CANADA

TOWARDS TWO NATIONS

QUEBEC’S VISION OF CANADA STARTS THE COUNTDOWN TO A FATEFUL INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 11 1991
CANADA

TOWARDS TWO NATIONS

QUEBEC’S VISION OF CANADA STARTS THE COUNTDOWN TO A FATEFUL INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 11 1991

TOWARDS TWO NATIONS

CANADA

QUEBEC’S VISION OF CANADA STARTS THE COUNTDOWN TO A FATEFUL INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM

The announcement last February appeared to provide one of the last but most effective trump cards for hardpressed federalists in Quebec. Amid the continuing nationwide debate at that time over ratification of the Meech Lake accord, Premier Robert Bourassa appointed a group of prominent Quebec Liberals to study future constitutional options for the province. Even if the accord failed, many analysts expected that the Liberal committee, headed by lawyer Jean Allaire and including many longtime federalists, would recommend relatively moderate alternative accommodations for Quebec within the Canadian federation. But on the day before the accord’s collapse last June, a frustrated Bourassa warned: “English Canada must understand very clearly that Quebec [is] a distinct society capable of assuming its own destiny and development.” Last week, with a startling sweep and abruptness, the members of Allaire’s committee gave dramatic impact to Bourassa’s assertion.

The commission’s report, titled A Quebec Free to Choose, proposed terms, conditions and a timetable for constitutional negotiations that would fundamentally redefine the Canadian nation. If implemented, they would profoundly reduce the influence and scope of the central government and vastly increase the powers and autonomy of the provinces. If the rest of the country rejected the proposals, Quebec would hold a referendum to give it the right to declare independence. Tabled at a ceremony in Quebec City on Jan. 29, the Allaire report said that other Canadians should consider its recommendations for a dramatically decentralized system of government over the next 18 months. But if no agreement is reached in that time, Allaire declared, “We will take our responsibility and become sovereign.”

The report’s release provoked a fire storm

of debate in Quebec that nudged the Gulf War and the recession from the headlines.

At the same time, it set off a reaction across the rest of the country that ranged from anger and disappointment to studied indifference. For the most part, political leaders and other Canadians said that the proposal in its present form has virtually no chance of being accepted. Declared Queen’s University constitutional expert Thomas Courchene: “Quebec is asking the rest of the country to change for its sake—and that is where it goes too far.” Other experts said that even if the Bourassa government simply intended the Allaire proposals to be an opening position, it was so extreme that it may alienate the rest of the country. Declared historian David Bercuson, dean of graduate studies at the University of Calgary: “You can call this paper a lot of things, but not a serious constitutional proposal.” He added: “I can only presume its real aim is to soothe the present psychoses of a lot of Quebecers.”

Bourassa said last week that he still wants Quebec to remain in Canada, despite the apparent majority support in the province for independence. But he added: “We need a new Canada. The old one no longer works.” And Î clearly, the Canada envi| sioned by the Allaire report, | which was completed under ^

Bourassa’s personal supervision, would be very different from the existing one. It would give Quebec exclusive jurisdiction over 22 areas, including environment, education and language. It proposes sharing power with Ottawa in nine areas, among them foreign policy, taxation and justice. That would leave the federal government with exclusive control over just five areas: defence, equalization payments, monetary policy, customs and debt management. The report

also calls for outright abolition of the Senate.

Explaining his position, Bourassa said that he expected economic considerations to force the country to accommodate Quebec within a special constitutional arrangement. But if that failed and Quebec had to assert its sovereignty, he added, he expected that Quebec and the rest of Canada would participate in an economic union similar to the European Conmunity.

