CANADA

QUEBEC’S AGENDA

ROBERT BOURASSA PRESSES HIS CASE FOR MORE POWERS FOR QUEBEC IN THE WAKE OF MEECH LAKE’S COLLAPSE

DAN BURKE July 16 1990
CANADA

QUEBEC’S AGENDA

ROBERT BOURASSA PRESSES HIS CASE FOR MORE POWERS FOR QUEBEC IN THE WAKE OF MEECH LAKE’S COLLAPSE

DAN BURKE July 16 1990

QUEBEC’S AGENDA

CANADA

ROBERT BOURASSA PRESSES HIS CASE FOR MORE POWERS FOR QUEBEC IN THE WAKE OF MEECH LAKE’S COLLAPSE

The two premiers normally appear to be among the most congenial of Canadian political leaders. Indeed, Robert Bourassa of Quebec and Ontario’s David Peterson met in Montreal on June 26 to reaffirm publicly their image of solidarity after the failure of the Meech Lake constitutional accord on June 23. But after another meeting last week in Toronto, their relationship appeared strained—largely because of Bourassa’s stated aim of redefining Quebec’s position in Confederation. Apart from negotiating last week towards a new deal with the federal government that would give Quebec greater power over immigration, Bourassa made it clear that he plans to seek a transfer from Ottawa of regulatory authority over radio and telecommunications. Such initiatives clearly left Peterson—and many other federalists— unsettled. Declared the Ontario premier: “I do not want to see a systematic, unthoughtful dismantling of this country.”

But, in spite of Peterson’s concerns, Bourassa’s new push for greater administrative and legislative powers has gathered a momentum that may be difficult to contain. Stung by the death of the Meech Lake accord, the Quebec premier has moved swiftly to set his own agenda for the reform of Canada’s federal system—and greater independence for Quebec. In doing so, he is backed by a growing mood of confident nationalism among Quebecers—an atmosphere that could make it increasingly difficult for federalists, such as new Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien, to find a sympathetic ear. At the same time, the federal Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, apparently stunned by the failure of Meech, has made no effort to proclaim the merits of federalism. In fact, at least one senior Tory said that no such defence is contemplat-

ed. Industry Minister Benoît Bouchard, Mulroney’s Quebec lieutenant, told Maclean ’s : “Something began in Quebec June 23, and we have no choice but to let it go. If we intervened, the consequences would be unpredictable.” Added Bouchard: “We are headed towards a redefinition of the federal system.”

Indeed, Bourassa’s flurry of manoeuvres quickly shattered the expectations of many Canadian politicians that they would have a quiet summer devoted to recovery from the fractious constitutional debates. And his actions left little doubt that, for the premier of Quebec at least, the old style of Canadian federalism is dead. Before visiting Toronto, Bourassa made a cordial joint appearance with former federal environment minister Lucien Bouchard. Bouchard, a onetime Parti Québécois supporter who quit the Conservative cabinet and caucus in May in protest against possible amendments to the Meech Lake ac-

cord, is the most prominent MP among the six Tories and two Liberals from Quebec who have left their parties to sit as pro-sovereignty Independents in the House of Commons. On July 3, Bourassa named Bouchard as the first person to sit on a nonpartisan provincial commission that will attempt to define Quebec’s future relationship with the rest of Canada.

The establishment of the commission on June 29, and the commitment that it would also include Liberal and PQ members as well as business people, academics and union leaders, won Bourassa the immediate support of PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau. He had called on the premier immediately following the death of the Meech Lake accord to work with the PQ to establish a new direction for Quebec. But many federalists just as quickly expressed their conz cems about what direction ^ the province may take after § the commission, which begins public hearings in September, tables its recommendations next spring. Said anglophone Quebec MNA Robert Libman, leader of the small minorityrights Equality party, for one: “It would be a grave error to look at the majority opinion and give up other options.”

And Bourassa’s initiative prompted at least one other premier to warn that Quebec should not expect to overshadow the concerns of other regions. “The media attention, the economic attention, the focus by federal politicians is on Quebec,” observed Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine. Added Devine: “We need to speak with regional strength to make very sure that our concerns are not overlooked.” To that end, Devine invited his fellow western premiers to meet in Lloydminster, on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, on July 26 to draw up their own agenda for the next round of constitutional negotiations.

At the same time, though, many political observers expressed admiration for Bourassa’s management of the constitutional crisis against

the backdrop of Quebec’s inflamed nationalist passions. Said George Perlin, a political historian at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.: “Bourassa is dealing with forces that are uncon tainable. And he is doing it very skilfully so far.” Added Montreal lawyer Peter Blaikie, a former president of the federal Conservative party: “Bourassa is one of the very few people who emerged from the Meech debacle with his reputation enhanced.”

