FEW OF QUEBECS FRANCOPHONE FEDERALISTS ARE SPEAKING OUT IN FAVOR OF A UNITED CANADA
VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS
FEW OF QUEBECS FRANCOPHONE FEDERALISTS ARE SPEAKING OUT IN FAVOR OF A UNITED CANADA
Like many Quebec politicians of the embattled federalist school, Liberal Jean-Pierre Bélisle deplores both the tone and the content of the debate about Canada’s future. As deputy house leader of the Liberals’ 90-member caucus in the National Assembly, Bélisle has watched in growing dismay as the separatist agenda has come to dominate discussions about the province’s future. Unlike many of his colleagues, however, Bélisle, who represents the suburban Montreal riding of Mille-Isles, chose to do something about it. He sat down and wrote a book, a 306-page French-language attack on what he calls the “illusions of Quebec independence.” Not only that, he spent $15,000 of his own money to publish the work himself. So far, 1,500 copies of the book have been given away or sold—at $17.95 each. “I just got fed up listening to all the nonsense,” he declares. “It’s time for those of us who want to save Canada—and Quebec—to stand up and be heard.” Bélisle’s book, titled Savoir pour choisir (To Know is to Choose), is a point-by-point assault on the Parti Québécois’s assertions about the supposed low cost and high rewards of Quebec independence. Drawing on his own skills as a McGill University-trained lawyer and econo-
mist, as well as upon dozens of other Canadian, U.S. and European authorities, the 44-year-old MNA heaps scorn on a wide range of Péquiste assumptions on subjects ranging from citizenship and language to monetary reform and commercial exchange. The attack is highly partisan and not particularly well written, shortcomings that Bélisle himself freely concedes. “It’s not an academic treatise, and it’s certainly not Lamartine or Shakespeare,” he grins as he pushes a cellophane-wrapped copy of the book across the table of a Quebec City restaurant. “But it is proof that there are still a few federalists around here who are willing to speak out.”
With rare exceptions, however, Quebec’s francophone federalists have created a vacuum by their silence. Ever since the June, 1990, demise of the Meech Lake constitutional accord, when emotions ran high over what many Quebecers viewed as yet another “rejection” of their aspirations by English Canada, it has been the separatists who have seized the initiative. Supported by a sympathetic media, they have succeeded in shouldering aside those who favor remaining in the Canadian federation.
That situation persists despite signs of an emerging mood of compromise in the rest of the country. Says Bélisle: “It has not been an easy time for people who feel the way I do about the need to keep Quebec in Canada.”
So far, at least, Bélisle and his fellow francophone fédérai alists in Quebec have reo ceived little support from the s province’s political represen-
0 tatives in Ottawa. Of the 75
1 Quebec seats in the House of u Commons, fully 56 are held
by Conservatives. Together, those Tories represent more than a third of their party’s 158 MPS. But many of them, including such prominent cabinet ministers as Health Minister Benoît Bouchard and Treasury Board President Gilles Loiselle, are ardent Quebec nationalists who ran under the Conservative banner in the 1984 general election primarily to defeat the federal Liberals,
whose policies tended to favor a strong central government. Since then, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government has offered to transfer a wide variety of federal powers to the provinces, both as part of the Meech Lake accord and in its more recent constitutional proposals.
Even now, however, most of Quebec’s Tory MPs do not show a strong willingness to support the government’s constitutional initiatives— or federalism in general. On the contrary, some of them expressed strong opposition to the Dobbie-Beaudoin parliamentary report on renewed federalism, released at the end of February, despite the fact that it proposed a sweeping transfer of federal powers to the provinces and special status for Quebec. Defence Minister Marcel Masse, for one, raised eyebrows within both the caucus and cabinet when he told reporters—despite Mulroney’s glowing endorsement—that the committee’s recommendations were unacceptable. “In my view, it’s not salable,” Masse said. “If we want to have large support in Quebec, we will have to table something different.” Mulroney, federal officials say, harshly criticized Masse in a subsequent Tory caucus meeting, telling the defence minister that his complaints were premature and should have been aired only in private.
