BUSINESS WATCH

Hard emotions in a time of terror

Two decades later, Quebec hasn’t changed: ‘Where the French-Canadian nation finds its freedom, there too will be its homeland’

Peter C. Newman October 15 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

Hard emotions in a time of terror

Two decades later, Quebec hasn’t changed: ‘Where the French-Canadian nation finds its freedom, there too will be its homeland’

Peter C. Newman October 15 1990

Hard emotions in a time of terror

Two decades later, Quebec hasn’t changed: ‘Where the French-Canadian nation finds its freedom, there too will be its homeland’

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

When Arnold Toynbee, the great historian of world civilizations, was asked which peoples might remain on earth after a nuclear

war, he replied that only two societies were hardy enough to survive any catastrophe—the Chinese and the French-Canadians. Twenty years ago, that stubborn battle for survival turned nasty when the revolutionary Front de libération du Québec used terrorist tactics to promote an independent, socialist Quebec. Not for another two decades—this summer at Oka—would Canadians face one another again across bristles of rifles, and the memory of that time, when I was a syndicated columnist in Ottawa, brings to mind some of the political actors who were involved: '

The first separatist movement of that period was led not by some hollow-eyed revolutionary in a back-street basement but by a middle-rank, middle-class federal civil servant named Marcel Chaput who started a political party in 1960 called Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale. A specialist in chemical warfare who was fired by the Defence Research Board for his political activism, Chaput was prepared to lead an insurrection against established authority, but he was not without a sense of humor. When I interviewed him at his home in Hull, Que., he had just that day received his written notice of dismissal from government service and was delighted with the stupidity of Ottawa officialdom in sending him the termination letter in English. His platform was amazingly similar to Jacques Parizeau’s current plans, and I’ve never forgotten Chaput’s steely look when I asked him what he would do if Canada’s other provinces objected to granting Quebec independence on legal grounds. “Name me one country, ”he said,“which became free entirely legally. ”

Eric Kierans, who was then in the improbable position of postmaster general of Canada, played only a bit part in the events of 1970, but

his mind, as always, was racing way ahead of his time, and I recall his advice when we were discussing the conflict between the notion of social justice and the need for more government efficiency. He conceded that the protection of humanism would require the acceptance of inefficiencies, quoting the 18th-century intellectual David Hume that “men cannot change their natures; all they can do is change their situations.” Kierans savored that thought for a moment, then added his own postscript, which described precisely the state of galloping disintegration in which we find ourselves in this melancholy autumn of 1990. “Our problem may be,” he said at the time, “that the challenges we face are of such a magnitude that we will have to change not only our situations, but—to some degree—our natures. ”

Jean Lesage, the Quebec premier who started it all with his Quiet Revolution, had been out of office for four years by 1970, but he was still a power to be reckoned with. It had been Lesage and his brave band of reformers who turned Quebec society upside down by separating church and state, relegating Roman Catholic prelates to the spiritual realm, while the political leaders took charge of educational,

health and welfare institutions. Despite his posturing and very real achievements in the modernization of Quebec, Lesage was tom in his loyalties. He behaved as if he were Quebec’s first president, yet he kept a picture of the Queen in his inner office, and had a hotline to Ottawa's Clerk of the Privy Council to coordinate policy initiatives. After the worst of the FLQ crisis, I called on Lesage and asked him whether he considered himself a Quebecer or a Canadian first. His face flushed, his jaw worked, he glanced at my poised ballpoint, then he shrugged and blurted out: “Hell, I’m a Canadian. That’s my nationality. ”

Daniel Johnson, who succeeded Lesage, was to my mind the most remarkable man ever to occupy the Quebec premiership. He never stopped promoting the idea of Canada as “two equal and brother nations,” but when he went to meet the nervous bond dealers in Toronto or New York City, he would reassure them: “Quebec won’t separate, if we can live in Canada as a group.” Then he would come home and assert before an enthusiastic audience of Quebec nationalists, “ Unless Quebec can live in Canada as a group, we’ll separate.” Journalists trying to unscramble this doublethink would subtract one statement from the other, end up with zero—and Johnson would promptly attack them for misinterpreting his position. The premier’s ideological bible was his own book, Equality or Independence, whose theme was best expressed by its chilling final sentence. Two decades later, Quebec's position hasn’t changed from that parting comment: “Where the French-Canadian nation finds its freedom, there too will be its homeland. ”

The premier in charge of Quebec during the FLQ crisis was a chinless and courageless Robert Bourassa, brand new to power, still hoping that his diplomas from Oxford and Harvard could safely see him through everything. He seemed to be all glasses and Adam’s apple, calling on help from Ottawa—as he would again 20 years later—to protect his authority from the forces of popular dissent. Unlike most of his predecessors, he never endowed separatism with yearnings for lost nationhood, but saw Quebec independence and Confederation as two sides of an equation that he intended to balance in his favor. As always, Bourassa was trying to determine which would be the winning side, so that he could be on it.

The chief political player was, of course, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and it’s hard to forget his skull-formed face on national television, the eyes as barren as potholes, telling us why he had to invoke the War Measures Act. Tolerating dissent is an essential means by which societies cope with change, but Trudeau believed that he could impose logic on the unfolding of events, even if he had to use the army to do it. But the events themselves—in other words, history—are never logical. They are bom out of harsh realities and even harder emotions, which can never be tailored to fit a leader’s wishes.

That was true then, and it is just as true now.