PODIUM

Rubbing salt in Quebec’s wounds

Richard Clippingdale February 8 1982
PODIUM

Rubbing salt in Quebec’s wounds

Richard Clippingdale February 8 1982

Rubbing salt in Quebec’s wounds

PODIUM

Richard Clippingdale

Once more, Pierre Trudeau has “defeated” Quebec separatism—or so we are told by his admirers. He is imposing the new constitution on the Québécois over the heads of their elected government and legislature. He wants English-Canadians to believe that opposition to the constitution in Quebec begins and ends with the separatists, for separatist reasons. This is a dangerous delusion. The fact is that thousands of moderate Quebec federalists—the very people who tipped the scales for Canada in the 1980 referendum—are instinctively appalled by the Trudeau coup de force. It is driving them into the arms of the separatists en masse. A recent poll shows that 53 per cent of the province’s voters now favor sovereignty-association; far more oppose the current constitutional terms. In that light, Mr. Trudeau has not “defeated” separatism—he has given it a new lease on life.

At least he is consistent.

Throughout his years in power he has created more separatists than René Lévesque. In October, 1970, he casually jailed innocent citizens through the War Measures Act. “Watch me,” he said.

Thousands of Québécois who did so turned separatist. In 1976, because of Trudeau’s unacceptably hard centralist line in Ottawa, coupled with voter rejection of the Bourassa government, the Parti Québécois climbed to power. Then, in the 1980 referendum campaign, he promised vaguely to “renew” federalism—but, astonishingly, he followed that up with his anti-provincial constitutional policy. The general resentment this produced in Quebec snatched René Lévesque and company from the jaws of imminent defeat and re-elected them in April, 1981. English-Canadians should know by now that Pierre Trudeau is their worst possible savior from separatism.

The Québécois can only be reconciled to the new constitution and to the Confederation it represents if we take seriously their most fundamental objections to the present constitutional terms and meet them with generosity. They spring from the very nature of modern Quebec, as it has evolved in pride and self-confidence over the past 20 years. As such, they cannot simply be wished away. Nor need they be difficult to meet. One basic Québécois concern is Mr. Trudeau’s insistence that there should be no general right of “financial compensation” for Quebec—or for any other province—if it wants to “opt out” of a future constitutional amendment that would reduce its powers. Thus the Québécois would have to pay to help fund a federal role in the other provinces, while also supporting their own government’s continuing activity in the same field. This double taxation would be a staggering burden, especially when major social or economic programs are involved. Who seriously believes Canadian unity would survive such a raid on the powers of Quebec? Québécois pride would not permit it. Why, then, this needless provocation?

A further affront to the Québécois lies in the new constitu-

tion’s interference with the Quebec national assembly’s exclusive control over language of education. Quebec historically has treated its language minority far more generously than have other provinces. In spite of the excesses of Bill 101, this is still largely true. Recent polling shows increasingly widespread support in Quebec for voluntary adoption of practically the same provisions that the new constitution will impose. The Québécois now overwhelmingly believe that any Canadian citizens who have had their own schooling in English should be entitled to send their children to English schools. Sadly, resentment against imposition now threatens that goodwill, strengthens anti-anglophone feeling and adds to separatist support. The English minority in Quebec has nothing to gain from a supposed “protection” that helps drive Quebec from Canada. Who but hard-line Trudeauites see any sense in undermining goodwill for the sake of some

personal timetable or mindless symmetry? The other provinces did not demand this, but merely accepted language arrangements for themselves. In time and calmness, a future federalist government of Quebec—or perhaps even a separatist one under public pressure-might well do the same.

On both the financial and language issues we desperately need that time and calmness. Pierre Trudeau cannot bridge the gap he himself has opened z so needlessly between federalism and the Québécois. About othe only useful contribution he g can now make is to resign. £ Other federal politicians and ^opinion leaders must do their best to make reconciliation possible. They must make a clear commitment that no constitutional amendments to reduce Quebec’s powers without its consent will be sought until full agreement to an amending procedure has been secured. Further, there should be no actual exercise of any federal interference with Quebec’s historic powers over language of education. Instead, voluntary action by Quebec should be encouraged. These two policies would go far to build immense strength in Quebec both for the constitution and for Confederation. That in turn would leave the Parti Québécois much more open to eventual defeat by a provincial federalist alternative. Then, a formal acceptance of the constitution by Quebec could follow. There is no other logical path to a real and lasting federal partnership that includes the Québécois.

Such an approach will not be popular with those who think Canadian unity can survive squeezing the province of Quebec and ignoring the most cherished assumptions of its people about their rights as “masters in their own house.” That’s Pierre Trudeau’s point of view—and it could all too easily lose us our country. Better by far to remember Sir John A. Macdonald’s advice on the Québécois: “Treat them as a nation and they will act as a free people generally do—generously.” In such treatment and such generosity lie the best hopes for a true renewal of Confederation.

Richard Clippingdale is director of the Institute of Canadian Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa. He was Joe Clark's senior policy adviser until last December.