QUEBEC MAY CALL A REFERENDUM ON INDEPENDENCE NEXT YEAR IF OTTAWA DOES NOT CEDE NEW POWERS
Since he entered politics in 1966, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa has made caution a hallmark of his political style. In fact, one of Bourassa’s favorite maxims is a quotation from former British prime minister Harold Wilson, who once said: “A week is a long time in politics— and a year is an eternity.” To many Quebecers, the legitimacy of that adage became apparent over the past four months. Bourassa spent much of the period away from public view as a result of skin-cancer surgery last September and follow-up surgery in November. During that time, support for Quebec sovereignty surged, and Bourassa’s own party frequently appeared in disarray. Since his return to public life in mid-January, Bourassa has tried to stanch sovereigntist sentiment—and buy time to give his vision of renewed federalism one final try. Last week, the 57-year-old premier and members of his Liberal party completed their planning for a bold, last-ditch strategy to rewrite the Canadian Constitution.
Those preparations, Maclean’s learned, contain elements that will set the clock ticking again towards a deadline for dramatic constitutional reform. In a document prepared by a committee of Quebec Liberals for release this week, the party calls for a referendum on the province’s constitutional future to be held by the autumn of 1992. In the meantime, Quebec would continue to refuse, as it has since the failure of the Meech Lake accord last June, to take part in talks involving the country’s 10 other First Ministers. But according to Liberal strategists, Bourassa’s government would use the time before the referendum to negotiate with the federal government in pursuit of new powers in a variety of fields.
Those negotiations will likely be based largely on the Quebec Liberal party’s constitutional program, which will be formally decided at the party’s convention in March. But it is already
clear that the province will demand that Ottawa cede authority over a wide range of functions. Among them: virtually all areas affecting the everyday life of Quebecers, including education, justice and municipal affairs. The plan would leave the federal government in control of external affairs, defence and monetary policy—areas of national interest. If those demands were accepted, Bourassa would ask Quebecers in the proposed referendum to support the agreement.
But the failure of negotiations, one senior adviser to Bourassa told Maclean ’s, could pro-
pel Quebec into independence. In fact, if the rest of Canada failed to agree to Quebec’s terms, the adviser and other provincial Liberals said, the referendum would instead ask Quebecers to support full sovereignty.
Across the rest of the country, that strategy is likely to cause initial reactions ranging from surprise to hostility. The annual Maclean’sj Decima poll published early in January found that 61 per cent of respondents were opposed to granting Quebec special powers. The same survey, however, also found that Canadians were much more willing to let Quebec acquire
additional powers if their own province received the same authority. And in response to the emerging Quebec strategy, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is now working on a federal approach that offers all of the provinces broadly expanded powers in any new constitutional package (page 16).
Bourassa’s new initiative reflects the depth of the separatist passions that many Quebecers now share. One poll conducted earlier this month by the Montreal firm of Leger and Leger indicated that 69 per cent of Quebecers now support political independence. Even such federalist figures as Industry Minister Benoît Bouchard have acknowledged that Quebecers’ minds seem made up. Said Bouchard last week: “Canada has to fight to convince Quebec to come back, because it’s my impression—and I’ve been throughout Quebec—that they’ve already left.” Bourassa has moderated his early resistance to calls for a referendum in response to strong and widely based public sentiment for such a mechanism.
Among the Quebecers who support a referendum are the mayors of both Quebec City and Montreal.
Meanwhile, the Bélanger-Campeau Commission, which has been studying how to approach the province’s future, appears certain to produce findings in a report due late in March that will sharply criticize Quebec’s current status. After four months of public and private hearings, the two commission co-chairmen, businessmen Michel Bélanger and Jean Campeau, have prepared what they describe as an “evaluation” of the briefs and testimony received. In a draft of the document, parts of which were leaked to media organizations including Maclean ’s, the two men said that there are strong reasons to doubt “the capacity of the rest of Canada to accede to the constitutional choices which respond truly to the aspirations, needs and proper visions of Quebec.”
