LARGELY IGNORED OUTSIDE QUEBEC, A COMMISSION HEARS CALLS FOR A REFERENDUM ON INDEPENDENCE
QUEBEC SEEKS ITS OWN WAY
They have travelled by charter flights, swooping down on small towns along the St. Lawrence River and in the depths of rural Quebec.
They have carried their suitcases through fog and snow and freezing rain. And in high-school auditoriums and hotel conference rooms, the members of the Commission on the Political and Constitutional Future of Quebec have listened to the aspirations of the province’s people. Later, the commission’s 37 panelists will try to translate those aspirations into clear recommendations for Quebec’s future. But by last week, as they ended their first month of public hearings, the commissioners had already clearly begun to realize the depth of dissatisfac-
LARGELY IGNORED OUTSIDE QUEBEC, A COMMISSION HEARS CALLS FOR A REFERENDUM ON INDEPENDENCE
tion in the province. Indeed, even some panelists who expected to encounter support for independence have been taken aback by calls for broader social change as well. Said commissioner Lucien Bouchard, the former federal cabinet minister who now heads the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois: “It is a revelation. I sense that Quebec is about to redefine itself completely.”
That redefinition may, in fact, prove to be much more sweeping than Quebec’s Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa had in mind when he unveiled the commission in August. Its mandate under the dual leadership of its two chairmen, Jean Campeau and Pierre Bélanger, is to chart a constitutional course for Quebec following the failure of the proposed Meech Lake accord, with its provision of distinct status for Quebec. But whatever control Bourassa may have hoped to exercise over its deliberations has largely been dissipated—in part by divisions among his supporters over the merits of federalism, and in part by Bourassa’s own absence while he has undergone treatment at a U.S. cancer institute (page 14). Indeed, some critics contend that the premier’s creation has taken on a momentum of its own—leaving his Liberal party near disarray. Certainly, the commission has become a lightning rod for public dissatisfaction over a spectrum of issues ranging from poverty to government services. And above all looms the possibility of a referendum on independence as early as the fall.
The commissioners, meanwhile, have
forged a personal chemistry that belies their deep disagreements over ideology. At most of the panel’s hearings, a public show of restraint has prevailed among the assemblage of politicians, businessmen and union leaders. Still, federalist members of the commission have gravitated towards an unlikely alliance of MPs André Ouellet, a Liberal, and Jean-Pierre Hogue, a Conservative, while many of those who question Quebec’s links to Canada have coalesced around Bouchard’s leadership. And despite the bonhomie on display at most of their hearings, it remains uncertain that the group will succeed in distilling agreement from the many divergent views of Quebec’s future that it is receiving.
Plainly, however, it will be difficult for the panel to ignore the tide of sovereigntist opinion that is running strongly in Quebec. Briefs urging the commission to press for full political independence for the province’s 6.6 million residents have far outnumbered those arguing in favor of Quebec’s existing role in Confederation—including last week’s appearance by a group of pro-independence Parti Québécois members in the Gaspé community of Matane. For their part, a handful of English-speaking residents of Gaspé appeared last week to have reluctantly accepted the inevitability of Quebec independence. Said Howard Miller, speaking in Matane on behalf of the Committee of Anglo-
phone Social Action: “We would feel very bad if Quebec were to break from Canada, but I think most of us would remain.”
But the commission has also been forced to grapple with much broader issues. At one of last week’s hearings, Mathieu André, an elder of the native Labrador Innu, castigated the allwhite commission for failing to understand the viewpoint of Quebec’s aboriginal people. Several witnesses have demanded that the Quebec government radically improve social programs to reduce poverty. Others want new, more efficient regional development programs. Such concerns have sounded an alarm bell even for the panel’s most committed sovereigntists. Declared Bouchard, for one: “What this means is that the debate over the Constitution could be a hollow one, if it is not accompanied by debate over the broader goals of our society.”
