Canada

Quebec: the power lies along the great divide

David Thomas May 7 1979
Canada

Quebec: the power lies along the great divide

David Thomas May 7 1979

Quebec: the power lies along the great divide

Canada

David Thomas

It happened halfway through the campaign, at the end of an old-time, outdoor rally behind the stone church at St.-Raymond de Portneuf. As the crowd dispersed like the rays of spring sunshine glinting from the silver steeple, the Liberal party’s chief Quebec organizer and Canada’s portly public works minister, André Ouellet, lunged for the microphone to announce to the dumbfounded villagers: “A Chinaman, a Japanese and Joe Clark are dead.” While the blood drained from the faces of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s cringing campaign aides, the hulking Ouellet continued his joke: “The two Orientals report to Saint Peter that they died of drowning. Clark, however, died of despair because, ‘I’ve just come from Quebec where the only people who wanted to vote for me were the Chinaman and the Japanese.’ ”

Three things were wrong with Ouellet’s attempted jest—it was racist, no one laughed and it was false. Though the minister implied no true Québécois would vote anything but Liberal, the party’s apparent stranglehold on the province is due more to a perilously distorted electoral system than to blind Liberal loyalty. In 1974, for example, 1.3 million Quebeckers did vote Liberal but 1.1 million voted against them. Trudeau’s party managed, nonetheless, to snaffle 60 of 74 seats. Worse, the Con-

servatives gained 21 per cent of the Quebec ballots but took just three ridings while third-ranking Social Credit, with 17 per cent of the vote, won 11 seats.

So, as the country plunges toward a House of Commons split along the lan-

guage line—English-speaking Conservatives facing French-speaking Liberals—the cause is not as much cultural animosity as a system that divvies up power according to seats won, not total votes gained. The ominous potential is recognized by the Task Force on Canadian Unity which recommended in its report last January that 60 new seats be shared out among the parties according to their popular vote in each province— a form of proportional representation that would, for example, ensure Conservative leader Joe Clark enough Quebec cabinet ministers to stave off national schism.

More than electoral injustice explains Conservative perdition in the province. Oft cited are historic injuries inflicted on French Canadians by Conservative governments, including repression of French schooling in Ontario and Manitoba and the hanging of Métis leader Louis Riel. And, unlike the Liberals who have had three French-speaking leaders, the Conservatives have never chosen a chief that could effectively be understood in the language of Quebec. Though Clark boasted in Regina that his command of French opened Quebec to the Conservative message, when he reached farming capital St. Hyacinthe a few days later he knotted his tongue attempting to pronounce the French word for agriculture.

Behind the high-sounding appeal for national unity, the Liberal campaign in Quebec steams with pork-barrel politics on a grand scale. In the small town of St. Gédéon, near the U.S. border, Liberal partisans removed a sign announcing that the community centre where Trudeau was speaking had been paid for by the provincial government. Inside, Trudeau reminded his rural audience that Quebec milk producers get an average $5,000 a year in federal subsidies.

Trudeau’s call, outside Quebec, for a strong central government bends somewhat under the weight of nationalism within the province to become an appeal for a strong, pro-Quebec central power. Quebeckers, he says, “know how to play the game of federalism: they know it is important to have a strong government in Ottawa to defend them against the anglophone majority.” That argument fits with the Liberals’ nationalist campaign slogan—Parle Fort, Québec (Speak Strongly, Quebec).

But, come May 22, Quebec’s voice is likely to include a persistent squeak: Social Credit leader Fabien Roy, whose high-pitched, anti-Ottawa cry is a duck call to Parti Québécois followers. Roy— whose thin neck pokes through shirt collars two sizes too big and whose head tends to stretch forward like a turtle’s from its shell—has no easy task in melding his new pro-independence supporters and the old-line, rural Social Crediters, whose hero remains the late and ardently federalist Réal Caouette. Social Credit’s grass roots go down in a wide band of dairy country running from northwestern Quebec through the St. Lawrence Valley from which, in 1962, Caouette plowed up a surprising 26 Quebec seats. It’s a memory that tantalizes Premier René Lévesque, who desperately wants to see Trudeau lose power because of personal antipathy between the two and because he thinks an English-speaking, Conservative government would stop Quebeckers from dividing their loyalty between Quebec City and Ottawa. Lévesque’s open backing of Roy—and Roy’s own admission that half of current Social Credit members also belong to the PQ—may alienate many of the declining, rightwing countryfolk who are the Créditistes’ traditional clientele.

If anyone can fuse Péquistes and Créditistes into a vote-getting machine it is the 51-year-old Roy. A native of the prosperous Beauce region south of Quebec City, Roy is a former lumberjack and truck driver who built his professional reputation as a self-educated credit union manager. Elected to the provincial National Assembly as a Social Créditer in 1970, Roy split with the party and then helped form the illstarred Parti National Populaire with former provincial justice minister Jérome Choquette. Roy, who speaks no English and like many rural Quebeckers drinks his beer warm, is an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing orator, but not the mesmerizing demagogue that was Caouette.

Roy is the party’s third leader since Caouette died in 1976 and, without Caouette, Social Credit floundered, losing one MP, René Matte, in an ideological fight and another, Gilbert Rondeau, in an arson scandal. Given its organizational disintegration and the uncertain effect of PQ involvement, it appears Social Credit will do well if it takes a dozen seats. But among them are ridings that Trudeau’s Liberals are counting on to compensate for expected losses outside Quebec. If Roy succeeds in denying Trudeau sufficient Quebec seats to stay in power, he will have helped realize the Quebec-English Canada polarization of Parliament desired by Quebec secessionists. Should Roy hold the balance of power in such a Parliament, Canada’s new government may find it impossible to govern without the tacit assent of Roy’s backer, the Parti Québécois.

As the unity task force warned, the best way to avoid such a scenario is a rapid reform of the electoral system to reflect better the true strengths of the Si Conservatives inside Quebec and the 5 Liberals in English Canada. Such a re| form cannot occur before May 22. After £ that, it may be too late,