Foreseeing Pitfalls

Quebecers express anxiety over the dangers of going it alone

BARRY CAME January 6 1992

Foreseeing Pitfalls

Quebecers express anxiety over the dangers of going it alone

BARRY CAME January 6 1992

Foreseeing Pitfalls



Quebecers express anxiety over the dangers of going it alone

The scene summoned echoes of an earlier time. More than 800 vocal partisans of Quebec independence packed a hall in downtown Montreal, oblivious to the gathering outside of winter’s first snowstorm. They cheered the arrival of past champions. Then, for close to an hour, they sat spellbound, enchanted by the oratorical wizardry of the old separatist firebrand Pierre Bourgault. His hair now as silver as his tongue, the onetime chief of the Quebec independence movement known as RIN (Rassemblement pour l’indépendence nationale) resurrected the image of such federalists as Pierre Trudeau who, he said, used blackmail

and threats to “frighten” Quebecers into voting against sovereignty-association in the 1980 referendum. He warned the crowd that similar events were unfolding once again, for precisely the same purpose. And he told them to keep their emotions in control because “English Canada is assaulting us with threats—they are piling threats upon provocations in the hope that we will respond in kind.”

If there was a note of anger in Bourgault’s incendiary performance that night in Montreal, there was a reason. For there is no denying the accuracy of his claim that Quebecers, as the prospect of another sovereignty referendum looms, have been bombarded with all manner

of dire predictions about the consequences of separation. Just as happened in advance of the voting on May 20,1980, Quebecers have been warned that a vote for separation in the referendum—scheduled for no later than next autumn—could mean a vote for severe distress, particularly on the economic front. The development has outraged committed sovereigntists, amounting to what Jacques Brassard, the Parti Québécois constitutional affairs critic, has branded “economic terrorism.” But what may well underlie the upsurge in nationalist ire is a growing suspicion that all of those gloomy forecasts are beginning to have an effect on Quebec opinion, not unlike the impact that occurred in 1980. And the responses in Quebec to the Maclean’s/Decima poll indicate that such a suspicion is well founded.

The poll uncovered profound concerns within Quebec about the adverse economic effects of separation. It also exposed signs of a softening in Quebec attitudes over the possibility of a negotiated compromise to bridge Canada’s linguistic and cultural divide.

Almost three out of five Quebecers polled (58 per cent) agreed that separation would weaken the Quebec economy. The same proportion predicted that Canada’s economy, too, would suffer. At the same time, a majority of Quebec respondents now seem willing to be persuaded to stay in Canada—a change in sentiment from that prevailing a year ago in the wake of the Meech Lake debacle. Fifty-eight per cent of those polled said that, in the event that Quebecers decided to separate, “the rest of Canada should do everything to convince them to stay.” A year earlier, only 46 per cent of

Quebecers offered that view. On the other side of same question, only 39 per cent of Quebec respondents in the 1991 poll were inclined to agree that Canada should “just let them go,” down sharply from the previous year’s 51 per cent. “There has clearly been a sizable shift,” noted Decima vice-president Christopher Kelly, “and I don’t think it is stretching the point to speculate that economic issues are the driving force.” Quebecers have recently received a series of reminders about the negative effects of separation. In the week that the Maclean’s/Decima survey was conducted, the C. D. Howe Institute released a study arguing that even an amicable parting of the ways between Canada and Quebec could force a substantial reduction in Quebec government spending and its civil service—and a 15-per-cent increase in taxes—all to satisfy foreign creditors. The report’s authors, McGill University economists John McCallum and Chris Green, speculated that a sovereign Quebec could face a $15billion budget deficit in each of the first five years of independence. Not only would that boost the provincial debt so high it would equal the value of the entire provincial economy, the authors concluded, but it would also “unravel” the economy to the point of inflicting lasting, possibly permanent, damage. “Even if Canada and Quebec parted as friends, Quebec would pay a high price for separation,” the two economists asserted, adding that it would be “the poor, the young, the least skilled and the

least mobile who would suffer the most.”

That report followed similar studies, including a conclusion by the Economic Council of Canada that shrinkage in Quebec’s economy would cost the average Quebec family between $800 and $1,800 a year in lost income. The cumulative effect on Quebec opinion appears to have been telling. “The overall conclusion that stays with me is negative,” stated Marie-Josée Drouin, executive director of Montreal’s Hudson Institute of Canada. “And in any case, I think if you speak to the average Quebecer right now, you will find that he or she is much more concerned with attempts to preserve a standard of living by maintaining a job—or finding a job. ”

When Decima researchers plumbed Quebec opinion, more than one million residents of the province were receiving either welfare or unemployment insurance. In the Montreal area alone, 300,000 people were out of work. At the same time, faith in the strength of so-called

Quebec Inc.—the business-government-labor alliance that underpins the province’s economy—had been shaken by such events as Hydro Quebec’s delay in its James Bay projects and the collapse of engineering giant Lavalin’s global empire.