In fact, Mulroney himself is the only Quebec
Tory cabinet minister publicly fighting for Canadian unity. Interviewed in French on a Quebec City radio station last week, he told listeners bluntly that they faced a clear choice between separation and a renewed Canada. Declared Mulroney: “You ask that question [and] 10 times out of 10, Quebecers are going to say, ‘We want a renewed Canada.' ” He added that failure to reach a constitutional settlement would have “catastrophic effects” on Quebec’s economic and political stability. “It’s not sovereignty, it’s the separation of Quebec,” the Prime Minister said. “It’s the end of Canada. There won’t be any of these gimmicks like currency, citizenship or the benefits of the economic union. It won’t happen as if it were not a brutal divorce.”
Despite Mulroney’s remarks, most members of his Quebec caucus say that they are waiting to see the federal government’s formal constitutional proposals before deciding whether to endorse renewed federalism. The government had initially planned to table its offer in April, but abandoned that approach in favor of trying to reach a prior agreement with native groups and the nine English-speaking provinces. A package of suggested constitutional amendments is now not expected until
June, at the earliest. “There’s a fear of making a misstep,” explains one senior party strategist. Adds Monique Tardif, a Quebec City Tory MP who was one of 30 members of the DobbieBeaudoin committee: “We are not in a position of having to defend Canada right now. We are in a waiting period for the final constitutional offers.”
Moreover, many Quebec-based politicians are clearly afraid of espousing federalism in their home province. Tory MP Jean-Pierre Blackburn, a Dobbie-Beaudoin committee member, took that risk—and paid the price. After he publicly hailed the committee’s report as a “masterpiece,” a weekly newspaper in his riding of Jonquière, 150 km north of Quebec City, lambasted Blackburn as a “newborn Captain Canada” who is “servile,” “naïve” and “incompetent.” Said Claude Girard, the editor of Le Reveil à Jonquière: “Mr. Blackburn has lost an enormous amount of credibility in this area.” Blackburn was in Acapulco, Mexico, last week and unavailable for comment.
Bélisle himself acknowledges feeling a certain trepidation before he published his proCanada book. “I thought I might get my head cut off by the media,” he said. But with the exception of a biting review in the Quebec City
daily Le Soleil, the anticipated backlash did not develop. The response to Bélisle’s book in the francophone press has, in fact, been surprisingly muted. And Bélisle says that most of his colleagues in the provincial Liberal caucus, including Premier Robert Bourassa, have congratulated him on his fortitude. “It took some guts on his part,” said Jacques Chagnon, another federalist MNA, who represents a downtown Montreal riding.
Federal Tories and provincial Liberals agree that Quebec voters are in a volatile mood— impatient, frustrated and even angry at the rest of Canada. Conservative MP Jean-Guy Hudon, parliamentary secretary to Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark, says that he publicly defends the notion of a “renewed federalism” in his riding, southwest of Montreal. But he adds: “You always have to remember that people are emotional about all of this right now.”
Constitutional fatigue is part of the problem. “People are fed up with constitutional talk,” argues MP Gilles Bernier, who represents the strongly nationalist Beauce region, south of Quebec City. He says that his constituents, while awaiting “concrete, tangible offers” from the rest of the country, are more concerned about the dreary state of the economy. Breadand-butter issues, in fact, may play a pivotal role in determining the future of Confederation. Says Gabrielle Bertrand, the Conservative MP from Brome/Missisquoi, in the province’s Eastern Townships: “There are convinced sovereigntists in my riding, but the general population fears the economic effects of separation.” Adds Lise Bourgault, MP for Argenteuil/Papineau, just west of Montreal: “People are realistic. They realize that an independent Quebec, from an economic point of view, is going to experience difficulties.”
