Catching English Canada asleep at the switch

Robert Lewis April 28 1980

Catching English Canada asleep at the switch

Robert Lewis April 28 1980

Catching English Canada asleep at the switch

Robert Lewis

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is never at ease attending splashy parties but that aversion had nothing to do with his no-show at the session-opening ball at Government House last week. Trudeau stayed home Monday night to commit to memory big swatches of a speech he had honed for four days. The hour-long address, televised live in Quebec from the Commons the next day, marked Trudeau’s official plunge into the referendum campaign. It was one of the prime minister’s polished lectures on federalism and, after the opening week of the campaign, it was clear in worried Ottawa circles that the federalist forces can use all of his forensic energies.

The thought of victory for René Lévesque’s “oui” team was only one source of gloom on the Rideau. Even a “no” vote wouldn’t be the end. A victory for Claude Ryan’s “no” forces might, as Trudeau argues, amount to a “yes” for a new Confederation deal. But with Lévesque still reigning as post-referendum premier, serene discussion wouldn’t be easy. Indeed, Lévesque could set out to sabotage any talks, stomp back home to assert the futility of dealing with Ottawa and call a provincial election. Federalists also have to deal with Quebec’s intriguing political schizophrenia, which results in massive majorities for Péquistes in Quebec and Liberals in Ottawa, and high popularity ratings for both Trudeau and Lévesque. Indeed, crafty Quebec voters have had erected for them a network of four security blankets: the May 20 referendum; a provincial election when they could elect

Ryan; a second referendum when they could reject sovereignty if they kept Lévesque—to say nothing of the presence of Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa.

The other disappointment for federalists in Ottawa is the view that, for the most part, English Canada is asleep at the switch. A cross-Canada survey by Maclean's correspondents last week showed clearly that interest in the May 20 vote was minimal outside the offices of premiers, their federal-provincial relations offices and unity organizations like People to People, which has gathered 800,000 signatures on a “We Love You, Quebec” petition. In Calgary, for example, the referendum doesn’t even rate against a raging local dustup touched off by Mayor Ross Alger, who allowed that the answer to the downtown parade of prostitutes might be a red-light district.

At times the tension and frustration in the Ottawa camp produced private criticisms of Claude Ryan’s conduct of the “non” campaign and public bouts of fear-mongering. The most excessive blast came from Consumer Affairs Minister André Ouellet, who charged that separatists had infiltrated all levels of Quebec society, especially Radio-Canada; and that “in any other country around the world they would have been socked, they would have been clubbed, they would have been jailed. In a number of countries they would have been shot.” Sighed one senior referendum strategist: “It definitely wasn’t part of the strategy and it wasn’t particularly useful.”

Other Quebec ministers in Trudeau’s government warned the people that under Lévesque’s scheme they could

lose social benefits and economic incentives from Ottawa. Energy Minister Marc Lalonde argued that a typical family would spend an extra $1,250 per year without the federal cushion. Trudeau, in contrast, took the high road of logic and passion for Canada. “The greatest enemy,” he said, “is within.” To triumph, Canada must “build bridges” and develop “loyalty to the whole country.” He appealed for “a massive ‘no’ ” to Lévesque as a signal from the Quebeckers that they want a renewed federalism, not independence.

But it was when Trudeau turned to the likely fallout from a “oui” victory

that he addressed Lévesque directly—a reminder of what a personal battle this is for Trudeau against a man he once dismissed in private as “a bloody peasant.” Trudeau told the Commons he would not negotiate any association, mainly because the nine English premiers reject it. If Lévesque tried then to talk sovereignty, he would say: “Mr. Lévesque, you do not have a mandate to discuss sovereignty purely and simply because you did not ask this question purely and simply in your referendum.”

