A year from now, we will recollect approximately zero about the shootout, except that it looked swell on television
DROPPING A GAUNTLET
IN A CRITICAL MEETING, QUEBEC LIBERALS STAMP THEIR APPROVAL ON A RADICAL VIEW OF CANADA
Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa does not relish confrontation. Throughout his long career, he has avoided stark political choices by adroitly straddling contentious issues. His skills in compromise were put to the test on the weekend in Montreal, when the province’s Liberal party gathered for a historic debate to forge its policy on Quebec’s future—either within Canada or beside it. What many of the 2,771 voting delegates, deeply divided between sovereigntists and federalists, hoped to hear from their leader at the outset was a clear message charting the party’s course. What they received was vintage Bourassa ambiguity. The 57-year-old premier told the delegates that he was neither sovereigntist nor federalist, but rather, “a Liberal.” Far from being disappointed, the party faithful assembled in Montreal’s cavern-
ous Palais des congrès rose in a thunderous ovation as he went on to declare himself further as “a Liberal who is profoundly a Quebecer, a Liberal whose prime objective is to achieve what is in Quebec’s best interests.”
The premier’s emphasis on his primary loyalty to Quebec—and his omission of any reference to comparable loyalty to Canada—set the tone for the three-day policy convention. It had shaped up as a potentially divisive conclave. Nearly nine months after the collapse of the Meech Lake accord, the delegates had convened to hammer out their party’s response: a constitutional platform based on the controversial report of a special party committee headed by Montreal lawyer Jean Allaire. That report would have Ottawa turn over to Quebec, as well as to the other provinces, all but a handful of its current powers. Federalists among the Liberals, including several powerful members of Bourassa’s cabinet, tried to moderate some of Allaire’s more abrasive recommendations. Sovereigntists, a much larger group led by a staunchly nationalist youth wing, were intent on affirming party support for those proposals
without amendment—and certainly without any softening of demands.
In the end, the delegates adopted the essence of the Allaire report: a call for a sweeping revision of the Canadian federal structure or, failing that, a referendum in the autumn of 1992 to put the issue of independence before Quebec’s electorate. But in the critical hours of voting on Saturday, the depth of nationalist sentiment among the delegates left some federalists upset. After the convention rejected one amendment urging constitutional negotiations with the other provinces as well as Ottawa, Public Security Minister Claude Ryan, a staunch federalist, walked off the convention floor. “I expected something completely different,” said Ryan as he departed.
But as the convention imposed little more than fine-tuning changes to the Allaire report, the delegates confirmed Bourassa’s position. In his speech on the convention’s first evening, Bourassa declared that, with the report, his province had made its constitutional position clear—and now awaited English Canada’s reply. The 1992 deadline, Bourassa said, provided a “reasonable” period of 20 months to forge a new federation. If in that time the rest of Canada agreed to Quebec’s proposals, he added, “the country will be stronger.”
Despite the delegates’ refusal to soften the policy, it is still far from certain that Bourassa himself would be as unyielding in any future constitutional negotiations. The Quebec premier was careful to point out, under questioning from reporters, that convention resolutions are not binding on the government.
“It is a Liberal tradition,” he said, “to attempt to incorporate 80 or 90 per cent of what a convention recommends, and we will attempt to adhere to that tradition.” Most observers expected that federalists in the party will continue to work to soften Allaire to make it more acceptable to English Canada. The party’s general council, which meets every four months, may also chip away at the policy.
Still, even the most nationalist delegates voiced little concern that the party’s leadership might water down Allaire’s recommendations. “If the final goals and the referendum deadline are respected, then we will rally behind the premier,” said Michel Bissonnette, president of the Liberals’ youth wing, whose members formed roughly one-third of the convention’s voting delegates. “We are here to give the government guidelines,” he added, “but it will be up to Mr. Bourassa to make his choices.”
The meeting did indicate how deeply nationalist sentiment now runs within the party. The most striking illustration of that took place over a seemingly obscure amendment concerning the format of future negotiations for consti-
tutional reform. The party’s most prominent federalists, including Ryan, had supported an amendment that would have called for negotiations with “the rest of Canada.” But opponents of the amendment, led by the youth wing, argued that the failure of Meech had demonstrated the folly of attempting to wring an acceptable agreement from all nine of the other provinces. Instead, they insisted that future talks be limited to “the government of Canada.” To the shock of the federalists, delegates defeated the amendment. Said Ryan after the vote: “I’m obviously disappointed, but I am used to this sort of thing.” But in what some observers took to be a veiled threat that Ryan, a former provincial Liberal leader, might withdraw from the party, he added before leaving the convention: “I will have to weigh all the implications of this with my advisers.”
At the same time, other federalists played down the significance of the decision to reject that amendment. They stressed that the Allaire report remains only a starting point for negotiation. Said Marc-André Fabian, president of the Montreal-area Outremont riding association: “This is a strong message that all Quebecers are fed up with the way Canada is right now. But it is also a message that we want to keep talking about Canada and its survival.” Added Fabian: “We hope other Canadians realize that we are the last chance for federalism in Quebec.”
That message has clearly been conveyed to some other Canadians. Charles Beer, a former Liberal Ontario cabinet minister and an observer in Montreal, said: “For the £ first time, separation is really o on the table. I don’t think that s outside Quebec we have really 0 awakened to that fact yet.”
1 But how widely Beer’s view is u shared outside Quebec is uncertain. Even as Bourassa was addressing his party in Montreal last Friday evening, another Liberal premier, Clyde Wells of Newfoundland, was sketching a very different vision of federalism to an audience in Ottawa. Speaking to a boys-and-girls club in the capital, Wells flatly rejected the idea of turning most federal powers over to the provinces. Canadians, he declared, “want a country that can give them more than a currency unit and national defence.”
The plan adopted by Quebec’s Liberals on the weekend would leave Ottawa with little more than those two functions. The challenge facing Robert Bourassa—and the nation— over the next 20 months is to discover whether enough common ground can be found between the two visions to prevent Quebecers from exercising their choice for independence when that time runs out.
BARRY CAME with ANTHONY WILSONSMITH and NANCY WOOD in Montreal
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