Canada

Ryan’s express loses steam

David Thomas March 31 1980
Canada

Ryan’s express loses steam

David Thomas March 31 1980

Ryan’s express loses steam

Quebec

"The question is clear,” intoned a

confident, recorded voice as the wording of Quebec’s referendum question was flashed on a wide screen before a rally of Parti Québécois

members in the town of Boucherville. But, to the embarrassed gasps and giggles of the faithful, the slide was out of focus, unreadable and quickly passed over. That faux pas occurred partway through the National Assembly’s threeweek debate on the question, a debate which ended Thursday without entirely elucidating the meaning of the vote,

which could be held as early as midMay. What was clear, however, was that the government has caught a heady updraft in Quebec’s ever-volatile political atmosphere.

Government speakers were plainly better prepared and more eloquent in their condemnation of Confederation than were Claude Ryan’s Liberals in defending it. Saturation television coverage of the debate gave the government desperately needed momentum which Premier René Lévesque could choose to exploit by calling an earlier-than-expected vote. This week, the National Assembly divides into provisional Yes and No committees, the 68 Parti Québécois members and former Union Nationale leader, Rodrigue Biron, regrouping under the chairmanship of Lévesque while Ryan takes charge of his 30 Liberals, five Union Nationale members and three independents. Moments after approving the question, assembly members unanimously voted each committee $1.1 million in public funds—half the money they will each be permitted to spend according to restrictive referendum rules, which curtail freedoms of assembly and speech but which greatly enhance the personal control of Lévesque and Ryan.

Legal supremacy might not be enough to maintain Ryan’s total control over No forces: his flat performance and sometimes contradictory pronouncements could draw Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau into the fray—at the

risk of turning his discreet differences with Ryan into open rifts. After having insisted for weeks that the sole issue of the referendum is the PQ’s sovereigntyassociation scheme for an independent Quebec tied to the rest of Canada by an economic association, Ryan closed his case against the question last week by saying Quebec, by voting no, could say yes to his “project for the future.” Setting out his proposals for a radically revised federation before the refer-

endum may prove to have been a strategic error for Ryan: government attacks on his constitutional blueprint, and the mixed reviews it received in English Canada, are drawing attention away from the ambiguities of the PQ’s own plan, which promises the pride of national sovereignty with the security of Canada’s currency and economic protection.

The Liberals’ error was in sticking to the subject of debate—the actual

meaning of the question—while government orators treated viewers to a heartrending history of Quebec, from Economic Development Minister Bernard Landry’s complaint that wartime gave Ontario a motor industry while Quebeckers were stuck with the “dangerous” job of making munitions; to government House leader Claude Charron’s curious explanation that Confederation “squeezed us between the Maritimes and Ontario.” Such oversimplifications make powerful sense to many Quebeckers, whose notions of Canadian history are often sketchy: official transcripts of last week’s National Assembly debates refer to Canada’s first prime minister as “Johnny MacDonald.”

In the end, the debate resulted in only a minor amendment to the lengthy question, one which strengthens the government’s promise to consult Quebeckers in a second referendum before changing Quebec’s political status. As it stands, the question is limited to asking for a mandate to negotiate sovereigntyassociation without giving the government the authority to declare independence unilaterally should negotiations fail. Confusion over the question’s meaning comes not so much from its wording as from government explanations. Thursday, Lévesque said sovereignty-association represents “this devouring ambition, this supreme ambition to have our people take up all the normal chances and normal levers of a nation” and then, in the same breath, that “this does not imply rupture with Canada.”

Last week also saw Lévesque’s government make its first serious overture to Quebec’s non-French minorities. First there was the public conversion of a former Liberal cabinet minister and English-speaking member for Westmount, never a hotbed of separatism. Kevin Drummond, a boyish 49-year-old scion of an old, rich Montreal family, quit provincial politics in 1976 after his enthusiastic support of Liberal legislation to make French Quebec’s only official language cut him off from his political base. Flanked by a beaming Lévesque and a gaggle of ministers, Drummond formally renounced his Westmount heritage: “I guess at a certain point I just left the neighborhood.” Drummond’s defection is unlikely to draw many anglophones in its wake, but it could reassure French-speaking voters that the referendum issue is not one of cultural dominance. But just what the real issues are will, unfortunately for voters, have to await the referendum results. Though the question may be clear enough, the meaning the politicians will give it once the ballots are counted is difficult to predict from their oratory. David Thomas