Quebec

Seeking victory over the snores

David Thomas March 17 1980
Quebec

Seeking victory over the snores

David Thomas March 17 1980

Seeking victory over the snores

Quebec

David Thomas

Quebec’s National Assembly is not notable for its decorum. It is, in some ways, the page boy of parliaments: under Charles Huot’s massive mural recalling the overturned chairs and general mayhem of Lower Canada’s first assembly in 1793, Quebec’s députés flick cigarette ashes onto the broad-loom, crack walnuts with their hinged desk tops and make rude noises. Things have improved since the Parti Québécois government shut down the secret bar—disguised as a “members’ reading room”—but the solemnity of last week’s debate on the question to be put in the province’s imminent constitutional referendum was again victim of assembly tradition: in the midst of Opposition leader Claude Ryan’s droning denunciation of sovereignty-association as “a monumental fraud,” his party’s portly prima donna, Solange Chaput-Rolland, slumped forward in apparent slumber while, in the row behind, Liberal colleague George Springate, head hanging aft, could be roused from his snoring repose only by the sharp elbow of his seatmate.

Even the most lethargic legislator, or voter, must finally be stirred by the intensifying referendum debate which, essentially, is directed at just seven per cent of Quebec’s 4.3 million adults. The rest are already decided: 52 per cent will say no and 41 per cent yes to giving the government a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association with the rest of Canada, according to a Radio-Canada survey released Friday.

But the PQ government does have a slight edge with French-speaking voters—48 per cent yes, 46 per cent no— and victory there has become the crucial objective of each side, at the risk of greater linguistic cleavage in the province (see box).

Media coverage of the three-week National Assembly debate is intense: even in post-midnight hours, four different

television channels carried debate specials, and the French-language La Presse published complete transcripts of every speech. Curiously, some English-language media downplay the event: while Friday, Le Devoir in Montreal rightly headlined Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau’s departure from the party line with his affirmation that “the referendum is a step towards independence,” the Montreal Gazette blared the combined effect of a light snowfall and a three-week municipal workers Strike —DISASTER DAY ON THE STREETS.

Parti Québécois strategy was to concentrate on economic issues in the first week of debate, switching this week to the obsolescence of Canada’s existing constitution and ending with a crescendo of cultural arguments for voting yes. René Lévesque’s opening speech Tuesday set the government tone by confusing the basic issue: “This yes will

Radio-Canada’s own referendum poll: asked to mark a simulated ballot bearing the actual question now being debated by the National Assembly, 52 per cent (of 906 Quebec respondents) voted No, 41 per cent voted Yes; seven per cent who spoiled ballots or left them blank were counted undecided

The government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations: this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad—in other words, sovereignty— and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency. Any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will be submitted to the people through a referendum.

ON THESE TERMS, DO YOU GIVE THE GOVERNMENT OF QUEBEC THE MANDATE TO NEGOTIATE THE PROPOSED AGREEMENT BETWEEN QUEBEC AND CANADA? YES □ NO □

mean, at the same time, a better balance and fairer share in the economic partnership with the rest of Canada.” Moments later, he contradicted himself by promising to maintain intact the existing “Canadian economic space.” Lévesque manages to argue that sovereignty-association will create an autonomous Quebec economy, all the while perpetuating the integrity of the Canadian economy which his party says has deprived Quebec of a just share of railways, food exports and modern industry. Parizeau, in contrast, sounds refreshingly coherent in his unequivocal use of the word “indépendance ” and a rallying cry slyly intended to establish his leadership of PQ hard-liners: “This persistence which I share with so many Quebeckers leaves me profoundly convinced that our old homeland will soon become our new country.” The odor of defeat hangs over the sovereignty-association scheme devised by the premier, and Parizeau, anticipating a pro-independence retrenchment within the PQ, is building a base as a potential successor to Lévesque as party leader.

Ryan attempted to discredit the government’s confusion of two issues by proposing a double question which would ask: Do you think Quebec should become a sovereign state? Followed by, If so, do you think a sovereign Quebec should seek to negotiate an economic association with the rest of Canada?

