The scene around the large kitchen table in Ste-Marie de Beauce is probably being played out in hundreds of Quebec villages where the silver church steeple still stands tall in the folds of the countryside. René Carrier, his wife, Rachel, and five of their 15 children are discussing the referendum. “Now, let’s see,” says the father, “Denise is a ‘no.’ Gaétan is undecided. Diane is a ‘no’...” The family laughs as the numbers are tallied—it’s 10 for “yes” and seven for “no” including the parents—but the discussion gets animated enough. Twenty-six-year-old Bertrand wants all-out independence. “We’ve always been forced to share our riches with others.” His father is opposed. “If you separate you won’t have oil.” Comes the pat answer: “But we are rich in electricity.” Says the father: “You’re going to lose wheat and potash.” Twenty-sevenyear-old Bernard is ready for that one. ‘That’s why I want sovereignty-association, so we don’t break anything.” But his father isn’t sure. “What makes you think they’ll want you! Will Blakeney want you?” But Bernard is sure. “If we give a strong ‘yes,’ Trudeau will have to negotiate.” The father only shakes his head. “We continue to protect our children even if they don’t know what they are doing.” Bertrand finally gets exasperated. “It’s just that sort of paternalism that we’re fighting against.” But the father has the last word. ‘They’ll see.”
Everywhere the arguments are the same. Ste-Marie, for that matter the whole gently rolling country of the Beauce, south of Quebec City, is like one big extended family. “The Question” cuts through it—through friends, neighbors, businesses—as quirkily as the winding Chaudière River, which was once the lifeline of the area. A local poll taken recently shows that the town of 10,000 conforms to provincial trends—half the decided are “oui,” and half are “non” and a good chunk is “undecided,” although “undeclared” might be a fairer description. It’s in the small towns like Ste-Marie that the statistics become people, but their end desires, are no easier to decipher.
For now the divisions are kept en famille, but as the campaign heats up—and there are signs of that happening—that’s likely to change. Already many Beaucerons find themselves simply not discussing the referendum to avoid family quarrels. And many merchants just won’t come out publicly for fear of losing business. Even the local weekly newspaper, Le Guide, decided not to take a stand because, as Bernard Carrier, its managing editor, explained: “It’s half and half. And we have
to live together.” A young local “yes” organizer says tersely of his difference of opinion with his father: “We just don’t talk about it.” Meanwhile, his “no” counterpart senses that “there is a chill in the town.”
There are few who would go so far as Roméo Ferland, the owner of one of the town’s largest restaurants, who says that
business is at a standstill and parts of families are leaving town until voting day to avoid quarrels. (“Me, I’m not staying here. I’m leaving until the vote.”) Most, like Mayor Pierre Maurice Vachon, whose family founded the town’s well-known Vachon cake business and who has decided to keep his choice private, simply try to keep the lid on. “Right now you don’t see the tension. There is a little conflict but that’s all. We are a small centre and people know that if friction is created, it can last for the rest of their lives. We’re not the city where people forget.”
As with Quebec as a whole, it’s best not to approach Ste-Marie with any stereotypes—although to some degree the division between those voting “yes” and “no” conform to them. The “yes” people do tend to be younger, Péquistes, students, unionists and small businessmen. The “no” people tend to be older, Liberals, industry owners and farmers. And among all there is the small town’s memory at work. But a walk down the main street of Notre-Dame dispels any assumptions. A local pharmacist, 36-year-old Jean-Louis Marceau and his wife, Lise, a piano teacher, are ardent “yes” supporters (even though it has cost them some business) and proudly rent out their basement to the local “oui' campaign office. Once a captain in the armed forces, Marceau remembers having to salute a “foreign” symbol—the Queen. Next door is a 70-year-old retired judge, Louis-
Alfred Ferland—the head of the “yes” campaign—who still remembers the fight to get bilingual money and stamps. Further along is the more than 200-year-old Eglise de Ste-Marie, whose congregation still remembers that sad day in 1759 when the French were defeated and the parish priest was forced to sing a song of joy for the British “with tears in my eyes.” The
local priest, Daniel Jacques, is voting “yes” (“If they asked for independence pure and simple, I’d jump for it”). He remembers his boyhood in the Irish settlement of Franton where the French congregation had to say prayers in English.
