The scene evoked images from the glory days of the Quebec separatist movement in the 1970s. Seven thousand chanting, singing, foot-stamping Parti Québécois militants, many of them waving giant blue-and-white Quebec flags emblazoned with the fleur-de-lys, jammed into Montreal’s east-end Maurice Richard Arena for the biggest rally of the election campaign. With every speech peppered with references to Quebec independence and the sanctity of the French language, the cheers and applause grew more intense. The finale of the evening,
just 15 days before the Sept. 25 vote, was a ringing call to arms by PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau. Declared Parizeau, to a tumultuous ovation: “We are Quebecers. We have the right to be Quebecers and we have to make the Quebec nation now.”
Illegal: But, in the midst of their renewed debate on independence, both Parizeau and Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa have had to fight their campaigns with one eye on Quebec’s chaotic labor situation. First, the province’s 40,000 nurses went out on an illegal strike on Sept. 5, causing hospitals to close beds and turn patients away. Then, last week, as the nurses were considering a new agreement between their union leaders and the government, anoth-
er 225,000 hospital workers, teachers and other civil servants walked out, seriously disrupting health care and schools across the province. At the end of last week, Bourassa briefly suspended his campaign in order to assess the strike threat to health care in the province. Talks got under way with some of the striking unions, but he insisted that the government would not negotiate with 95,000 hospital workers and with other strikers whose walkouts were illegal. “The sick, the aged and the handicapped have been left uncared for by these workers,” declared the premier.
But beneath the surface of the labor unrest remained the perennial dispute of Quebec’s place in Canada. No Quebec election in 30
years has been fought without addressing that issue in some way. But in the current campaign, it has a particular clarity. Since winning the PQ leadership in 1988, Parizeau has cut through the nuances of past elections and the ambiguities of the 1980 referendum on “sovereignty-association.” The choice that he is offering Quebecers is clear: independence, final and complete. But Parizeau’s straightforward appeal is a gamble. He is addressing the national issue in a fundamentally changed environment, when it may no longer capture the imagination of Quebecers as it once did.
Risk: At the same time, the PQ no longer has a monopoly on the emotions of nationalism. Using hundreds of fleurdelisé flags in his own campaign appearances across the province, Bourassa effectively adopted the PQ’s most potent symbol of Quebec nationalism. The premier calls himself a federalist, but his campaign addresses are leavened with nationalist rhetoric. And he is running on a record of protecting controversial legislation designed to safeguard the use of French in the province.
But there is an element of risk for Bourassa as well. The Liberal leader’s 5 nationalist stance has deeply antagonized Quebec’s English-speaking
population, which remains a potent voting block in many of the 122 ridings in the national assembly—99 of which the Liberals won in the last provincial election in 1985, the PQ taking 23 ridings. Indeed, in several heavily anglophone ridings, candidates for the fledgling Equality party threatened to drain Liberal support by campaigning for additional English rights. And Bourassa’s nationalism has won him little support in the rest of Canada, where he counts on securing approval of the Meech Lake accord—which has yet to be ratified by New Brunswick or Manitoba—in order to redeem his campaign pledge that Quebec has a place in the Canadian Confederation.
Riot: Still, it was pocketbook issues that got most of Bourassa’s attention. He designed his campaign strategy on the conviction that economics have replaced culture as the central preoccupation of Quebec voters. Indeed, in an interview with Maclean ’s, Bourassa described economic success as “the most dynamic form of nationalism of the 1990s” (page 22). Whistle-stopping across Quebec in his battered black-and-yellow campaign plane, Bourassa stressed his economic record. Speaking in his characteristic low-key style at events where in many cases the only energy was provided by rock music, Bourassa catalogued Quebec’s four-per-cent annual economic growth since 1985, a 15-per-cent annual increase in capital investment in the same period and the creation of 233,000 new jobs.
But unexpected events disrupted the Liberal agenda almost immediately. In late August, a controversy broke out over the government’s decision to store thousands of gallons of PCB wastes near Baie-Comeau. Voters across Quebec watched television images of stick-swinging riot police clearing the way for containers of waste to be carried through a crowd of local residents protesting against the decision.
No sooner had that controversy faded than the Liberal campaign was rocked again, by the wave of strikes. The province’s 40,000 unionized nurses paralysed the province’s hospitals for a week with an illegal strike for higher wages. That dispute ended last week, and the nurses were voting this week on a new agreement with the provincial government. But then, 225,000 more public-sector workers— including hospital kitchen staff and cleaners, and public elementary and high-school teachers—poured onto the picket lines, some briefly, others in open-ended walkouts. On Friday, many government offices were closed as 42,000 workers picketed outside their doors.
Incompetent’: That day, Treasury Board president Daniel Johnson, responsible for public-sector negotiations, announced that bargaining with 100,000 teachers who were returning to work this week after a two-day strike would begin on the weekend and continue “round the clock, until we have something.” Johnson also offered to set up a committee to try to resolve the dispute with the hospital workers—as long as they went back to work.
For his part, Parizeau made the most of the PCB issue, criticizing Bourassa for “incompetent” handling of the waste disposal problem.
But the PQ leader was limited in his ability to capitalize on the strikes: it was he, as finance minister in 1982, who ordered a 20-per-cent rollback in public-sector wages that many unions are seeking to regain in the present disputes. Still, he said in an interview last week that the strikers now deserve more than the four per cent that the government was offering in the first year. Added Parizeau: “The workers have the right to want to participate in the collective economic growth.”
