BUSINESS WATCH

A new, confident spirit of independence

In Quebec, the death of Meech Lake has produced a sense of cohesion and determination that is electrifying to behold

Peter C. Newman August 13 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

A new, confident spirit of independence

In Quebec, the death of Meech Lake has produced a sense of cohesion and determination that is electrifying to behold

Peter C. Newman August 13 1990

A new, confident spirit of independence

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

In Quebec, the death of Meech Lake has produced a sense of cohesion and determination that is electrifying to behold

If Quebec business has a cardinal, it’s Claude Castonguay, who has enrolled his distinguished presence, social conscience and political smarts in the mainstream causes of French Canada’s evolution for the past three decades. As a professor at Laval University, as the minister of social welfare from 1970 to 1971 in Robert Bourassa’s first cabinet who implemented the province’s public health care system, and more recently as chairman of the Laurentian Group Corp. who moved that once-sleepy financial conglomerate’s assets to $10.2 billion from $3.2 billion in the past six years—Castonguay has always been active on the moving edge of change.

It was Castonguay, now 61, who provided much of the intellectual fodder for Jean Lesage’s Quiet Revolution and the social reforms that led Pierre Trudeau into federal politics. It was Castonguay who persuaded Bourassa to reject the Victoria Charter in 1971, arguing that Canada’s Constitution should not be patriated unless Quebec was granted full powers over social policy. It was Castonguay who six months ago formed the Association in Favour of Meech Lake, which mobilized more than a thousand of the province’s business leaders into a last-ditch effort to help bring Quebec into the Constitution. And it will be Castonguay who will play a pivotal role in the coming negotiations between Canada and Quebec.

Just weeks before Meech Lake was rejected, Castonguay warned that Quebec and the rest of the country were moving dangerously close to divorce. “We are like the couple so much immersed in recrimination and pettiness,” he said, “that they are getting to the point where the only way out is divorce. Divorce while living under the same roof perhaps, because of the children and other considerations, but divorce all the same.”

When I went to see him in Montreal recently, after the death of Meech, Castonguay was far from demoralized. He was calmly assessing the new Canadian reality, marvelling at how everything had changed in one decade. “People

in Quebec who voted ‘No’ in the 1980 referendum,” he pointed out, “saw the rest of Canada as meaning stability, security, openness and other good things. Ten years later, the situation has almost completely reversed itself. People have now definitely and clearly given up any hope of finding a reasonable place for Quebec within the existing federal structure. Negotiations in good faith have been going on for so long, and when you see what’s happened each time, no one—myself included—believes anymore that it’s possible to arrive at any reasonable arrangement. Besides, we’re losing too much energy and raising too many expectations with these debates.”

While wreckage of the Meech Lake accord caused only confusion in English Canada, in Quebec a sense of cohesion and determination has emerged, electrifying to behold, which is bound to create a dynamic and aggressive approach that will be hard to match by dispirited federal negotiators, representing the warring remnants of a disintegrating dominion. “And it’s not just the francophones,” Castonguay noted. “Anglophones and the other ethnic groups living here who gave us their support to try and save Meech Lake are now saying they don’t want to continue in the same old direc-

tion. The status quo is definitely dead.”

Part of that status quo, which Castonguay and other thoughtful Quebecers are bound to reject, goes to the very heart of the Canadian federation: the notion that richer provinces and the federal treasury have an obligation to share their wealth with the poorer provinces and territories. “To keep the peace, the federal government feels obligated to distribute very substantial grants on an ongoing basis to the Atlantic provinces and the farmers on the Prairies, and to subsidize programs and initiatives that might not be justified from a strictly economic point of view,” he contends. “Hibernia, for example. Another major problem is Ottawa’s multiculturalism program, which means that many people continue to see themselves much more belonging to their own ethnic group than to Canada. Also, there are far too many overlapping jurisdictions. In many areas, we can no longer afford the constitutional and economic environment in which we find ourselves.”

Castonguay feels strongly that most social and economic policies will eventually come under Quebec control. “We have to make sure,” he adds, “that if we repatriate jurisdictions, we also assume our full responsibilities, and that will mean we’ll need the corresponding taxation powers. It must be done in such a way that Quebec is no longer accused of getting more out of the system than it contributes.”

In retrospect, Castonguay and others believe that the 1988 free trade debate and the agreement that followed set the province free of being dependent on the rest of Canada, and gave businessmen a new sense of confidence that they can go it alone. Quebec’s fear of independence is as dead as Meech Lake. That one fact will determine the nation’s destiny.

Serge Saucier, president of the accounting firm Raymond, Chabot, Martin, Paré Inc. and co-founder of Castonguay’s pro-Meech initiative, has a tougher view of the future. “Maybe one day we’ll realize,” he told me, “that Clyde Wells rendered a great service to Quebec. Even if Meech Lake had been signed, the ambiguity would have remained. Now, we’ll have to think about our own future and the rest of Canada about its own future. Then we’ll strike a new deal, and probably David Peterson will realize that it’s more important for Ontario to have a closer relationship with Quebec than with Newfoundland.”

Wells’s betrayal of his signature on the revised Meech accord is a constant theme. “The image of Wells, after having withdrawn the acceptance of Newfoundland to the accord, going back on his promise to be neutral after the Ottawa conference, not holding a vote— and then being received as a hero by Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien at the Calgary Liberal convention—that is an image we will never forget,” Castonguay predicts.

Saucier is less circumspect. “Chrétien is completely disconnected from the new Quebec, and Trudeau is living on another planet,” he says. “I remember telling my friends in Toronto that the election of Pierre Trudeau was the worst mistake English Canada ever made; the choice of Jean Chrétien will be the last mistake.”