Ryan’s proposed question has no chance of surviving assembly debate and his real strategy must be to counter Lévesque’s shame-inducing claim that the only Quebeckers voting no are “inward-turning, old-fashioned, shivering in fear of taking charge of themselves and facing the future.” Hence, the clever choice by Ryan’s Liberals of a pre-referendum slogan appealing to Quebec patriotism: Mon NON est Québécois. It’s an untranslatable pun meaning, my name, and my no, is Québécois. Unveiled March 1, the slogan brought 3,000 cheering Liberals to their feet during the party’s constitutional convention, their pride saved by a play on words. Confided the Liberals’ fulltime advertising specialist Jacques Du Sault: “We have to positivize the no.” For French-speaking Quebeckers, saying no represents a painful break from the old ambiguity of their national identity. First victim of the forced polarization was the Union Nationale whose leader, Rodrigue Biron, resigned last week, saying he would vote yes at the referendum but was unable to convince his five federalist caucus members to follow. And even the Liberals’ emotional Chaput-Rolland, a member of Ottawa’s 1978 Task Force on Canadian Unity, said her non would be given “without bravado, without surliness and, perhaps, with a little sadness.”

Ryan’s fancy turns to Marx

The Parti Québécois government is burdened in its referendum run by a 20-per-cent handicap—the votes controlled by non-francophones expected to vote as a bloc against sovereignty association. Such divisive arithmetic evokes the spectre of defeated and resentful nationalists arguing that Quebec’s natural destiny was denied by an estranged minority whose votes should not count. Though Premier René Lévesque broke into English during last week’s National Assembly debate on the referendum question to reassure minority voters that their no "is something we must and we shall respect,” relations between French-speaking nationalists and Englishspeaking federalists will be inescapably hard-edged during and after the campaign. Early Friday, PQ National Assembly member Jean-François Bertrand was heard in a Quebec City restaurant bitterly complaining: "The English are blocking the future of Quebec.”

As oui-non polarization intensifies, a fresh English-speaking politician is emerging to walk the thin, dread line between French and English. Herbert Marxgreased into the National Assembly with 96 per cent of the vote in a Montreal byelection last November—was propelled to prominence by Liberal leader Claude Ryan, who chose him over five senior anglophone colleagues to address a convention of 3,000 party members early this month. His message: Quebec's unblemished record of equality before the law must survive both the referendum and PQ insinuations that naysayers are not true Québécois: "In the area of human rights, Quebeckers have no lessons to learn from anyone, but the PQ could learn something from Quebeckers.” Marx, 49, is the son of immigrant Latvian Jews and moved up and out of the St. Urbain Street Jewish neighborhood romanticized by novelist Mordecai Richter. He reluctantly surrendered ambitions to choose, as Richler did, expatriation to Europe and the life of a writer: "My mother talked me out of it.” Instead, Marx culminated studies in literature with a master’s thesis on Political Morality in Gulliver’s Travels before switching, at age 32, to law studies in French at the Université de Montréal. Finishing first in Quebec bar exams, Marx was invited to remain as a teacher and, at a time when anglo accents were rare, endured the complaints of francophone students offended by his pronunciation and syntactical sins.

Surviving the intolerance, Marx built a 10-year university career specializing in constitutional law and civil liberties and was appointed to Quebec’s Human Rights Commission. All in all, he is the ideal anglo

figurehead for Ryan, whose party suffers a heritage, in the minds of many Quebeckers, of being the defender of a privileged, blustery, English-speaking minority. In contrast, Marx appears disarmingly vulnerable; his infectious grin and childlike appeal for approval make him seem almost cuddly—a curious quality for a politician but perhaps the most effective antidote to endemic distrust of les anglais. Still nervous before a large crowd (“Herbert, relax,” advised a sympathetic voice during his convention address), Marx sticks mainly to French for public remarks except, of course, during his frequent political talks in the synagogues of his predominantly Jewish riding of D’Arcy-McGee. His synagogue visits were less regular before his plunge into politics: "I’m not a religious per-

son. But you can be a good Jew without being religious—otherwise there wouldn’t be many Jews around.” Similarly, Marx is making his political mark by affirming that you don't have to be named Simard or Tremblay to be a good Quebecker: "The referendum is for all of us.”

David Thomas