Outside the province, however, few Canadians seemed to share that conviction, or even Bourassa’s sense of urgency. Despite Allaire’s tight timetable, some political leaders were clearly distracted by other concerns. Declared Roy Romanow, leader of Saskatchewan’s New Democratic Party: “There is a preoccupation with the Gulf crisis and with the economy here, so I do not know if the Quebec proposals have much of an impact.” In Manitoba, Premier Gary Filmon said that the Allaire proposal “represents a radically different vision of this

country, and that should concern all of us.” He, like many Canadians outside of Quebec, said that Quebec must compromise significantly if it hopes to reach agreement with the rest of the country. Said Filmon: “We have to regard this as an opening position to be negotiated.”

In fact, some Quebec Liberals acknowledged that a few items were added to the proposals largely as bargaining chips. One party member,

who prepared several draft papers for the Allaire group, said that the recommendation to abolish the Senate came about “largely because nobody could be bothered to think about ways of reforming it.” Added the party member: “Senate reform is clearly something we are willing to talk about—if somebody would only make some counterproposals.”

In Ottawa, the federal government was preparing to begin negotiations that would go at least part of the way towards achieving the goals that the Quebec committee called for.

Advisers to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney acknowledged that the Conservative government had already assigned a team of senior civil servants to study ways of shifting significant areas of jurisdiction now controlled by Ottawa to the provinces.

Within Quebec, the depth of emotion over the constitutional issue was evident in the days following the report’s release, even among traditionally federalist Liberals. The report itself still has to be debated—and could be amended or, technically, rejected—by the provincial Liberals at a Montreal convention in March. Many provincial Liberals appeared eager last week to reassure the rest of Canada that they want to negotiate a new federal structure in good faith. At the same time, they said, the deadline for Canada to resolve the issue—or face a Quebec referendum on independence—was necessary to appease the growing nationalist mood in that province. Declared John Parisella, Bourassa’s chief of staff: “This is not an ultimatum, but there is a deadline because we want to stop the uncertainty.” Added Parisella: “There will never be a perfect time to negotiate, so let us get the thing going now.” But other Quebec Liberals, rejecting that conciliatory approach, expressed disappointment that the committee had not called for an immediate referendum on sovereignty. Said Hermann Mathieu, a former Liberal member of the National Assembly: “Why prostrate ourselves again in front of Ottawa? Why not hold a referendum right now?”

The sharply contrasting reactions g to the Allaire committee’s report un| derscored the wide differences bez tween perceptions inside and outside 5 of Quebec that continue to stall constitutional reconciliation. Said William Cosgrove, the anglophone representative on the 13-member Allaire committee: “There are a lot of problems we have to tackle—in particular, the gulf of misunderstanding between the two major cultural groups in this country.”

That gulf is measured in part by the impatience that many Canadians outside Quebec now display towards the province’s demands. In the past year, polls have repeatedly demonstrated that a strong majority of Canadians in

other provinces have no appetite for further discussion of constitutional reform and are increasingly prepared to risk letting Quebec leave Confederation. In more than two dozen random interviews that Maclean 's conducted across the country last week,

Canadians overwhelmingly showed their impatience with the constitutional impasse.

Said Susan Copley, manager of an arts-and-crafts store in Calgary: “As far as I am concerned, Quebec can go. Western Canada has a raw deal, too, and we are not looking to get out of Confederation.” In Topsail, Nfld., David Baird, a piano tuner and sales representative, declared: “If they want to get out, let them go.

Quebec is like a spoiled child.”

Said John Fraser, a chartered accountant in Halifax: “I am not a big fan of Quebec. Quebec already has special powers in the benefits they get.”

