CHRETIEN’S UNITY APPEAL IS POPULAR IN ENGLISH CANADA, BUT DRAWS HOSTILITY IN QUEBEC
A FEDERAL CASE
CHRETIEN’S UNITY APPEAL IS POPULAR IN ENGLISH CANADA, BUT DRAWS HOSTILITY IN QUEBEC
On Dec. 13, Liberal leader and newly elected MP for Beauséjour Jean Chrétien and his wife, Aline, moved from their east Ottawa house into Stornoway, the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition. Within hours of the move, however, Chrétien was in Montreal, preparing for a critical appearance before Quebec’s Bélanger-Campeau commission on the province’s future. At the Liberal party’s St-Antoine Street offices, Chrétien faced a mock commission of advisers who spent three hours grilling him with questions he could expect to be asked by the real Bélanger-Campeau panelists. That evening, the Liberal leader returned to Stornoway, where he spent most of the next two days in his study—poring over briefing books. Finally, he flew to Quebec City, where, on Dec. 17, he took his place before the television cameras and the waiting commissioners to defend his vision of federalism. “We were exhausted,” Chrétien’s principal secretary, Edward Goldenberg, said of his boss’s hectic pace, “but he was driven. His energy was boundless. It was that important to him.”
For many Quebecers, Chrétien’s appearance before a panel that includes several separatist adversaries of long standing evoked bitter memories of the 1980 referendum. Then, as federal justice minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Chrétien implored Quebecers to say “Non ” to sovereigntyassociation and “Oui” to renewed federalism. But while expectations were high as he arrived at Quebec’s National Assembly, his performance received mixed reviews. And most analysts expressed doubt that he had made any significant progress in convincing Quebecers to support his brand of “renewed” federalism. Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard, for one, said that he felt that Chrétien’s performance had been designed to score political points in English Canada rather than in Quebec. And even some federalists on the commission attacked Chrétien, making it more difficult for the Liberal leader to rebuild his image in the province of his birth.
In fact, Quebec reaction to Chrétien’s remarks, and his 89-page written brief, ranged from muted praise to outright hostility. For its part, the Quebec City daily Le Soleil declared in a headline after his appearance, “Disbelief greets Chrétien.” Other critics called his ideas outdated. Said Marcel Beaudry, a federalist business leader on the commission: “What credibility can we give Jean Chrétien when he promises renewed federalism today?” Added
Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Gil Rémillard: “You could have presented the same brief 20 years ago.”
Elsewhere in the country, however, Chrétien appeared to win approval for being the only federal party leader to appear so far before the commission. An editorial in The Edmonton Journal, for one, praised the Liberal leader for injecting “a needed dose of reality into the
Quebec political debate" and for "sending a
welcome message: the battle to keep Canada together has just begun.” Even some aides to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney—who has been bitterly critical of Chrétien’s constitutional stand—privately praised the Liberal leader’s presentation. Said one senior aide: “It is the best thing we have seen from him. There are a lot of things we like in it.”
Chrétien was hobbled, however, by commission rules that allowed him only 10 minutes to make his presentation before answering questions from members. That limit gave Chrétien little chance to dwell on the themes that he had elaborated in his written brief. Noting that Quebecers “have always believed in tolerance and freedom of expression,” Chrétien wrote that “the Canadian ideal is worth pursuing, reforming and improving.” And in an apparent swipe at Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s defence of federalism as economically profitable to Quebec, Chrétien added: “To say that Canada is just an economic relationship is to cheat Quebecers of their birthright. Canada is much more than economics.” Still, acknowledged one adviser, “We looked a lot better on paper than he fared in person.”
But his mere presence in Quebec City may have been as important as what he had to say. Quebec Liberal MNA Claire-Hélène Hovington noted, “For a part of the population, just the fact that he had the courage to appear before the commission would make a difference.” And Liberal strategists expressed satisfaction that after an uneven and much-criticized first six months as party leader, Chrétien had at least established a position on the front lines of the constitutional debate. “It is true [Chrétien] did not turn the whole debate around, but he put a wedge in the door,” said Eric Maldoff, a Montreal lawyer who helped Chrétien prepare his presentation. “The way things are going right now, if you leave the door open at all, it’s some kind of a win.”
Much of the opposition to Chrétien in Quebec is a result of his controversial roles in earlier constitutional battles. As federal justice minister in 1981, he helped achieve a constitutional agreement among nine provinces during a night of tense, private negotiations without the participation of the Quebec delegation. The Quebec government later refused to sign the document that resulted. And the occasion is still remembered by many members of that province’s political circle as “the night of the long knives.” Again, earlier this year, a perception in Quebec that Chrétien was working behind the scenes to overturn the proposed
Meech Lake accord attracted renewed criticism. And last week, critics on the commission savaged him for his public embrace at the June Liberal leadership convention in Calgary of Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells—whom many Quebecers blame for the accord’s demise. Said Hovington later: “He still has a long climb ahead of him.”
In fact, many provincial Liberals say that Chrétien has not yet grasped the extent of the erosion to his credibility in Quebec. Said one senior adviser to Bourassa: “To have improved
his image here, he would have had to have repented for the past and offered some concrete proposals for the future. Instead, he came up with the same old doomsday scenario about independence that he’s used before.”
Chrétien did call for the transfer of vaguely defined additional powers to the provinces, but he repeatedly evaded questions about which new responsibilities he would be willing to grant to Quebec. And although some of his strategists argued before his appearance that Chrétien should use the occasion to squarely address his critics, he refused to do so. Instead, he reminded Quebecers that any constitutional future short of complete political independence will require complex and potentially bitter negotiations with the rest of Canada. Said Maldoff: “Quebecers must be reminded that we can only have economic ties with the rest of Canada if the rest of Canada decides to agree to that.”
Still, Chrétien’s appearance lacked the angry intensity that many analysts had expected. Sovereigntists on the commission said that there was little advantage in attacking Chré-
tien because of the danger of making him a martyr for English Canada. As well, his defence of federalism may have been overshadowed by an unlikely rival. On Dec. 12, prominent Quebec constitutional scholar Léon Dion, known for his close ties to Bourassa, also advised the commission to give federalism one last chance. Dion’s brief was widely considered in Quebec political circles to represent Bourassa’s own preference for the future: a final round of negotiations with Canada in which Quebec will ask for vastly increased powers and, if that
fails, a referendum asking Quebecers to support full political independence. Declared Dion: “English Canada will not give in unless there is a knife at its throat—and even that is not assured.”
Against that background, many Quebecers were clearly withholding their support from Chrétien at least until he is more specific about what concessions he is prepared to make. For some, in fact, his refusal to do just that last week was the biggest disappointment of his appearance in Quebec City. Said Luc Rhéaume, a Quebec Liberal who works as an adviser to party members on the commission: “It was like watching a boxer step into the ring and not throw any punches. Chrétien was ducking, dodging and putting up his gloves to deflect any blows.” Plainly, as the sparring between federalists and sovereigntists in Quebec continues, a nation of spectators can only anticipate many more punishing rounds to come—with no certain victors.
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