But so far, it is the Liberals who seem poised to become the biggest political losers from the panel’s work. With Bourassa in the hospital, the main government spokesman has become Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Gil Rémillard, a soft-spoken intellectual whose arched eyebrows, aqualine nose and severe mouth have led many Quebecers to characterize him as a snob. Meanwhile, the third senior Liberal named to the panel, Public Security Minister and former party leader Claude Ryan, refused even to attend the solemn opening speeches. The official reason given for the hawk-faced minister’s continued absence from the commission is a heavy work load. But close Ryan associates say that the 65-year-old politician, widely regarded as the party’s voice of moral authority, is still sorting out his own thoughts on federalism.
Meanwhile, party insiders say that only three of the eight provincial Liberal backbenchers appointed to the commission remain committed to federalism. For her part, Christiane Pelchat, the MNA for the Montreal-area riding of Vachon, will acknowledge only that she is “in a period of reflection.” But Laval MNA Guy Bélanger acknowledged that while “federalism still tugs at my heart, after Meech Lake I’m not sure it is a realistic vision of Canada.”
While the Liberals flounder, the Parti Québécois has found fresh encouragement in the
flood of pro-independence interventions before the panel. And support for sovereignty has reached an all-time high in recent opinion polls. An Institut Québécois d’opinion publique poll published on Nov. 20 reported that 62 per cent of respondents—and 73 per cent of francophones polled—favored sovereigntyassociation. In 1980, Quebecers rejected that constitu-
tional option in a referendum by 60 per cent to 40. Other surveys have indicated that
as many as 48 per cent of Quebec voters support the
PQ—compared with 41 per cent for the Liberals—the
highest level of PQ support in nine years.
Such findings have plainly bolstered the sovereigntists, who have responded by demanding that Quebec’s future be put directly to the voters in an early referendum. Said Bouchard: “I believe it will be impossible for the Bourassa government to avoid a referendum next year.” That view is clearly gathering support. Even Richard Holden, a Montreal MNA who represents the English-rights Equality Party on the commission, noted: “Obviously, some would like to see a referendum even earlier, perhaps in the spring. I think it likely we will see one next fall.” But in a weekend interview in the Montreal daily La Presse, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney cautioned against a hasty decision. “Watch out,” he declared. “We’re talking about the life of a people, of a province and a great country.” He
admitted that Canada would emerge as “quite a different federation.”
For his part, Rémillard has made it clear that the government will not call a referendum unless it is certain that the result will be clearcut. Anything less, he told Maclean’s last week in Jonquière, would hinder the province in any future negotiations with the rest of Canada. Declared Rémillard: “It would weaken Quebec politically. The damage would be very great.” For his part, federal Liberal Ouellet accused the Parti Québécois of seeking to accelerate a referendum only because its members fear that the bitterness among Quebecers over the failed Meech Lake accord might dissolve before the PQ can benefit from it. Declared Ouellet: “The sovereigntists are exploiting the feelings of rejection and insult.”
With the provincial Liberals apparently adrift, Ouellet, along with his federal Tory counterpart Hogue, has stepped into the role of quarterback for the federalist forces on the panel. Setting aside their partisan differences, the two MPs have pooled their resources in order to research the issues being raised by witnesses. They have also co-ordinated their interventions in the hearings with four other convinced federalists, all from the business world. For his part, Bouchard has been dining regularly with a loose and shifting group of commissioners that includes union leaders, municipal politicians and farmers, artists and school board representatives. Said Bouchard: “It is just an attempt to rally people around a consensus. We do not share our resources or exchange documents, we just eat together sometimes.”
Such closeness may become strained when the commission begins its final task, however. In March, all 37 members are to be involved in drafting a final report based on the hearings.
Most of the panelists have said that they hope to be able to fashion a consensus in the concluding document. But Holden, for one, does not have much hope for unanimity, noting: “You will never get me to agree with the Parti Québécois.” Instead, Holden and many other observers predict that the final document will lay out the area of common ground—probably including support for economic links with the rest of Canada and Quebec jurisdiction over such matters as manpower training and regional development—and then simply list several options for change,
ranging from vastly increased powers for Quebec within the present federal structure to outright political independence. Only two options will not be considered, according to the commission’s mandate: annexation into the United States and the status quo. Clearly, such indecision on the part of the commission will only underscore demands that Bourassa’s government allow the people of Quebec to decide for themselves which option they prefer to follow for the future.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.