But while Bourassa may have emerged unharmed, questions remained about Chrétien’s ability to function in Quebec’s volatile political mood. His critics, in fact, predicted that the newly elected Liberal leader will be treated with hostility in his home province over his perceived role in the defeat of the Meech accord. Chrétien initially opposed the accord—which the majority of Quebecers supported. Later, he acknowledged that he had secretly assisted a parliamentary committee that proposed a slate of amendments to the deal, at a time when polls showed that most people in the province remained adamantly opposed to any changes to Meech Lake.

Then, Chrétien’s public image in Quebec received a further blow during the late-June leadership convention in Calgary, when he was filmed shaking hands with Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells—the man whom many Quebecers blame for killing the constitutional deal (page 12).

Said Senator Pietro Rizutto, Chrétien’s chief organizer in Quebec: “He is seen as the guy who blocked Meech Lake. We are going through a rough period.”

One early sign of that potential hostility became evident last week. Quebec MP Gilles Rocheleau became the second Liberal to quit the party’s federal caucus as a result of Chrétien’s June leadership victory. In a bitterly worded parting shot, Rocheleau, who is expected to align himself with Bouchard’s pro-sovereignty group, called Chrétien a “Judas” and “traitor” to Quebec.

Chrétien faces another test in Quebec next month with a federal byelection scheduled for Aug. 13 in Laurier-Ste. Marie, in Montreal’s

working-class East End. That constituency is made up almost entirely of the provincial riding of Ste. Marie-St. Jacques — a nationalist stronghold now held by the PQ. Pierrette Malépart, the widow of Laurier-Ste. Marie’s respected former MP, Liberal Jean-Claude Malépart, who died of cancer last November, initially agreed to run for the Liberals but later withdrew. “Liberals in the riding have been tom by Chrétien’s victory,” she ex-

plained. “I have too many friends on both sides and I did not want to betray any of them.” Despite the riding’s strong sovereignty leanings provincially, the Liberals’ replacement candidate, Denis Coderre, announced last

week that he will campaign on Chrétien’s federalist platform. But Coderre already faces competition from Tory and NDP candidates— both of whom are openly committed to Quebec sovereignty. As well, a pro-independence candidate associated with Bouchard’s parliamentary group may also enter the race.

But the apparently deep-seated resentment against federalism in Quebec has also diminished Mulroney’s stature in the province—and his ability to campaign there on behalf of a united Canada. Some observers said that Mulroney is left with no choice but to allow Quebec to set the agenda. Blaikie, for one, said that the problem results from the makeup of the political coalition that Mulroney forged in the early 1980s, which included large numbers of people who supported sovereignty. That alliance enabled Mulroney’s Tories to sweep 58 of Quebec’s 75 seats in the 1984 federal general election, and to increase that margin to 63 in 1988. Mulroney, said Blaikie, “used a lot of ultranationalists to get elected Prime Minister. Now, he is their hostage.” For his part, McGill University law professor Stephen Scott said that Ottawa is incapable of relieving tensions in the province, in large part because Mulroney played a key role in creating them by dramatizing Quebec’s exclusion from the patriation of the Constitution in 1982. Said Scott: “Myths have been created about how Quebec was raped and how a rejection of Meech would be a rejection of Quebec by English Canada. These tales have to be undone.”

Some federalists began that task last week. Libman, for one, announced that he, Scott and another McGill University law professor, Julius Grey, will form the nucleus of a new Task

Force on Canadian Federalism, aimed at promoting the federalist option. But Scott acknowledged that the task force faces an extremely difficult job. “Positions are entrenched, passions are inflamed, and expectations are rising,” he observed. “We are in an infinitely worse situation than we were five years ago.”

For his part, Ontario’s Peterson expressed concern that Quebec would take advantage of what he called the weak position of the federal government and increase its demands for more powers. In the field of immigration, for example, Quebec already controls selection of a large portion of

potential immigrants to the province under the terms of a 1978 agreement with Ottawa. But Bourassa’s government is currently negotiating with Ottawa to take over the immigrant resettlement programs that the federal government still operates in Quebec. Quebec also wants to raise its share of overall immigration to Canada from 25 per cent—equivalent to its share of Canada’s current population—to as much as 30 per cent.

At the same time, Bourassa said that he wants Quebec to take over some powers held by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which regu-

lates broadcasting and telephone service in Canada. His argument: Quebec will be better able to protect its cultural sovereignty by exercising more control over communications. But last week, Peterson said that he will oppose any hasty hand-over of federal power in the field to Quebec. Said the Ontario premier: “I think it is clear that I have a different view on the distribution of powers than Quebec.” But while he and other federalists struggle to shape their convictions in ways that could be marketable in Quebec, Bourassa has already moved ahead—riding a nationalist wave that threatens to leave other political options in its wake.

DAN BURKE in Ottawa with PAUL KAIHLA in Toronto