Politicians of all parties across the country acknowledge that they cannot ignore Filmon; Rae (below): a cool political reception outside Quebec those sentiments. In Ontario,

advisers to New Democrat Premier Bob Rae say that he is deliberately taking a reserved approach towards Quebec. That attitude contrasts sharply with the warm relations that his predecessor, Liberal David Peterson, had established with Bourassa. One sign of the change in tone emerged last week when Rae warned that Ontario would not allow Quebec to negotiate a new constitutional arrangement with Ottawa alone, as Bourassa has insisted that the province intends to do. Said one adviser to Rae: “This will be a jolt for Quebec. They are used to Ontario being Mr. Nice Guy.” In Ottawa, Mulroney said that he would not comment on the Allaire report until the Quebec Liberals have voted on it at their March convention. But interviews with Tory MPs from Quebec and the West revealed the potential for a major split in the party. Said one Quebec Tory MP, Pierrette Venne, of the Liberal report: “That is what Quebecers want right now. And if that is what they want, we cannot really do anything but give it to them.” But British Columbia Tory MP Stanley Wilbee reported a different response after touring his Delta riding, south of Vancouver. Said Wilbee: “There was almost complete rejection of these types of claims. People feel that Quebec is already getting concessions that others are not.”

In the West, the proposal to abolish the Senate would be a central issue in negotiations based on the Allaire report. There is strong support in the region for a reformed, elected upper chamber. Said Alberta Intergovernmental Affairs Minister James Horsman: “We are not in favor of the current Senate, but its abolition is not the answer.”

Still, there remained some cautious optimism. Liberals in Quebec said that they were not discouraged by the early negative reaction to the report from much of the rest of Canada. Said Parisella: “There is no outright condemnation, and there is no outright endorsement. It is a positive beginning.” And constitutional expert Patrick Monahan, a former adviser to Peterson in Ontario, said of the report: “There is a conscious attempt to try to reach out to other parts of the country, by trying to frame the arguments for decentralized institutions.” As well, he and others pointed to sections of the Liberal document that call unequivocally for an end to trade barriers between provinces and closer economic ties with the rest of Canada. Said one adviser to Rae: “People are looking at it as a fairly aggressive document, but I think you could also interpret it as a slightly desperate cry for help.”

Indeed, some of Bourassa’s advisers committed to the federalist cause asserted that they had managed to head off several even stronger initiatives towards independence. In fact, despite the report’s firm language (it declares in one passage that Quebec’s “bridges are burned” with Canada), one committee adviser said that its original wording was far more inflammatory. As well, the document at first called for an immediate referendum, with the aim of declaring Quebec sovereign even before the start of

any negotiations with the rest of the country. Said the adviser: “We have bought ourselves a year and a half—and a lot can happen in that time.” Other Liberals said that the Allaire report would deflect attention from the findings of Quebec’s all-party commission on its constitutional future. That commission, headed by businessmen Michel Bélanger and Jean Campeau, is expected to recommend in a report due on March 28 either full Quebec sovereignty or a transfer of powers to the province that would be at least as dramatic as that envisaged by the Allaire group.

But the Allaire report may also undergo profound changes in the weeks ahead. For one thing, it will be discussed by the Quebec Liberal party’s 125 riding associa| tions before delegates vote g on its contents in Montreal. I Some analysts predicted that ° by then, a cool response to the report from the rest of Canada could force the party

to adopt an even harder line—and more extensive demands. Said Courchene of Queen’s: “If the reaction is too hostile in English Canada, that will aggravate things further in Quebec.” One thing is certain in the debate ahead: many of the voices raised will be discordant. Indeed, one of the few issues that Quebecers and other Canadians agree on is the need to hear new proposals from the rest of the country. But with opinion polls exposing deep and widespread public distrust of politicians, it is not clear which leaders in English Canada possess sufficient support to influence the debate. At least one observer understands that problem from personal experience. Ontario’s Peterson and his Liberals were thrown out of office in an election last Sep■ç tember, less than three 5 months after he played a prominent role in trying to o salvage the Meech Lake acjg cord. Said Peterson in an inti terview last week: “English ^ Canada does not have one spokesman because Canada is not two solitudes anymore. It is almost five solitudes.” Added the former premier, who now teaches at Toronto’s York University: “Having sensitivity for all parts of the country today is not easy.” Still, that is the task that Canada’s leaders must face—or risk the unravelling of the country.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH