COVER

Quebec reacts to the Manitoba issue

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 2 1984
COVER

Quebec reacts to the Manitoba issue

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 2 1984

Quebec reacts to the Manitoba issue

COVER

Ever since the Manitoba language issue exploded into national prominence last September, Frenchand English-speaking Quebecers alike have followed the dispute with grim fascination. Last week that fascination turned into alarm with John Turner’s suggestion that Ottawa should let the provinces settle their own language problems—a proposal that, for different reasons, troubled both of Quebec’s main language groups. In a stinging editorial in the influential Montreal newspaper Le Devoir, editor in chief Lise Bissonnette attacked Turner by declaring, “The more he talks about the Manitoba affair, the more he demonstrates that he does not know the issue well.”

Reaction among Quebec’s anglophone minority was even angrier. Some feared that as Liberal leader, or Prime Minister, Turner would not vigorously defend the rights of linguistic minorities at a time when the community continues to fight for recognition of its own language. In Montreal, Neil McKenty, host of CJAD’s popular radio talk show, held an impromptu poll asking listeners whom they would prefer for the Liberal leadership. The largely Englishspeaking audience voted 54 to 12 for Energy Minister Jean Chrétien over Turner, dismissing the Toronto lawyer as a “sellout,” a “quitter” and “the Man from Glad.” At the same time, Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney, who was interviewed on CJAD, angrily charged that “Turner’s position is that he is going to sell a million anglo-Quebecers and franco-Manitobans down the river.” Turner’s clarification of his statement later in the week did not still the controversy.

Softness: The battle to extend French-language rights in Manitoba and Turner’s stand on the issue have considerable significance for both of Quebec’s main linguistic groups. While many francophone Quebecers are angered by the resistance to bilingualism in Manitoba, Quebec anglophones fear that softness in Ottawa on the matter of rights for linguistic minorities would endanger their own survival in Quebec. As a result, Turner’s initial statement brought about strange alliances on the issue. Opponents of Turner’s stand included both Quebec Liberals and Conservatives, francophone editorialists and defenders of anglophone rights in the province. Said Herbert Marx, a provincial Liberal back-bencher and constitutional lawyer: “The federal govern-

ment has a right and a duty to intervene when the rights it has guaranteed are not being abided by.” He and other Liberals agreed with Mulroney, who said that Turner’s first statement amounted to saying to Quebec’s 700,000 anglophones, “I am hereby delivering you into the hands of [Quebec Premier] René Lévesque, and he can do with you what he wants.”

Despite Turner’s revised position on the issue, his campaign had already suffered from the confusion caused by his earlier remarks. “I think Turner did himself immense damage,” said a senior member of the federal Liberals’ Quebec wing, who conducted a straw poll of 13 Liberals after Turner’s initial statement and counted 10 votes for Chrétien and only three for Turner. “A week before, it would have been the other way around,” he said, adding that he was not satisfied by Turner’s subsequent “backtracking.” Conservative

party organizers in the province, who were suddenly able to present their party as a defender of linguistic rights in the country, were quick to capitalize on Turner’s apparent blunder. Said Gary Ouellet, a party organizer in eastern Quebec: “We were frankly very worried about Turner—until he opened his mouth on this.” As if to illustrate the point, approximately 2,500 Tories last week turned up for a raucus nominating meeting in Trois Rivières, a riding in which the party had only 500 members a year ago.

Pride: The implications of the Manitoba language dispute have aroused Quebec at a time when the province’s own language battles had begun to subside. The Parti Québécois’ seven-yearold Bill 101, which made French Quebec’s sole official language, has served to bolster the pride and self-confidence of francophones, and last year Quebec City amended Bill 101 to allow English institutions greater freedom to function in their own language. “Fights over language are a thing of the past,” said Liberal Leader Robert Bourassa. “We will argue certain points,” he added, “but the climate is now free of acrimony.” According to Eric Maldoff, president of the English-rights group Alliance Quebec, the mood in the province now “is more encouraging for anglophones than it has been for years.” But language rights still have the potential to be a highly volatile issue, as the response to Turner’s remarks revealed. Warren Allmand, Liberal MP for the largely anglophone Montreal riding of Notre-Damede-Grâce-Lachine East, said Turner had “made a mistake.” He added, “We already have enough people who are nervous about minority rights without having this sort of confusion.”

Ultimately, the most important aspect of the Manitoba language storm could be the political capital that the separatist PQ government stands to gain from it. Cultural Communities Minister Gérald Godin, who is responsible for the application of Bill 101, pronounced Turner’s position “more logical than Trudeau’s ever was.” He asked, “Why intervene in Manitoba but not in Ontario?” In future campaigns to convince Quebecers to separate from Canada, the PQ will now have further ammunition to support its claim that Quebec is the only place in Canada in which francophones can really feel at home. As Godin put it, “No matter how this debate turns out, we win.”

-ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Montreal.