Of the more than 500 briefs submitted by various individuals and groups since hearings began last October, an overwhelming majority have favored independence. There have been some dissenters. Indeed, in one measure of the passion aroused by the debate, two students presenting opposing views engaged in a namecalling match at one of two special sessions that the commission held last week for representatives of young Quebecers. But, for the most
part, the youthful speakers echoed their elders in strongly supporting independence. In fact, noted Parti Québécois MNA François Gendron, the young witnesses were “less flexible than adults about ways of remodelling federalism.” He added: “They do not want to put their energy into something they believe will lead us in four years back to where we are now.”
The handful of strong federalist commissioners said that they regretted what they said was the biased tone of the majority of presentations. Richard Holden, a member of the National Assembly who represents the English-rights Equality party, for one, said that Bélanger and Campeau’s evaluation paper “reads like the lamentations of Job. It is so mournful.” Clearly, even the traditionally federalist Liberals are not immune to the coalescing public mood. Since the collapse of the Meech Lake accord in June, the provincial party has not taken a formal constitutional position. A 13-member committee created by Bourassa even before the Meech failure, led by lawyer Jean Allaire, has been studying alternatives for future courses of constitutional action. After polling more than 4,000 Liberal activists and visiting each of the party’s 125 riding associations at least twice, the committee members found wide support for greater autonomy for Quebec. Acknowledged one, anglophone MNA Russell Williams: “There is a strong resolve among people to be in control of the issues that affect their daily lives.”
In Bourassa’s absence, some members of Allaire’s committee began pressing for a strongly worded demand for greater provincial powers— and for a referendum this year to back that demand. In fact, it was not until early last week, following meetings with Bourassa and several senior ministers, including Public Security Minister Claude Ryan, that the committee agreed to a later referendum date.
Bourassa’s scrutiny of the committee’s conclusions also resulted in a final document that was far less pro-independence in tone than earlier drafts. One of the first drafts prepared by committee members called for Quebec to declare its sovereignty first—and only then to negotiate the terms of a new political relationship with Canada. But then, Bourassa returned to work on Jan. 14. Immediately, there was a palpable change in the tone of discussions about the Constitution—both within the committee
and among other Liberals. Said one Liberal cabinet minister, of the pro-sovereignty forces at work within the party: “There is a lot of backpedalling going on right now.”
As well, advisers to Bourassa have repeatedly emphasized that the Allaire committee’s final report will serve only as a set of recommendations to the government on how to handle future constitutional arrangements. They stress that the group’s suggestions will not be binding on Bourassa. Still, the premier’s aides acknowledged that the committee’s wide consultation will lend its recommendations significant political weight.
As well, demands for an early and clear declaration of intent by Quebecers emerged in the Liberal caucus at the National Assembly. Party insiders estimated that as many as onethird of the 90 Liberal members of the legislature favored an early referendum. Some of those members also said bluntly that after Meech Lake, they are prepared to support independence. MNA Guy Bélanger, for one, said that the strong Liberal caucus sentiment in favor of a referendum reflected the party’s wish to give Quebecers’ desire for independence an opportunity for expression. Declared Bélanger: “The Liberal party has taken into account the obvious will of the people.” And the president of the party’s youth commission, Michel Bissonnette, said that the Liberals should be prepared to support independence for the province if the rest of Canada does not agree to Quebec’s future demands.
But at the same time, Bourassa’s apparently complete recovery from his surgery for malignant melanoma carried an emotional impact among Quebec voters that appeared likely to have the unexpected side effect of generating new support for his leadership. For years, polls have shown that most Quebecers have looked
upon the premier, an economist by training, with respect—but with little affection. Indeed, Bourassa has deliberately cultivated a cool, austere public image and jealously guards details of his private life. That enigmatic image is in sharp contrast to the private Bourassa, who is renowned among longtime associates for his
unassuming manner, wry sense of humor and an unerring ability to recall details of his acquaintances’ family lives. Said L. Ian MacDonald, author of From Bourassa to Bourassa, a 1984 book on Quebec politics after the PQ victory in 1976: “There is a warm side to Robert that the public never sees. He is the
master of the fine and private gesture.”
