Rémy Trudel says that he was asked the question frequently while touring Quebec this year on a fundraising drive for the Parti Québécois. Teenagers across the province wanted to know if a sovereign Quebec would have its own armed forces, said the former rector of the University of Quebec in Abitibi who now sits as a PQ member in Quebec’s national assembly. “It is a simplistic question,”
Trudel told Maclean ’s last week. “But it is something we have to answer.”
In fact, as disillusionment with federalism and English Canada continues to spread in Quebec, such questions only underscore the interest in what Trudel and other PQ members are once again viewing as an attainable goal: Quebec sovereignty. Last week, the PQ began circulating a 46-page booklet outlining the party’s blueprint for independence—which includes plans for a Quebec army. And PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau urged Premier Robert Bourassa to schedule a special debate in the national assembly during which Quebec politicians could discuss the province’s future. Declared Parizeau, whose party is now running neck-and-neck with Bourassa’s Liberals in public opinion polls:
“We must determine where we are going.”
Crisis: Still, while Quebec federalists and separatists alike agree that the province’s destiny is uncertain, there is a newly strident mood among many Quebecers. In a nationwide Gallup poll conducted among 1,025 respondents in early May, 61 per cent of Quebecers said that Quebec should opt for sovereignty-association with the rest of Canada. And much of that support for qualified independence clearly stems from a widespread sense of betrayal felt by Quebecers over the rest of Canada’s failure to ratify the Meech Lake accord. “If Meech does not go through we are looking at the worst constitutional crisis we have ever had in this country,” said Christos Sirros, Bourassa’s junior minister of health. “There is a growing sense here that the only way to Bourassa: polls show his room to manoeuvre is
achieve security is with independence.”
But unlike the 1980 referendum, when Quebecers rejected sovereignty-association by a 60-to-40 margin and were bitterly divided into separatist and federalist camps, the current constitutional crisis has united Quebec francophones of every political stripe—and has even brought many anglophones into the sovereign-
tist camp. The current nationalistic fervor has also extended into the province’s traditionally federalist business sector. Indeed, in a recent poll of 500 Quebec business executives conducted by the weekly paper Les Affaires, fully 41.5 per cent of respondents said that they would endorse independence as an alternative to a failed constitutional accord. And longstanding proponents of Quebec independence, in an ironic use of the most contentious
provision of the accord, say that the province’s increasing solidarity is powerful evidence that Quebec is, indeed, a “distinct society.” Observed former PQ cabinet minister Claude Morin, who served as constitutional adviser to former premier René Lévesque and who is now a university professor: “We do not consider ourselves a province. We consider ourselves a nation.”
The ground swell of support for independence has also given rise to the prospect of new alliances among established leaders of the independence movement, many of whom became estranged in the wake of the referendum.
Shortly after federal environment minister Lucien Bouchard resigned from the Conservative caucus last week, Parizeau saluted the former PQ member’s decision and invited him to rejoin the party. The offer came two years after Parizeau attacked Bouchard—who supported sovereignty-association during the referendum campaign— for his decision to enter federal politics. In fact, Bouchard has opted for now to sit as an Independent in Parliament. Still, the warming between Bouchard and Parizeau prompted Bourassa to joke in the national assembly last week that the two men were now in the midst of a “deep and intense honeymoon” that would have been impossible to predict only months ago.
Blame: For some, the sudden resurgence of Quebec’s independence movement has come as a surprise. Claude Morin, for one, said that he had expected the revival would take much longer. In fact, only five years ago the PQ, during the final months of Lévesque’s leadership, voted to relegate sovereignty-association to secondary status in the party’s platform. Declared Morin: “Everything that has happened in the past few months has been unexpected. What is ironic is that it is not the PQ who have precipitated the crisis—it is the federalists.” narrowing For their part, key mem-
bers of Bourassa’s government contend that they anticipated such a crisis if the constitutional impasse was not resolved. But they lay the blame squarely at the feet of politicians elsewhere in Canada who have refused to ratify the accord and want to reopen negotiations. Quebec’s Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Gil Rémillard said in an interview last week that Canada was given fair warning. “People thought we were bluffing,” he told Maclean ’s. “Now they can see we were not. They have no margin for manoeuvring. The situation is critical.”
