Canada

LEVESQUE'S 'OUI' MOMENTUM

David Thomas April 28 1980
Canada

LEVESQUE'S 'OUI' MOMENTUM

David Thomas April 28 1980

LEVESQUE'S 'OUI' MOMENTUM

Canada

David Thomas

In times of tedious calm, René Lévesque is as irascible and aimless as a cranky old pump sucking at an empty well. When the pressure returns, his cantankerous clatter settles into the determined purr of a smooth-running piston. Wednesday, sweat running in rivulets from his temples to his neck, the 57year-old firebrand stood before a spellbound crowd in the Chaudière River Valley town of Ste-Marie and proved he is at the peak of his power to bait, bully and beseech Quebeckers into national independence. Grandiloquently, under a Ben Hur backdrop of a boldly lettered OUI soaring skyward, the Quebec premier proclaimed: “A ‘yes’ will mean the end of a long beginning—and the beginning of the affirmation of our maturity as a people.”

By the end of the first week of official campaigning which culminates May 20 in the referendum vote, Lévesque looked like a winner, partly because principal adversary Claude Ryan was acting like a loser (see box, page 18). Friday, Ryan convoked a press conference to convey the curious message that unfair media coverage is responsible for his campaign’s underdog image, but that he would not revise his scheduling strategy which causes television and morning newspapers to miss major campaign events. Instead, he proposed creation of an impartial media surveillance committee for the duration of the fight. The stubborn former newspaper

editor appeared to be snared between eras as he tried to run a steam-age, whistle-stop campaign from a DC-9.

In contrast to the cadaverous countenance of Ryan, who rarely vacations, Lévesque’s face was tanned for television as he began his campaign refreshed by a week in Bermuda. The Parti Québécois leader’s campaign is orchestrated for TV. He plans to shuttle between the studios of Montreal and Quebec City, rarely following Ryan into the hinterland. There will be no monster rallies on the “oui” side; organizers believe mass meetings of secessionists frighten undecided voters. But the “yes” forces are running an intimate grassroots campaign, inciting neighborhoods, factory floors and even families to create their own official “yes” committee sections. The “yes” committee is, legally, independent of political parties. But inside its colonnaded stone headquarters on

Montreal’s stylish rue St-Denis, where students and the French-speaking smart set sip and gossip into the night, the organizational hierarchy is heavy with government-paid politicos from the staffs of PQ ministers. Most are veterans of the party’s victorious 1976 election campaign, while Ryan’s organization-purged of the Liberal party’s old gang of roguish but effective electioneers—is a mishmash drawn from four federalist parties more comfortable battling than siding with each other.

The readiness of the government campaign—even Lévesque’s detailed travel itineraries for the entire campaign were prepared before the referendum date was announced—explains the 35-day shortness of the campaign, the legal minimum. Within hours of the issuance of the referendum writs Tuesday, Quebec was prepared with “oui” posters in a blitz designed to encourage belief that “oui” momentum is building for a government victory. Lévesque said party polls indicate that “yes” strategy is succeeding: “It’s not a wave—we have numbers showing us there’s no wave and that we’ll have to work very hard— but there seems to be a current in the

making. If we work well and are sufficiently contagious, I would hope we could surpass 55 per cent, which would be extraordinary.”

Already, the premier is anticipating victory by setting out a deadline for the start of talks on simultaneous Quebec accession to independence and monetary union with the rest of Canada: “I would say that around the end of summer or the very beginning of autumn we should be figuring out how to open negotiations.” That prospect seemed unlikely unless Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau suffers a radical change of heart (see page 20).

Federalist disarray and good “yes” organization is only partly responsible for Lévesque’s campaign breakaway. More important is his message, which pierces the schizophrenic soul of French Quebec. It’s an appeal both to pride and fear, pride that Quebeckers could thrive as an independent people and fear that, if they don’t, they will become a dimin-

ishing minority doomed to extinction. To the more than 300 people who came to hear him open his campaign in SteMarie, Lévesque extolled “the new generation of Quebec businessmen” whose success is a guarantee of economic security: “It’s exactly this sort of vigor, this self-confidence in every domain, which is the most remarkable characteristic of Quebec society.” He recalled Quebec’s nationalization of hydroelectric power —after the 1962 election campaign in which he, as minister of natural resources, convinced voters to defy the private companies’ doomsday warnings. But, he complains angrily, Canada is holding Quebec back. “It’s our collective duty to widen our horizons, to push back their limits. If we continue to be manip/ mnn

ulated excessively from the outside as we are now, we will never attain the p0-

tential and the goals we have a right to.” Then follows a litany of charges against the constitution and the federal government: neglect of Quebec’s shipbuilding industry; the choice of the F18A fighter plane which, Lévesque calculates, means fewer benefits for Quebec

than the competing F-16; the British North America Act’s interference with Quebec’s attempt to nationalize a major asbestos mine. All that shows “the inequality of our two peoples.” Now comes the central theme of the “yes” campaign: “This inequality must be corrected and this is the heart of the debate between the ‘yes’ and the ‘no.’ ”

That appeal for equality lets the “yes” committee get away with using the word “Canada” and the red maple leaf beside the fleur-de-lis on its advertising-something Ryan’s “no” forces don’t dare do for fear of appearing to be agents of English Canada. In the end, Lévesque’s biggest argument is English Canada’s apparent inability to cope with the prospect of profound change without a brutal shock of a “yes” vote. A “no,” on the other hand, would “keep us in the status quo but with even less strength because we would have refused change. It would mean another 25 years of going around in circles.”

So far, participation in the referendum campaign by non-Quebeckers has tended to backfire. The thought of unilingual English-Canadian notables lecturing Quebeckers on their future together delights secessionists. Lévesque was sardonic when told that Ontario Premier William Davis was ready to rush to Ryan’s aid: “If Mr. Davis wants to make speeches here, more power to him—it may help us. Could you see me, as the premier of Quebec, going to Ontario and telling them to kick out Bill Davis’ government?”

Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford, too, gave Lévesque an unwitting boost by demanding that the federal government force Quebec to permit the construction of cables across its territory to carry Labrador power to other

English-speaking provinces. That didn’t sit well in a province whose residents still consider Labrador to be land thieved from Quebec.

English Canada’s only prominent emissary to cross the border into Quebec last week was author Pierre Berton, who addressed more than 1,000 members of Quebec City’s dwindling anglophone community Wednesday in the Chateau Frontenac’s ballroom. “No” organizers had gleaned English names from the city’s telephone directory to fill the room, but Berton seemed to be aiming his remarks at Quebec franco-

phones. “My heroes are your heroes,” he said, “and they include some of the early explorers with French names.” And, later: “Your literary heritage is part of my heritage and I grew up reading Quebec writers like Roger Lemelin, Gabrielle Roy and many others.” After his speech, Berton explained that he knew the crowd was English-speaking but that he was using the occasion to reach Quebec francophones: “My remarks were addressed to the media— these people are already converted. I’m speaking to a larger group.” Fortunately, perhaps, for a man who mispronounced the name of a cherished French-Canadian author (Roy as in Rogers, rather than “rwa”), Quebec’s French-language media largely ignored the event simply because most francophones don’t know who Berton is.

But then, some of the anglophone organizers of the Berton night didn’t recognize a particularly prominent Quebecker traversing the Chateau Frontenac lobby. One matron thrust a “non” button into the hand of a bemused Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau who, when asked if he was there for the rally, replied: “No, I’m here for the bar.” Then, heading off to his piano-bar haunt, a confident Parizeau stuffed the federalist button into his pocket with the remark: “This will make a nice souvenir someday.”