CANADA

The rebel and the righteous

Ian Anderson November 23 1981
CANADA

The rebel and the righteous

Ian Anderson November 23 1981

The rebel and the righteous

CANADA

Ian Anderson

In their infinite pragmatism, Quebeckers seem to have found more interesting the revelation that enterprising staff of the national assembly may have made pornographic films in the vaunted Salon bleu than Premier René Lévesque’s depiction of provincial rights being stripped away by the maudite “English-speaking technocracy” of Ottawa. Even after Lévesque’s ringing denunciation of “the shameful betrayal”

Quebec endured in Ottawa, polls show Quebeckers split, as always, between support for their champion in Quebec City and their champion in Ottawa. Lévesque’s hurt rendition of how he was doublecrossed by his fellow premiers in what was once the Gang of Eight may actually have helped hoist the premier by his own petard.

“You didn’t expect them to be working behind the scenes?” asked popular television interviewer Denise Bombardier.

“Mr. Lévesque, we really expect our politicians to be more sophisticated than that.”

Running hard last week to keep party regulars behind him, Lévesque found it politic to leap back aboard the separatist train. That involved hardening his rhetoric—once again stretching the “Elliott” of Pierre Elliott Trudeau—and, for four days, refusing any future negotiations with Ottawa.

“The only solution for the people of Quebec is to finally one day become a sovereign nation,” he told the 300 delegates to the Parti Québécois national executive council on Saturday.

But his schedule still differs from that proposed by party militants, who have proposed calling an early election on the new constitution. Many of these hardliners took to the microphone Saturday and expressed concern that Trudeau might, after all, agree to Lévesque’s “non-negotiable” demands for a separate deal with Quebec.

Naturally, Trudeau did not—quite. In his reply to Lévesque at a Liberal convention in Quebec City Saturday night, Trudeau played cat and mouse with his old adversary by dangling, tantalizing-

ly, the prospect of a showdown referendum; a shootout between the two champions and their “two visions” of Canada. “We will have to decide if we will have a Quebec inside Canada or a Quebec outside Canada,” he told fellow travellers seated beneath banner pictures of himself. The choice, he advised, was between “a Canada of equality and sharing or a Canada of inequality, confrontation and separatism.”

As always, Lévesque is having to balance delicately between the moderates and radicals in his party. The no-further-negotiation stance of Monday became the take-it-or-leave-it offer to Trudeau on Friday: recognize the existence of two founding nations, allow Quebec to opt out of minority education rights, and force federal compensation for any national programs that Quebec may want to administer at home. No further movement can be expected until

Lévesque makes it through the sharkinfested waters of his party’s Dec. 4 to 6 convention. Trudeau paid Lévesque a double insult of ignoring his ultimatum and embracing, like a prodigal son, Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan, whose political ground lately has been as unstable as the SanAndreas fault.Yes,Trudeau told the 2,000 Liberal delegates, he would recognize Quebec’s special status by invoking a Canada clause for minority education. (Canadian citizens could automatically enter their children into English schools in Quebec.) And, yes, he would agree to financial compensation for Quebec if it opted out of programs of a cultural and linguistic nature. “I don’t have the impression we will be drowned tomorrow by anglophones, but if it happened I would be ready to negotiate a clause that would protect us.”

For his part Ryan can be counted on to continue reminding federalists and Péquistes alike that it was Lévesque himself who agreed to let the Gang of Eight drop Quebec’s traditional veto over constitutional changes. And the minority language proposals now ready to be enshrined were first proposed by Lévesque himself in 1977. Signing away the veto, Ryan told the national assembly, was “the most serious error ever made by a Quebec premier.”

Unlike Lévesque, representatives of Canada’s 1.3 million native people were not even in the room when the constitutional deal was struck and eliminated recognition of their rights and privileges in the charter of rights. Gordon Fairweather, the Trudeau-appointed Canadian human rights commissioner, branded the omission “unconscionable” last week. Inuit leaders threatened to “shut down the North” if the rights provision were not restored when the constitution resolution comes before the Commons on Thursday. The native leaders did not dwell on the memory of their previous opposition to the charter as “anemic” and “empty, deceiving and insincere.” Trudeau has refused to reinsert the-

clause without approval from the provinces, an event that could be long in coming. At stake for provincial governments are mammoth land and mineral claims laid by native groups throughout the West and North. Provincial politicians worry that the charter could widen the areas under dispute, and perhaps make the native cases more favorable in the courts. Such attitudes were condemned by Thomas Berger, the Vancouver judge who fought the historic first land claims case as a lawyer for the Nishga Indians of B.C. Last week Berger lamented, “Under the new constitution the first Canadians shall be last.”

The natives did not extend their concern over human rights to women and, more particularly, the 15,700 women and their 57,000 children who could have returned to reserves had the charter been pushed through intact. These women married non-Indians and thus lost their reserve status. Indian men are not similarly restricted by whom they marry. While equality of the sexes did survive the deal-making—although Trudeau was not sure of this a day later—it did not survive intact. Provinces can override the equality section where they feel it necessary. Judy Eróla, the minister responsible for the status of women, expects no gross injustices: Canadian women would not stand for it, she says. But Fairweather deplores the dilution. “There’s a lot of symbolism in it [the constitution],” he believes. “That symbolism has been seriously scarred.”

Scarred or not, and with or without Lévesque’s blessing, the package goes before the House this week. “Don’t compare it to utopia,” advised one of the veterans of the constitutional campaigns. “Compare it to what it might have been if we had no deal.” It is not just Lévesque, however, who would like to turn the clock back.

With files from Anne Beirne and Daniel Drolet.