COLUMN

Free trade and the separatists

Diane Francis February 29 1988
COLUMN

Free trade and the separatists

Diane Francis February 29 1988

Free trade and the separatists

COLUMN

Diane Francis

The main lounge of Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel is decorated with gilt and flock and wellgroomed Westmount women. It is a slice from the past, a posh piano bar where the elite meet and drinks are pricey. Jacques Parizeau breezes in for a drink or two and all eyes follow him. This is the heir apparent to whatever’s left of the Parti Québécois throne, a mischievous, brilliant PhD, whose accent is as much England as Outremont. He plants himself down to talk about his vision for Quebec, lights up the first of a chain of cigarettes and orders a martini. His keystone for independence, he says, is the free trade deal with the United States—because Quebecers are North Americans, not Canadians. Indeed, Parizeau says that if after the next election either Ed Broadbent or John Turner becomes prime minister and rips up the free trade agreement, he would try to renegotiate with the Americans if he became Quebec premier. Declared Parizeau: “I would reinitiate talks immediately. If these Canadians are crazy enough to throw away a chance like this, I am not.”

Free trade, like politics, has certainly made for strange bedfellows in Quebec. Foursquare in favor of the trade agreement is Tory Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa and now Parizeau, the man who will almost certainly be Quebec’s next opposition leader (page 28) and who says that he wants to march the province out of Confederation. “I am totally convinced that we are North Americans,” Parizeau said. “You might find some businessmen or intellectual people who look to Paris or London or Toronto. But most Quebecers look to Daytona Beach. Americans, as a group at large, are loved. René Lévesque always liked Americans. The dream of 90 per cent of French-Canadians who do not have a great deal of money is to go south to Miami, buy a small condominium, buy the Journal de Montreal every morning and go to the beach. After two weeks most come back and say, ‘Ah, it was wonderful.’ They love America.”

It is interesting to note that Montreal has a major street named after a U.S. president—the avenue du Président-Kennedy—in its downtown. But the affection of Quebecers for Americans and their investment dollars is somewhat rooted in their hatred of the “Westmount Rhodesians,” those de-

spised anglophones who once ran the province’s economy. Parizeau says that his job will be to convince Quebecers that they have come of age in economic terms and can go it alone, thanks to free trade and the access that it offers to the huge U.S. market. “Years ago people were afraid about the economic consequences of separation,” he said. “All the major economic decisions were taken outside the community. When you said Quebecers could do it themselves, they did not believe it.”

But times have changed, and Quebec’s new economic elite is francophone, aggressive and outward-looking. “It is an entirely different sort of picture,” Parizeau said. “In Abitibi in December, for the first time in history, that region had the lowest unemployment rate in the province. This was driven essentially by the extraordinary development of the mining industry over the past four years. That mining

Parizeau said that the free trade deal means Quebecers would not be economically dependent on the rest of Canada

development took place in the hands of French-Canadians there and not by people from Toronto. We did it. It changes the atmosphere. This is not the same Quebec.”

Parizeau says that free trade will ultimately enhance Mulroney’s chances for a federal majority in the next election. “The best news he’d had for a long time was that the West, Maritimes and Quebec were in favor,” he said. “So the more debate the better. It became the main plank, more than tax reform.” And Parizeau notes that, as the debate raged, opposition to free trade among Quebec’s trade labor union leaders and farmers has melted away. He says that speeches he has made on the subject to steelworkers and producing industries such as pulp and paper were well received. And, he added, “soft, or protected, industries like shoes and textiles have come out of the so-called common front against free trade. The farmers started to get .all kinds of things they wanted out of the talks, a list of protected foods. They went into the common front to get those things and they got them. So the only opposition is

teachers and hospital workers who have nothing to gain or lose by a free trade deal. It is a paradox.”

According to Parizeau, the free trade agreement has given separatists the best opportunity they have had in years—and one that they cannot afford to ignore. For one thing, the Parti Québécois’s platform of sovereignty-association, first put forward 20 years ago at a time of high U.S. tariffs, advocated political independence for Quebec while still retaining economic ties to Canada: a way to protect Quebec’s economy and ensure a larger market for Quebec goods. “The idea was to suggest sovereignty-association, rather than outright separation, to try to keep the Canadian market open,” Parizeau said.

But, he added, “the attitude of many Canadians was ‘Why should we buy from you if you decide to become foreigners?’ There was no way anyone would give any reassurance to Quebec. Now, we come to the free trade deal.” That deal, Parizeau said, means that Quebecers will no longer be economically dependent on the rest of Canada. “It has to dawn on anyone with ideas of sovereignty,” he said, “that if a deal happens, the whole bloody issue of 20 years ago is shattered.”

I asked Parizeau which of the three federal party leaders would best enhance his party’s chances of promoting separatism. “Broadbent,” he immediately shot back, “because the NDP is essentially a centralist party. They would attempt to impose massive universal social programs throughout the land. They believe decisions must flow from a strong central government—that is in their nature and they have no other way to do it. I would not dare to put forward the types of policies in Quebec that they are putting forward on free trade or such issues as pulling out of NATO or NORAD.”

Of course, the Parti Québécois has also flirted with including withdrawal from NATO in its policy platform. But the idea has never been formally adopted—perhaps because the PQ leadership realizes that it would antagonize the Americans, as well as be unpopular among Quebecers. Drawing heavily on a final cigarette before leaving to meet with campaign workers, Parizeau said: “I will not start raising hell with the Americans. It is not a question of fear.

I need them to do business. When you are a small country, you need a large market.”

He is absolutely correct.