Fudged question or not, a good deal of

Ottawa thinking already has turned to what to do if Lévesque wins. One probable scenario would be a counter-referendum by Ottawa, a tool that has always been in the arsenal and one that Trudeau last week said he has not discarded. But for now, Trudeau joins Ryan in stressing the opposition by nine premiers to sovereignty-association. What troubles Ottawa is that a private poll in Quebec commissioned by the Clark government revealed that fully 35 per cent of Quebeckers were unaware last December and January that the English premiers had rejected sovereignty-association. Accordingly, pressure is mounting on Alberta Premier

Peter Lougheed and Ontario’s William Davis to bring their message to Quebec, where speeches would get better press coverage. At week’s end Lougheed had not made up his mind, while Davis was planning a Quebec appearance in consultation with Ryan. A major concern of Davis is that his words, even his comfortable-Ontario presence, might be used against the cause, especially because of celebrated instances in which his government has mishandled demands by francophones for French schools. Says a Davis aide: “We’ll take the good with the bad. We’ll still be ahead if we can just get across the fact that we operate the third-largest publicly supported French school system, after France and Quebec.”

Federalist forces also are convinced that Lougheed could make an effective Quebec pitch by reiterating previous assertions that an independent Quebec would no longer have access to low-cost Canadian oil. Ottawa surveys reveal that in Quebec there is a distorted sense of provincial energy resources: while those sampled said that Hydro-Quebec supplied 68 per cent of the province’s energy needs, in fact that 68 per cent of

energy consumption is from oil—electricity accounts for only 24 per cent.

The only English premier so far to speak out in Quebec has been Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney. He reinforced his “no” to sovereignty-association by noting that westerners would see no economic sense in such a deal and that a “oui” will encourage people to say: “Goodbye and good luck.” Not surprisingly, the Blakeney pitch is quoted repeatedly by Ryan and Jean Chrétien, coordinator for the federalist team in Ottawa. While Ryan thinks it would be “wonderful” if Lougheed and Davis follow Blakeney’s lead, he wants to avoid the appearance that the federalists are orchestrating a gang-up by outsiders. The Ottawa feds have similar apprehensions, although they are pulling out all stops, including a plan to send the Discovery Train, a celebration of Canada, choo-chooing out of Ottawa ahead of schedule to reach Matane and Shawinigan during the referendum.

Reaching Halifax or Vancouver is something else again. In St. John’s, Newfoundland, letters in newspapers debate the Middle East but not the referendum. Comments Michael Harrington, editor of The Evening Telegram: “We detect a lackadaisical, almost indifferent, attitude.” The mood, to be sure, is fuelled by a historic sense of untended grievance in the Atlantic region. But there are some promising signs. Arthur Donahoe, a PC provincial member in Nova Scotia who chaired a well-travelled legislative committee on the constitution last year, observes: “There is a certain resistance here to any kind of change. But if you ask people, ‘Are you prepared to pay the price to keep Canada together?’ they’ll say ‘yes.’ ” Out of a sense that the Atlantic

should get its constitutional act together, industrialist and longtime CCFNDPer Lloyd Shaw has announced that two conferences will be held in May and July for the premiers and academics. “What worries me,” says Shaw, “is that this region may not be heard in the final rounds of bargaining. What’s worse, it is not clear that we even know what we want to say.”

In Ontario, where Davis plays a special role as the embodiment of English Canada to French-speaking Quebeckers, the government often seems more conscious of not arousing red-necks than opening doors to neighboring Quebec. Typically, when People to People attempted to get utility companies to include its petition with monthly billings, Ontario Hydro said no—for fear of getting involved.

In the West, reaction at the grassroots ranges from indifference to hostility, although political leaders are trying to promote accommodation. Saskatchewan Attorney-General Roy Romanow says sadly: “A lot of people don’t believe Quebec separation will ever happen. Some don’t know anything about the issue at all, others don’t care. Then there are some who get aggressive: they say, ‘Let them go, we don’t need them anyway.’ ”

The role of the western premiers in the referendum happens to be a prime topic at their regional summit in Lethbridge, Alberta, this week. Even at the government level, as Trudeau put it last week, “it is too late” to influence the referendum with specific commitments to renewed federalism. His conclusion: “I do not think anything between now and May 20 would appear in Quebec as anything more than a deathbed repentance. It is not the time now to cry over spilt milk, nor to-at tempt to mop it up.”