BUSINESS WATCH

Preston Manning’s contradictory vision

The Old Canada isn’t just dying—it’s dead. But the Reform party’s New Canada without Quebec is no Canada at all

Peter C. Newman June 24 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

Preston Manning’s contradictory vision

The Old Canada isn’t just dying—it’s dead. But the Reform party’s New Canada without Quebec is no Canada at all

Peter C. Newman June 24 1991

Preston Manning’s contradictory vision

BUSINESS WATCH

The Old Canada isn’t just dying—it’s dead. But the Reform party’s New Canada without Quebec is no Canada at all

PETER C. NEWMAN

Last week, Preston Manning was busy lighting political fires across Ontario, convincing an accelerating number of Canadian voters that his Reform party could sweep into office—or at least hold a balance-of-power position—in the next federal election. That’s still a long shot, but Manning’s approach is so potent for two reasons.

Canadians have lost confidence not only in the politicians who practise it, but also in representative democracy itself. The Reform party appears to offer an alternative: direct representation in which elected MPs act solely as their constituencies’ delegates, reflecting their specific views rather than those of their party, or even of themselves.

But that approach won’t work because a country of this size and complexity—which also happens to be bankrupt—cannot be governed without its central authorities’ making tough, often unpopular decisions. Manning’s utopian approach to government is superficially attractive and totally impractical.

More serious—and much more dangerous—is his policy that Quebec must give up its distinctions, which is reminiscent of Clyde Wells’s obdurate stand during the Meech Lake debate. Manning is similarly advising Quebecers to go away and do their own thing—unless they want to become exactly like everybody else. His vision of the New Canada is blunt and brutal: either Quebec stays on precisely the same terms as every other province, or it must leave. This is what he really means when he keeps repeating: “The Old Canada is dying. We need a New Canada!”

The Old Canada isn’t just dying—it’s dead. But the Reform party’s New Canada without Quebec is no Canada at all. Yet a Canada without Quebec is where Manning’s policies clearly lead, though he insists that he doesn’t want the country to break up.

He is against official bilingualism and multiculturalism, pretending that this country remains dominated by WASPs like himself. Current demographics disprove that, but it’s bound

to be a popular stand with the White AngloSaxon Protestants who don’t realize they’ve become a visible minority.

Manning preaches that the Pearson-Trudeau-Mulroney approach “has produced a house divided against itself.” He is at his most eloquent pursuing that theme. “We do not want to live, nor do we want our children to live, in a house divided against itself,” he says, “particularly one divided along racial and linguistic lines! We do not want to, nor do we intend to, leave this house ourselves—even though we have spent most of our constitutional lives on the back porch. Either all Canadians, including the people of Quebec, make a clear commitment to Canada as one nation, or Quebec and the rest of Canada should explore a better, but more separate, relationship between the two.”

I recently spent most of an afternoon with Manning. Unlike most contemporary politicians, he is acutely aware of Prairie history, has a genuine ideology, is smart, sophisticated and very much in tune with what’s happening in this country. He must know that to tell Quebecers, in their current mood, that they’re welcome to stay Canadians as long as they have the same sanctions, same powers, same relationship

with Ottawa as, say, Prince Edward Islanders, is to invite them to leave. No Quebec politician or citizen can support this narrow view, which amounts to cultural genocide.

His policy explains why Manning has no intention of nominating any Quebec candidates, and why his party has caught fire across Western Canada and parts of Ontario. For those Canadians who resent Quebec’s special place in Confederation, or have felt that French Canada’s aspirations have received too much attention and too many federal dollars, the Reform party represents a legitimate alternative to express their anti-Quebec feelings.

It would be wrong and much too simplistic to accuse Manning himself of being anti-French. Neither was John Diefenbaker, the last federal leader to seriously advocate a One Canada policy. The two men’s views of Canada as a homogeneous entity are amazingly similar, but totally at odds with the reality of this country as the political home of two quite distinct, though not necessarily incompatible, founding societies. Because he had been a victim of discrimination himself, Diefenbaker’s dream was to foster a single nationality that would wipe away any stigma that could be attached to a person’s ancestry. That was a worthy political goal, articulated in his support for “unhyphenated Canadianism,” but it took no account of Quebec’s special place and history.

Similarly, Manning seems not to recognize that if there is any hope at all of maintaining Quebec within Confederation, Meech' Lake’s five conditions will have to be surpassed, as Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Gil Rémillard stated last week in the province’s National Assembly. The key clause would involve guaranteeing Quebec’s status as a distinct society. By rejecting that basic demand, Manning has become English Canada’s champion of sovereignty-association and is effectively encouraging Quebec’s separatists to make the break. “Quebec is the only province that can crack the Canadian Constitution wide open,” he emphasizes. “It’s our hope in the West that Quebec does crack it open. We have some fundamental changes to propose as well, and our fist will be quite different from Quebec’s.”

As architect of the Reform party’s determination to capture a majority of the seats in the House of Commons by rejecting Quebec’s aspirations, Manning has launched himself on a risky political venture. Should he succeed, Quebec would have no choice but to separate. That would leave Ontario—with 99 seats— predominant in the New Canada he advocates. He would then have to face the anger of his western followers (with a maximum of 86 seats) who started the Reform movement, only to find that it helped consolidate Ontario as the country’s power centre.

Canadian politics has become so volatile that anything can happen. But there’s no question that the Reform party, not so long ago a fringe movement that no one outside Alberta’s Oil Patch took seriously, has become a significant political force. Only Preston Manning can determine whether its success will help win proper Ottawa representation for Western Canada—or tear the country apart.