In any case, the centrepiece of Parizeau’s campaign remained independence. The former PQ finance minister had pledged in March, 1988, to make sovereignty his main theme “before, during and after the campaign.” It was a marked change from the strategy followed by earlier PQ leaders René Lévesque and PierreMarc Johnson. They had spoken euphemistically of “sovereignty-association” and “national affirmation.” But Parizeau says that a vote for the PQ would be a vote for independence as soon as possible. Referendums, he said, would be held only to put pressure on the federal government to relinquish power over family law and other areas in the transition period between provincehood and independence, and later to approve the constitution of an independent Quebec. Citing polls that showed a solid core of support for separatism—34 per cent of Quebecers, according to Gallup Canada-Inc., favored independence in one July survey— Parizeau declared, “The Parti Québécois is going through a remarkable rejuvenation.” But opinion polls still showed the PQ, although gaining ground, trailing the Liberals as they have throughout the campaign. A poll by
Montreal-based SORECOM, conducted early last week and released on Sept. 15, gave the Liberals 47 per cent of decided voter support, compared with 40 per cent for the PQ. And, significantly, a poll conducted a week earlier by another Montreal company, Centre de récherche sur l’opinion publique (CROP), contradicted Parizeau’s assertion that Quebecers remain passionately interested in nationalism. Matters of prime importance to the largest number of respondents—23 per cent—were the economy and employment.
The environment came second with 15 per cent. Language issues were a distant third, at eight per cent, and the Meech Lake constitutional accord was the main interest of only one per cent of those polled. Parizeau dismissed the CROP conclusions as flawed. But political scientist Pierre Fournier, of the University of Quebec at Montreal, noted that “there is less passion now both for and against independence. What Quebec wants now is more defined in economic terms.”
Tough: Still, both Parizeau and Bourassa have appealed to a lingering cultural insecurity that is never far from the surface and always volatile. Last December, it appeared that the premier might weaken Bill 101, the province’s tough French-language charter, after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down its ban on bilingual signs as unconstitutional. As a result, 60,000 people poured into the streets of Montreal protesting the ruling. The display of public anger contributed to Bourassa’s decision to introduce only token modifications to the bill—permitting second languages, with French, on signs inside commercial establishments in smaller type than the French. But some francophones accused Bourassa of doing too much. Said Fournier: “The insecurity now comes from the increased contact Quebec has with the world. But it has not diminished.”
Bourassa’s actions may have appeased most francophone voters but they angered many anglophones, who, traditionally, are Liberal supporters. In Montreal, one group was angry enough to found a new entity, the Equality party, to represent its views. The party, organized by political neophytes and with little money, nominated 17 candidates and made a surprisingly strong showing in opinion polls. SORECOM, for one, showed the party to be
favored by 45 per cent of respondents, compared with 40 per cent who supported the Liberals. While the party was unlikely to alter the overall balance of power in the province, it did appear wellplaced to elect at least one candidate. Last week, lawyer Richard Holden, 58, seemed in an even race in the wealthy Montreal riding of Westmount against Liberal William Cosgrove, 56, a former banker who returned to the province only weeks before the election after living in Washington, D.C., for 16 years.
A separate poll by Gallup in July underscored the challenge that faces Bourassa in securing the support of the other nine provinces for the Meech Lake agreement, which recognizes Quebec as a distinct society. More than half of the respondents outside Quebec told the polling company that the accommodations to Quebec contained in Meech Lake are “requesting too much” of the rest of the country.
Bourassa’s uphill battle to secure the ratifi-
cation of Meech Lake provided Parizeau with added ammunition for his attacks on Confederation. “The Meech Lake accord is dead,” Parizeau told last week’s rally in Montreal. “There is only one alternative: the sovereignty of Quebec.” And he welcomed the rise in support among English-Canadians for Quebec independence. The trend, said Parizeau, was “a new phenomenon, but normal; as far as the rest of Canada is concerned, Quebec is a pain in the neck.” But the two leaders agreed
on an even more fundamental threat to Quebec’s francophone identity: the implications of a long-standing decline in the province’s birth rate. Quebec’s birthrate last year was among the lowest in the Western world—approximately 1.4 births per woman, compared with 1.7 for the rest of Canada and the 2.1 that are required to increase the population beyond its present 6.7 million. The problem for Quebec nationalists is compounded by the fact that 68 per cent of immigrants to the province do not speak French. Calling the demographic pressure on native francophone Quebecers “the most important challenge of the decade for Quebec,” Bourassa last week promised to enrich a year-old program that currently pays parents cash bonuses for each child they have.
Reaction: But it is the immediate implications for Quebec and the country as a whole that will have observers examining the results of next week’s election closely. Clearly, the outcome will reveal the real extent of separatist sentiment in Quebec nine years after the 60-per-cent rejection of sovereignty-association in the 1980 referendum. An increase in support for the Parti Québécois from
its 39-per-cent popular vote in the 1985 election could strengthen the conviction of those, inside and outside Quebec, who believe that Confederation is doomed. On the other hand, a failure by the PQ at least to match its 1985 results could threaten Parizeau’s leadership. It may also make room for a new party in Quebec, more nationalist than the Liberals but opposed to a platform of outright independence (page 21).
Analysts who predicted a Liberal victory, however, said that Bourassa would interpret it as an endorsement of his stand on the Meech Lake deal. The premier has declared that a failure to ratify Meech Lake would be “humiliating” for Quebecers. He added, “I cannot exclude a serious reaction if Quebec is perceived as not being wanted in Canada.” Clearly, a Liberal victory would not mark the end of the emotions that filled Montreal’s Maurice Richard Arena last week. But a victory would confirm that a majority of Quebec’s voters wish to remain in Canada, at least on the terms that Bourassa won at Meech Lake. The issue of national unity would then be one for the rest of the country to deal with.
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