Backstage

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David Thomas May 19 1980
Backstage

End of message

David Thomas May 19 1980

End of message

Backstage

Referendum

David Thomas

An irritating mizzle blurred the rural signposts as the "yes" campaign's wayward bus groped its way halfblind in the dark, separated from René Lévesque's

limousine and lost somewhere between St-Antoine de Tilly and St-Agapit. “I can’t figure out this damn countryside,” moaned the driver Tuesday night while, behind him, the chatter became a commotion, the rattle of beer cans escalated to a clatter and the humid air thickened with cannabis smoke as the fidgety boys and girls on the bus elected the

ethics of Hunter S. Thompson over those of Walter Lippmann. Finally, one hour after setting out on this 10-minute trip, the coach pulled up to the school-hall rally and an embarrassed tour manager jumped off to quickly rip away the cause of the poor bus’s blindness: a big blue OUI banner blanking out two of its four headlights.

The odyssey of error symbolized the whole “yes” campaign, whose objective, and the route to it, are obscured by too much makeup and a misreading of the land. Though it was still too soon to safely predict the outcome of the May 20 vote, last week’s Radio-Canada poll showed Lévesque’s drive for Quebec independence to be losing its way after a swift start.

The Parti Québécois’ media-

oriented campaign remained unquestionably more attractive than Claude Ryan’s Liberal-dominated“no”rallies, but the government’s message wasn’t getting through. Mainly because there wasn’t much of a message.

Government strategy of appealing for votes from frustrated federalists—rather than trying to increase support for outright independence—meant cloaking itself in ambiguity, eviscerating indépendantiste ideology of its vital organs and encouraging belief that a vote in favor of a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association would increase Quebec’s power in a renegotiation of the terms of Confederation. The government did discreetly warn at the campaign outset that its interpretation of a positive referendum result would take no account of why Quebeckers voted “yes.” The manifesto of Lévesque’s Regroupement national pour le Oui includes the unremarked caveat: “We should not confuse the meaning of the question and the motives which determine the answer of the voters, each one enjoying the freedom to choose his own reasons for his answer.”

Unfortunately for Lévesque’s 12-year-old dream of leading Quebeckers to sovereignty, there just aren’t that many reasons anymore for quitting Canada. The premier, certainly, is coming up with precious few in his campaign. Polling reveals that not even half of those intending to give the government its mandate say they will do so because they desire independence or sovereignty-association. The rest want merely to strengthen Quebec’s hand in negotia-

tion of renewed federalism. Blithely, Lévesque encourages that misconception of the question, never stopping to explain that its wording would not permit the government to accept from Canada anything less than national independence, tempered by economic and monetary union. The mandate sought by the government would simply not include the power to seek reform of the federation, only Quebec’s withdrawal from it.

To evade setting out the details of sovereignty-association Lévesque is reduced to dismissing them as “plumbing,” and appeals instead to Quebeckers’ pride as a distinct peo-

ple. But that has caught him in the double bind of at once praising their accomplishments and decrying their crippling by Confederation. The first argument has an annoying tendency to refute the second. Similarly, the Parti Québécois’ good-government strategy has worked too well. The theory, back in 1976, was that a term of good government would give voters enough confidence to endorse the party’s secessionist ambition in a referendum. Expressed voting intentions do indicate the PQ has a good chance of retaining o power at the next election. The elimination of patronage and the undue influence of corporate and union money in elections has established the PQ’s administrative integrity. Crea-

automobile insurance, protection of agricultural land and institution of an all-pervading law establishing French as Quebec’s only essential language earned the appreciation of voters, whose current 67per-cent satisfaction level is higher than anything previously enjoyed by this government or its Liberal predecessor elected in 1973. But, unwittingly, the government also proved with that record that it can make the province march to the beat of a radically different drummer without leaving the Canadian federation. Settling the language score, particularly, deprived the government of a critical rallying point for all francophone Quebeckers. Language was the one issue that crossed the lines of party, age, sex and generation. To raise it now, to say that sovereignty alone can save the language, would be intelligent demagoguery, but it would be to admit that the grand Charte de la langue française is just a pompous piece of parchment. The PQ’s squandering of the language issue in 1977 to give instant gratification to Cultural Development Minister Camille Laurin not only cost the government its best potential referendum argument, it alienated the minority groups whose sympathy was needed to reduce what Lévesque calls his 16-per-cent handicap. It would have been far more effective, politically, to argue that language legislation would be unnecessary in an independent Quebec.

Lévesque and his strategists are lost in their own too-

clever image._

David Thomas is Maclean’s Quebec bureau chief.