Canada

The ‘federalist separatists’

David Thomas September 17 1979
Canada

The ‘federalist separatists’

David Thomas September 17 1979

The ‘federalist separatists’

Canada

David Thomas

Soberly juice at poolside sipping where straight Dutch orange airline stewardesses on layover from nearby Mirabel International Airport added a shot of Canadian sun to their international tans, Liberal Senator Jean Marchand fretted about the cruel winter facing his party. Forming an official Opposition dominated by a disproportionate contingent of Frenchspeaking Quebeckers, the Liberals are torn between leader Pierre Trudeau’s commitment to a strong central government and the party’s real electoral need to challenge the federal power on behalf of Quebec. Mused Marchand: “It’s certainly going to accentuate the separatist side of our policy—not for ideological reasons, but because of the situation.” But, the former cabinet minister quickly assured: “We are federalist separatists.”

Contradictory as it was, there could be no more eloquent expression of the Liberals’ dilemma, caught as they are between their essential but cumbersomely overweight Quebec strength and the urgency of regaining the lost loyalty of English Canada. It is the mirror image of the predicament of Prime Minister Joe Clark who, with only avowed patronage-booster Supply and Services Minister Roch LaSalle to represent

francophone Quebec, must risk some of his English-Canadian power base by making conciliatory offerings to the French-speaking province.

Meeting in caucus last week at the Laurentian resort of Mont Gabriel, most of the 67 Liberal MPs from Quebec and a clutch of the party’s more ambulatory senators discovered a subdued Trudeau obviously caring more about next spring’s provincial referendum on sovereignty-association than about clawing and gouging his way back to federal power. Bearded and reverted from the gunslinger image of last spring’s election campaign to his cool and uninspiring philosopher-king incarnation, Trudeau faced a Quebec wing unenthused by his urgings that they flail the big stick against the Parti Québécois government while treading softly in Ottawa to avoid appearing to be antiEnglish Canada.

Their reluctance to follow was embarrassingly evident at the warm-up session Tuesday when Trudeau fired off the line meant to set the tone for Liberal strategy: “We must first say no to any question posed by the Péquiste government.” Only a smattering of applause greeted those fighting words. A frontal attack on the PQ is anathema to many Quebec Liberals, particularly those such as Jacques Olivier, whose Montreal-area riding overlaps the provincial constituency of Premier René Lévesque. Olivier privately warned Tru-

deau of the dangers in a hard anti-PQ line for Liberal MPs who rely on thousands of voters who support the secessionist party provincially. “We must act delicately,” says Olivier, who begged English Canadians to understand the “big problem” of Quebec Liberals. “In a riding like mine, I have to be a bit of a Quebec nationalist,” he says. “But somehow I have to find a way to fight for the interests of Quebec without combating the whole idea of federalism. We know that René Lévesque will use everything we say against the Clark government as an argument against Canada.”

So fearful were the Quebec Liberals that they would be seen by English Canadians as just another block of Quebec nationalists that they debated early into Thursday morning whether to stop meeting like this, separately from the party’s 46 non-Quebec MPs. That option was rejected, but bilingual Frenchspeaking MPs such as Olivier are resolved to speak English before the Commons television cameras to prove their devotion to the rest of the country.

The strategy is an ironic reversal of last May’s Liberal campaign slogan in the province: SPEAK UP, QUEBEC. Now, trying to mute that too-powerful voice, their effective motto has become: QUEBEC, SHUT UP.