That particular argument lies at the heart of Bélisle’s book. The Montreal MNA maintains that a decision by the Quebec government to secede from the rest of Canada would result in three to five years of massive economic dislocation. Among other things, he predicts a 3.5per-cent drop in Quebec’s annual production of goods and services, a three-percentage-point increase in unemployment and the exodus of 80,000 families, representing some 200,000 of Quebec’s best and brightest. Writes Bélisle: “Those who claim that Quebec, through some kind of witchcraft, will experience no risk in following the road to independence are more akin to sorcerers’ apprentices than responsible political figures.”
Although Bélisle’s book contains no profound revelations, its publication appears to reflect a change in attitude on the part of some of Quebec’s francophone leaders. The province’s business community, for one, is no longer as sympathetic to the sovereigntist cause as it was a year ago, a change prompted in part by the economic downturn and in part by warnings about the risks of separation by such industry leaders as Laurent Beaudoin, chairman of Bombardier Inc., and Raymond Cyr, chairman of BCE Inc. Bourassa’s own recent remarks about federalism, meanwhile, have been far
less equivocal than in the past. Speaking in the National Assembly earlier this month, the premier praised Canada “as a rare country, privileged in the world in terms of peace, freedom, justice and standard of living.” A few days later, he told a meeting of his Liberal party’s general council that “affirmation of Quebec inside Canada remains a constant in Liberal party policies.” He added that “in the eyes of history it would be irresponsible of me to hold a referendum that could weaken Quebec”—a remark that left many analysts convinced that Bourassa is planning to avoid that course of action by amending Bill 150, which calls for a
referendum on Quebec’s future to be held by Oct. 26.
Bélisle, for his part, likens the current situation in Quebec to the one that existed during the run-up to the 1980 provincial referendum on sovereignty. Then, as now, public opinion suggested that voters were split roughly 60-40 between those favoring sovereignty and those advocating Canadian federalism. The final result: 60-40 in favor of federalism. “Federalists spoke out forcefully in 1980 and were eventually able to swing public opinion towards the Canadian option,” he argues. “I think the same thing is going to happen again—as long as Quebec is presented with a reasonable offer from the rest of the country.” Added Neil Cameron, a member of Quebec’s outspoken federalist Equality party: “What we may be witnessing is the beginning of another one of those massive mood swings that sometimes happen around here, where all the francophone politicians, without ever seeming to need to communicate with each other, suddenly agree on a new course.”
But that assessment may be premature. Hudon, for one, points out that the federal Tory party’s big guns have yet to begin firing. “It’s
one thing for me to defend federalism in my riding, but peoples’ eyes are on the heavyweights,” he says. “Right now there are silences that are eloquent, and others that raise questions. I’m anxious to see what stripes [Quebec MPs] will be wearing when the federal offer is finally announced.”
One prominent Quebecer expected to leap into the fray within weeks is former Liberal leader Pierre Elliott Trudeau. As prime minister, Trudeau played a key role in defending federalism during the final weeks of the 1980 referendum campaign. He also spoke out vigorously against the Meech Lake constitutional
accord, saying that it would emasculate the federal government and create divisions. Friends of Trudeau’s told Maclean ’s last week that he is preparing a public statement on the current constitutional negotiations that once again will state the case for a strong federal presence in both Canada and Quebec. They added that Trudeau may deliver his remarks at a planned ceremony to mark the unveiling of his official portrait in the Parliament Buildings on May 1.
But the current generation of Quebec federalists is unlikely to welcome Trudeau’s intervention. Few of them share Trudeau’s oftstated belief in the need for sweeping central government powers and his equally forceful opposition to special status for Quebec. “I am a federalist to be sure,” says Bélisle, “but I am also fully aware that unless Canada can agree to grant Quebecers a certain measure of distinctiveness, the whole game may be lost.” The fact that even committed federalists in Quebec cannot agree on the best course of action is a sign of the difficulties that lie ahead.
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