David Thomas May 26 1980


David Thomas May 26 1980



David Thomas

Few Quebeckers, French-speaking ones at least, pencilled their x on Tuesday with a light heart: their choice meant as much the burial of one national dream as it did the rebirth of another. The denouement was quick and brutal. After a gloriously sunny day which encouraged a record voting turnout of 82 per cent, the government’s humiliation was clear less than an hour after the polls closed. For some, the crushing 59.4-to-40.6-per-cent defeat of Premier René Lévesque’s appeal for a mandate to negotiate Quebec’s peaceful transition to sovereignty and economic association with the rest of Canada brought frustration with electoral democracy as the instrument of independence. New buttons quickly appeared on the lapels and sweaters of disillusioned

Parti Québécois militants. Their message: Ça va barder—there’s going to be trouble.

Chanting “Let’s invade Westmount,” 2,000 young Quebeckers forged their way west from the beer parlors of Old Montreal to the home of the anglophone ascendancy. Along the two-hour route they lacerated Canadian flags, shattered windows and hurled rocks at a few foolhardy federalists who flaunted “non” banners from their balconies. But cries of “SOS FLQ” bounced hollowly off the odd overturned mailbox. In the early 1960s the bombing of mailboxes in Westmount galvanized French protest ^and English fear. But 20 years later on the night of the referendum on Quebec’s independence, the Westmount march

deteriorated in bafflement as the youngsters tired themselves out trying to find a western access to the heights of Mount Royal. By early Wednesday morning, remnants of the major referendum protest crowd were hopping gratefully onto the eastbound 165 bus, but about 100 diehards stayed and challenged the riot squad at the foot of Mount Royal. They lost in a flurry of £ nightsticks around 2:30 a.m.

While only an infinitesimal minority of secessionists condones terrorism as an alternative, Quebec’s political turmoil is far from finished. Happily for federalists, Liberal leader Claude Ryan did gain the confidence of majorities within both language groups (though it was uncomfortably close among the francophones), an outcome that avoided legitimate blame being laid on Quebec’s anglophones for the PQ’s debacle. But

the enthusiastic, forgiving cheers that greeted Lévesque in a Montreal arena after the results were out proved that Quebec nationalism remains a Damoclean £orce hanging over the constitutional conference table. Tearfully, the premier left the stage with a sad wave and a promise of another referendum rendezvous: “Till the next time.”

Just moments later in another, calmer arena, Ryan rubbed his hands in glee, consulted his journalist’s notebook and warned the rest of the country: “Our fellow Quebeckers will ask us to be firm in the defence of their interests.” In Ottawa, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said his joy was tempered by

thoughts of the disappointment of “yes” supporters: “We have all lost a little in this referendum.”

Exactly who voted “yes” and “no” was as important as their numbers:

within the French-speaking population, the Parti Québécois and its ideology have a strong grip on younger, bettereducated voters. Much of Ryan’s profederalism force is from older Quebeckers and it appears that housewives, mobilized by the unexpected “Yvette” movement which was partly an antifeminist backlash, voted massively “no.” That severely deflated the reputation of Lise Payette, Quebec’s minister of state for the feminine condition, whose disparaging public treatment of federalist women, and particularly Claude Ryan’s wife, Madeleine, inspired the federalist women’s movement which saved Ryan’s campaign from its initial misfortunes.

Payette is just one of the PQ prominents uneasily anticipating her party’s search for scapegoats. Uncompromising secessionist Pierre Bourgault cast a lean and hungry look at the government’s prime strategist: “It’s certain that there will be a night of the long knives within the party and there is one man in particular who is threatened in the very short term. His name is Claude Morin.” Minister of intergovernmental affairs, Morin had convinced Lévesque and a reluctant party that êtapisme, or gradualism, was the only way to lead Quebeckers down the path of independence. This referendum was to have been a point of no return but became, instead, a dead-end street for Morin’s mixture of moderation and deviation. Ryan was quick in victory to demand a provincial election by fall, but the government can hardly seek a mandate with another promise, as in 1976, merely to provide good government and then repeat the same referendum. Inevitably, impatient Péquistes like Bourgault will demand a straighter run at the objective: “When you want to sell an idea you have to talk about it and for the past 12 years the PQ has refused to talk about independence.”

Should Lévesque himself suffer a leadership challenge, hard-liners will likely turn to Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau, one of few ministers to ignore the series of euphemisms, from “true confederation” to “new deal,” that Morin and Lévesque concocted to broaden their appeal to the middle class. Parizeau committed virtual heresy during the campaign by affirming that a vote for sovereignty-association implied approval of independence. In Parizeau’s own riding, L’Assomption, 51 per cent voted “yes,” avoiding the embarrassment shared by most of his cabinet colleagues. Even Cultural Development

Minister Camille Laurin, father of Quebec’s strict official language law, did not achieve a majority “yes” in his riding of Bourget in the French-speaking working-class east end of Montreal. Only the geographically eccentric regions of Saguenay-Lac St-Jean and the St. Lawrence North Shore voted solidly with the government.

Now Lévesque, without a mandate except a withering one to govern, must answer Trudeau’s constitutional initiatives without appearing to voters as a petulant spoilsport or, to his own party, as a sellout. He promises to press Quebec’s traditional claim for greater autonomy within Canada until his party revises its strategy and achieves a new mandate from the people. His chances

for re-election now appear seriously diminished.

Ryan, then, is in the ambiguous situation of a premier-in-waiting, holding legitimacy as the interpreter of Quebec’s aspirations but without power to advance them. Now that Lévesque’s Eden of independence has retreated from the forefront, it may soon be Ryan’s turn to seek French Canada’s older, but never attained, promised land: a Canada in which francophones can flourish everywhere in their own culture. Unlike independence, which would leave the rest of the country to its own devices, Ryan’s vision implies a drastic revision of English-Canadian attitudes and institutions. Both Ryan and Trudeau have evoked the possibility of a future referendum, probably Canada-wide, to ratify a new constitution, and majorities in both Quebec and English Canada will be essential for political peace. Again, voters will be called upon to express their confidence in Canada—and in the political leaders whose promises that a “no” would mean a new Canada will still be around to haunt them.

Anne Beirne

With files from Anne Beirne