and guardian of ideological chastity, Pierre Bourgault.
Bourgault, who dissolved his radical Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale 10 years ago to reinforce the spine of the PQ, has shot to renewed prominence as the separatist Zola, shouting J'accuse at alleged traitors to the cause: “The idea of independence
plateaued when the leaders of the Parti Québécois began apologizing for it.” Lévesque and his referendum strategist, Claude Morin, lap it up. The more the government is accused of going soft on independence, the bigger the bite the PQ will make into the mass of Quebec voters faithful above all to the bigamous divided loyalty that has marked their half-hearted presence in Confederation since the beginning.
Lévesque is trying to mine the main vein of the ambiguity by offering voters the option of a Quebec symbolically independent but sharing with English Canada the same “economic space” in-
eluding identical tariffs, the same currency, a common central bank, and a free flow of money, goods and people.
More than sound economic analysis, the attachment to an all-encompassing economic union reflects the meagre popular support of anything closer to outright sovereignty. McGill University sociologist Richard Hamilton has analysed opinion polls since 1962 when the first question on separatism was asked.
Support for independence, he concludes, rose by about one percentage point a year until it peaked at 18 per cent in 1976. Since then, there has been a slight decline. Sovereignty-association rates a higher score, particularly when it is offered as a negotiating position rather than as an ultimate solution. Hamilton’s conclusion: “The government
would do best with a question such as, ‘Do you give us a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association?’ That’s the
one thing they can win, potentially.”
And, contrary to PQ claims, time may not be on the party’s side. There are signs that young Quebeckers are less nationalistic than the 30-to-40-year-old generation where allegiance to independence is rooted in the linguistic, economic and political struggles of the 1960s. Quebec students are notably absent from the front lines of either side and appear to be preoccupied by ecology, de-politicized music and, like their contemporaries everywhere, getting a job. Part of the explanation may lie in greater cultural security: no longer is English an essential job qualification and, as that pressure slackens, the glow fades on the promise of an emotionally purgative political upheaval. Significantly absent from government arguments for independence is the language issue. Having so loudly declared final victory with Cultural Development Minister Camille Laurin’s Charte de la langue française, the Parti Québécois can hardly say now that only independence will save French in Quebec. The language legislation, by putting on ice the best issue nationalists have, may prove to have been a determinant strategic error.
Another explanation for the declining interest in independence among young people was published last week by the provincial government’s planning and development office in a study of modern Quebec nationalism: “Independence inspires indifference among young people for whom Canada ‘from coast to coast’ is no longer part of their mental horizon. They are already, before the fact, separated. Many of their elders have come to adopt the same position.”
To revive interest in independence, the PQ will subject voters to a barrage of statistics and studies proving what a bad deal the province gets from Confederation. But the fiery crusades for national liberation have lost their appeal. A PQ advertising campaign that begins this week is designed to show the province has the resources to stand on its own but, so circumspect has the party become, the ads avoid any mention of independence or sovereignty and the slogan —“Quebec, it can be done” —is hardly explosive. The inspiring declarations of the province’s right to selfdetermination are coming nowadays from Claude Ryan.
So, instead of polarizing into two clearly different constitutional clans, Quebeckers and their leaders are converging toward the murky middle. The referendum issue is now diluted to the point where a yes can mean all things to all men and, unless there is a radical shift in the wind, Canada will still be stuck with that tired and tiresome question: What does Quebec want? ;
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.