Although almost two-thirds of the Quebecers polled said that separation is likely without a constitutional agreement—roughly the same proportion as in last year’s Maclean ’s poll— signals of Quebec’s deep anxiety over economic issues repeatedly surfaced in the 1991 poll. When Quebecers were asked to comment on a series of propositions on the relationship with the rest of the country should Quebec finally decide to secede, the answers reinforced the evidence of profound concerns about the economic impact of separation. And a comparison of responses to the same questions on the part of English Canada also revealed the extent of the wide gulf between Quebec and the rest of the country in perceptions about the ties that would likely exist between an independent Quebec and the remaining parts of Canada. The overwhelming majority of Quebecers polled favored the maintenance of several key economic links with Canada. Almost threequarters of Quebec respondents said that cutting all monetary and economic ties with Canada would be unacceptable. Slightly more agreed it would be acceptable for a separate Quebec to retain all of the monetary and economic connections that now exist. Almost three in five opposed the notion of severing social service links in such areas as education, unemployment and medicare. In the context of the 64 per cent of Quebec respondents who said that separation is likely to follow a failure to agree on constitutional reform, those figures may shed some light on how Quebecers view the aftermath of independence.

The rest of Canada does not share that view, however. In fact, the Maclean ’s/Decima survey detected attitudes that are completely contrary to those prevailing in Quebec. A majority of those polled outside the province found it acceptable to sever monetary and economic ties between Canada and an independent Quebec. And an overwhelming majority accepted the idea of cutting social service links in such fields as unemployment insurance, medical care and higher education. Said Decima’s Kelly: “I don’t think there is any doubt people are saying they are going to be punitive towards Quebec if Canada is broken up.”

Whatever the underlying motivation, popular attitudes uncovered by the poll indicate that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is expressing a widely held sentiment in English-speaking Canada when he tells Quebecers, repeatedly, that the country is not some form of political and economic smorgasbord where items can be chosen or discarded at will. “You cannot be a part-time Canadian,” he told a Montreal audience in November. “You are either a Canadian and you get the benefits of Canadian citizenship, or you are not and you do not get any benefits at all.”

That approach has been denounced by Quebec nationalists as yet another example of socalled economic blackmail. “Mulroney is dropping the debate to the level of his own popularity, which is very low,” said the PQ’s Brassard. The increasingly frequent warnings about the potentially dire consequences of Quebec independence uttered by Mulroney and other federalists recall similar campaigns in the past. Such tactics in advance of the 1980 referendum have been credited with being at least partly responsible for persuading Quebecers to reject, by a 60-to-40 margin, sovereignty-association. A similar phenomenon may be occurring now, as reflected by the shifting attitudes revealed in the Maclean 's/Decima survey— including a large number of Quebec respondents willing to reach a negotiated compromise on constitutional reform, even on the vexing issue of inserting words in the document that describe Quebec as a distinct society.

And on one issue above all others, poll respondents in both Quebec and the rest of Canada stood together in virtually unanimous opposition to the use of arms either to block Quebec’s independence or enforce it. In the same vein, four out of five Quebecers polled rejected the notion that either Canada or Quebec could resort to force to protect their respective interests inside Quebec. Outside of Quebec, there was a less substantial margin of opposition to those possibilities but, still, a majority rejected the idea.

The near unity against the use of force may well be a reflection of the fact that, in the weeks preceding and during the time the poll was

taken, the prospect of Quebec separation provoking violence was being widely discussed. The delicate subject had been raised both inside and outside Quebec, sparking an emotional debate. The matter surfaced at a Parti Québécois strategy session, when the possibility of creating an armed force to deal with postindependence civil unrest was discussed. It arose again during a subsequent conference in Toronto, when several analysts debated the military implications of Quebec secession. And it appeared at the same time as Quebec opinion was being surveyed when McGill University law professor Stephen Scott told a Quebec

legislative committee that, in his opinion, there was no legal reason to prevent Canadian troops from being used to protect federal interests if Quebec unilaterally declared independence.

Quebec’s boundaries lie at the core of the violence issue. Scott voiced one view when he told the legislative committee: “If there is a Quebec nation, defined by its ties to language, culture and history, there are other nations defined in the same way, including natives and anglophones. If some have the right to selfdetermination, others should equally have them in the same way.” Quebec nationalists strenuously oppose that approach, maintaining that Quebec’s frontiers are inviolable and not subject to negotiation. But the Maclean ’s/Decima survey showed that two-thirds of Quebec respondents expressed a willingness to negoti-

ate over boundaries and property in the event of separation, a figure mirrored by poll responses in the rest of Canada.

Clearly, the evidence gathered in the latest Maclean ’s/Decima annual poll seems to have uncovered an emerging willingness on the part of many Quebecers to arrive at some sort of compromise, if only to avoid adding to an already long list of economic woes. That may not be much of a foundation upon which to build a restructured and revitalized nation. But it is a start.

BARRY CAME in Montreal