At the same time, though, the deadlock over the accord has put Bourassa in a difficult position. Influential Quebec political figures such as Bouchard and Léon Dion, a veteran constitutional adviser to the Liberal party, have urged the premier not to attend a first ministers’ conference.
Bourassa has rejected those appeals, saying he would go to a conference but would not consider any amendments to the accord that affect Quebec—regardless of the consequences for Canada.
Allegiance: In fact, Bourassa’s Liberals have already formed a committee to recommend policy options in the event that the Meech Lake accord is not ratified. And both Bourassa and Rémillard have said the failure of the accord could force the Liberal government to begin negotiations that would lead towards greater Quebec autonomy within an entirely new federal structure. But Bourassa contends that his first allegiance remains to the accord.
“We are standing by the signature we put on the accord on June 3,1987, and we are asking the other provinces to respect that,” he said in the national assembly last week. Added Sirros: “It comes down to Canada keeping its word.”
Still, some observers say that Quebecers’ angry backlash against English Canada over its refusal to ratify Meech Lake could force those English-Canadian politicians opposed to the accord to reevaluate their positions. For his part, Rémillard said that Bouchard’s resignation, followed by the enthusiastic reception of his fiery pro-independence speech before the Montreal Chamber of Commerce last week, could have a sobering effect on the hold-outs. “I am actually a little more optimistic now that these things have happened,” he said.
But the failure of the Meech Lake accord would clearly be a welcome development for
the PQ—even if it forces the Liberals to adopt a more nationalist posture. In fact, in the past Bourassa has openly mused about alternative relationships between Quebec and English Canada. While teaching in Europe following the defeat of his Liberal government by Lévesque’s PQ in 1976, he said that Canada’s future may he in a system similar to the European
Community. And last week PQ House Leader Jacques Brassard said that he would be pleased if the Liberals adopted a sovereignty platform. “The reason we founded the party was to make Quebec sovereign,” Brassard said. “But we are not the exclusive owner of the idea. The day two parties decide to go in the same direction,
sovereignty will be more or less accomplished.”
That theme of political accommodation is also evident in the PQ’s new rallying cry for independence: “Le patrie avant la parti ’’—the country before the party. But in spite of such sentiments it is also clear that the PQ, whose members openly acknowledge that they are still rebuilding their party, hopes to make partisan gains as a result of Quebec’s nationalist mood. Indeed, at the party’s recent convention in Alma, Que., timed to mark the 10th anniversary of the May 20, 1980, referendum, Parizeau, encouraged by recent public opinion polls, optimistically told party members that in light of the constitutional crisis they should be prepared to welcome a new wave of partisans from all areas of Quebec’s political landscape.
Phalanx: Meanwhile, Parizeau and party vice-president Bernard Landry have also begun establishing an alliance with the federal Tory MPs who have quit the Conservative caucus over the Meech Lake debate—and, they say, with others who are staying in the caucus so far but are unhappy with Ottawa’s handling of the constitutional impasse. Indeed, even before the resignations of Bouchard and fellow MPs François Gérin and Gilbert Chartrand, Landry’s plans included establishing a phalanx of sovereigntist MPs in Ottawa. Said Parizeau of the proposed federal flank: “These people can take the time to explain to Canadians that sovereignty is not directed against Canada. It will simply be a new arrangement.”
But even as the new nationalism sweeps over Quebec, many observers profess uncertainty about who is best qualified to lead the province into the new era. In a swipe at Bourassa, Parizeau recently said: “If you have a sore tooth you go and see a dentist, not a shoemaker. If people want sovereignty, they will go and see the sovereigntists.” But some Quebecers question whether the PQ is capable of steering Quebec if Meech Lake fails. Others note that, in spite of the bitterness towards English Canada now evident among some Liberals, the party has not enunciated a clear course towards greater sovereignty. For the moment, though, such doubts are clearly secondary to the new mood of solidarity with which Quebecers are responding to the constitutional crisis.
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