In the business section, the tobacconist is voting “no,” although he won’t tell that to just anybody, as is the clothing store salesman across the street (“I can’t see Quebec going it alone”). Ferland, the restaurant owner, will tell you the silent majority of businessmen is voting “no” but across the street from him the 27-year-old owner of a stationery store, Paul Drouin, is a “yes” (“If Canada says ‘no’ to negodation, we’ll go straight to independence”). And even the head of the Chamber of Commerce, 32-year-old Réjean Leblanc, prefers a Canada divided into five economic regions.
It’s a lot easier to find the “yes” side of town. Its people are well organized, more visible, surer of their views. Their office has been open longer than that of the “nos”; they’ve been holding kitchen encounters for three years rather than just weeks. And they have learned René Lévesque’s lessons well; they make good proselytizers. Does Energy Minister Marc Lalonde say Quebec needs Alberta’s oil? Nonsense, there’s Hydro Quebec. Will the
four western premiers really refuse to negotiate? Nonsense, they need Quebec more than Quebec needs them. Won’t Quebec lose business and benefits? The refrain is the same. ‘They want us to be afraid,” says Drouin. “It worked in 1970, but that’s dead now.”
The “no” side is on the defensive. Its adherents don’t talk so loudly or so proudly. The PQ’s charge that its arguments are mostly negatives (fear of losing pensions, federal subsidies) has stuck. It’s hard to work up emotion for a country when most of the Beaucerons of Ste-Marie have not
been west of Montreal. The “yes” side walks all over their defences. Says Drouin contemptuously: ‘The ‘no’ side doesn’t have any arguments. They couldn’t change the mind of a ‘yes’ person if they tried.” All of Claude Ryan’s impressive figures showing Quebec’s dependence on Confederation fall like niggling little darts on a wave of emotionalism. On the one hand Ryan is condemned for using figures at all (‘They’re people who talk about numbers,” scoffs the pharmacist. ‘They’re trying to buy us”) while on the other, “yes” statistics go unchallenged. The “yes” people are sure that given time they could win over just about the whole town. Says “yes” worker Benoit L’Heureux, about a brother who is still undecided: “He just hasn’t had the time to become informed. He’s been building a house.” Leblanc, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, dismisses the “no” people as those “who haven’t come far enough in their development.” But the real sin of the “no” people, says a local lawyer, a former Liberal National Assembly member and “no” supporter, Denis Sylvain, is that so many are choosing to be silent out of fear of repercussions. “That’s just not good,” he says. “This isn’t just another election.”
To a degree, what is really winning in Ste-Marie is not Lévesque or Ryan or even a particular notion of nationhood (and there are plenty of those). It is the art of media packaging. That’s what permits an
essentially radical concept like sovereignty-association, a movement largely conceived elsewhere, to take root in an otherwise traditional, truly independentminded part of Quebec like the Beauce. In Ste-Marie the traditional arbiters of taste and opinion, the curé, the mayor and the notary, have been replaced by the direct beam-in of television, the reams of newspaper copy, the electronic countdown to referendum day. The Beaucerons, whose experience with les maudits anglais is fairly restricted compared to Montreal, for instance, nonetheless watch the same
campaign ads and listen to the same catchy jingles as the people of Montreal. Every argument put forward, every rebuttal-even the musings of the four western premiers last week—become fodder for the public-opinion machine. It’s not surprising that the mayor, who has only started his job and likes it, wants to keep his choice “between me and the ballot box.” To make it public won’t influence anybody. It would only alienate a section of his voters.
Down the river from Ste-Marie, a 69year-old hay farmer, Wilfrid Cliche, smiles at all the fuss caused by the referendum. He’s the fifth generation to live in the large canadien style farmhouse with its wide veranda and ornate woodwork overlooking the Chaudière. Of his 11 children the three sons are voting “yes” and the daughters are all “no.” Their differences are not divisive. He’s a strong federalist who speaks only French and who visited anglo Canada for the first time last year on a trip to Niagara Falls. It’s not fear that keeps him in Canada. “My country is Canada and I love it,” he says in the slightly hushing intonation of the Beauce. “It’s a beautiful big country.” The divisions he blames entirely on bickering politicians, not the people of Quebec. “I’ve built my farm. I did my job in my field. They haven’t done theirs.” Sitting around the big wood stove, it’s easy to feel no cause for concern no matter how the vote goes.
After all, as the priest put it: ‘The vote is not going to stop the sod from being turned over in the Beauce.”
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