CANADA

Back to the future

A new generation flirts with Quebec separatism

DAN BURKE May 28 1990
CANADA

Back to the future

A new generation flirts with Quebec separatism

DAN BURKE May 28 1990

Back to the future

A new generation flirts with Quebec separatism

When Pierre Scordia arrived in Canada in August to attend the University of Montreal, the 22-year-old student from France planned to study history, not witness it. In recent months, however, Scordia says that he has been astonished by the sweeping rise in support for Quebec independence on the university campus— and among a whole generation of young Quebecers. Among the 48,000 students at the University of Montreal, he says, the only ones who openly support Quebec remaining in Confederation are those in the school’s business program. And Scordia predicts that many of his classmates will remain committed to an independent Quebec even if the Meech Lake constitutional accord is indeed ratified by its June 23 deadline. “Everyone I know is for independence,” he observed. “They don’t care what happens on June 23.” In fact, many observers now believe that the debate over Meech Lake has opened more wounds in Quebec than its ratification would heal.

In a major public opinion poll conducted in March, 48 per cent of respondents from across the province said that they favored outright independence for Quebec, compared with 37 per cent opposed to the idea. In another poll released last month, onethird of those respondents who said that they voted “no” in the 1980 referendum that rejected sovereignty-association for Quebec claimed that they would now vote “yes.” Such a shift would be enough to leave the separatist forces victorious if the referendum were replayed. At the same time, 65 per cent of Quebecers interviewed said that they believe English Canada is essentially hostile towards Quebec. Said Nicole Boudreau, past president of Quebec’s nationalist St.

Jean Baptiste Society: “The collective reflection caused by the Meech Lake debate in Quebec is irreversible. Fortin: Whatever happens, we have taken another step towards independence.”

One measure of the new wave of Quebec nationalism is a revived enthusiasm for the St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations on June 24— the day after the Meech Lake ratification deadline. Since the 1960s, the festival has often served as a rallying point for the province’s independence movement. Indeed, during the 1968 federal election campaign, radical separatists threw bottles in the direction of

then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau as they rioted during a St. Jean Baptiste Day parade in Montreal. And in 1977, the Parti Québécois government of that time declared the date a “national holiday” in the province. But in May, 1980, after Trudeau promised renewed Con-

federation in the course of an impassioned speech at Montreal’s Paul Sauvé arena, Quebecers rejected sovereignty-association. After that, the celebrations became relatively subdued.

Ten years later, Quebec nationalists are again eager to turn St. Jean Baptiste Day into a mass celebration. Organizers say that they plan to stage a major parade through Montreal, followed by a music festival on the city’s lie

Ste-Hélène. Said Boudreau, who is also chief festival organizer: “Quebecers want to wave the flag.”

The new wave of nationalism has also returned some Old Guard separatists to a new prominence after years of political eclipse. Last month, a committee of young Parti Québécois members at Collège Edouard Montpetit, on Montreal’s South Shore, invited poet and hardline separatist Pierre Bourgault to speak at the school during a mock referendum on independence. When Bourgault told students in the jammed assembly hall that English-speaking Canadians disliked Quebec francophones, they cheered. For his part, 18-year-old Martin Lavallée was the only one of the school’s 6,000 students to volunteer to organize a “no” campaign in the referendum. Said Lavallée: “I asked people to help me, but everybody refused. I had to do it alone.” When the ballots were cast, 642 of the students voted in favor of independence, while only 58 voted against.

Such incidents have created a widespread sense in the province that Quebec’s departure from Canada is inevitable. For his part, Xavier Fortin, 70, a retired farmer living in Quebec’s Lac Saint-Jean region, about 200 km north of Quebec City, recalled that many of his separatist colleagues were crushed by the referendum defeat in 1980. Now, Fortin says that he will live to see an independent Quebec. He added: “The climate in Canada is too hostile for the country to stay together. It is too late for Meech Lake to change that.”

At the same time, many Quebec federalists have been disheartened by the revival of separatist sentiments. Peter Blaikie, a senior partner at the Montreal law firm Heenan Blaikie, where Trudeau is another lawyer, said that, even if Meech Lake is ratified, Quebec will continue to seek more autonomy. Declared Blaikie, who is also past chairman of Alliance Quebec, an English-language rights group in the province: “A lot of people thought the constitutional question had been g settled by the referendum. It will be I the same with Meech. Anyone who u thinks it will eliminate uncertainty I about Canada is hallucinating.”

I Still, the true strength of indepen"* dence sentiment is difficult to measure. Said Vincent Lemieux, a political science professor at Laval University:

“The crisis will certainly have lasting effects. But the support for independence is far from solid.” And even Boudreau acknowledged: “There is a lot of enthusiasm in the air now, but it could easily die. We cannot go on emotion alone.” But, meanwhile, supporters of an independent Quebec have rarely displayed such open and unbridled optimism.

DAN BURKE