For many Quebecers, Bourassa’s illness provided their first glimpse of the premier exposed to a personal crisis with which even the least politically inclined among them could sympathize. The result was an outpouring of affection that startled observers—and appar-
ently deeply touched the premier. One sign of that came at the end of last December, when the Radio-Canada television network aired its customary year-end review program, entitled Bye Bye ’90. At the close of the program, actress Dominique Michel, speaking on behalf of the cast, sent get-well wishes to Bourassa—
and then smilingly concluded with the hope that he would recover soon, “so that we can get back to making fun of you.” Bourassa later wrote a thank-you note to the cast and producers of the program.
Along with such expressions of sympathy over Bourassa’s illness, there was a clear mixture of relief and delight among Liberals at his apparent recovery. Although Bourassa was given a clean bill of health in mid-December, he delayed his return to public view for close to a month because, aides said, he felt his wan appearance—and the estimated 11 lb. of weight that he had lost during his treatment— would arouse alarm. By the time of his first public appearance, on Jan. 16, he had regained weight—and had plainly used his convalescence to rebuild his personal energies while he planned his new political strategy.
Advisers to Bourassa said that the premier considered three options as he and his staff prepared their constitutional strategy.
Those included: postponing discussions on constitutional change indefinitely while focusing entirely on ecoiÉmic issues; bowing to public prelsure to hold an immediate reffend urn; or working towards a referendum at a later date.
One of those advisers told Maclean ’s that the group rejected the first option because of the overwhelming intensity of pro-independence feeling among many Quebecers after the collapse of the Meech accord. By contrast, they rejected the second choice because of fears that an immediate referendum would provoke a bitter backlash in the rest of Canada that would scuttle any hope for future negotiations.
Now, by delaying a referendum, the Liberals are preparing a constitutional position aimed at convincing Canadians in other provinces to negotiate with their party—rather than with a future government formed by the prosovereignty PQ. With a provincial election likely to take place in the fall of 1993, said one Liberal cabinet minister, “the rest of the country can make a choice of dealing with us or watching the PQ wave goodbye to Canada.”
As for the PQ, many of its activists say that they have never felt more optimistic about their chances of doing precisely that. According to a Leger and Leger poll released last week by the daily newspaper Journal de Montréal, the PQ leads the Liberals in public support by a margin of 47 per cent to 36 per cent. And more than 1,500 delegates gathered at a PQ convention in Quebec City during the weekend to debate, among other topics, the choice of a national anthem for an independent Quebec and plans for a flag-raising ceremony on the
first formal day of independence. Among the invited observers: Lucien Bouchard, the former Tory cabinet minister who is now leader of the pro-sovereignty Bloc Québécois in Ottawa. The party is clearly trying to attract Bouchard, whom PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau recently described as being “cut from the cloth of premiers,” to run as a candidate in the next provincial election. Declared Parizeau: “We have never been closer to achieving our goal.” Still, by setting a referendum date that is more than 18 months away, the Liberals plainly hope to reduce the intensity of the debate. The decision also appears likely to appease sovereigntists within the party, who had been threatening to break ranks over the issue. At the
same time, pro-federalists within the party can hope that the delay will allow time for attitudes to change in the rest of the country. Declared Ryan, the party’s former leader: “I know that a lot of people in other parts of Canada keep an open mind on these matters.” He added: “I hope they can prevail.” Indeed, for troubled federalists both inside and outside that province, meeting the looming deadline for Quebec’s constitutional demands placed a greater premium than ever before on Canadians’ willingness to accept each other’s viewpoints— and to compromise on their own.