CANADA

OPENING SALVOSa

HEATED DEBATE IN QUEBEC CITY MARKS THE START OF AN ACRIMONIOUS CAMPAIGN OVER NATIONAL UNITY

BARRY CAME September 14 1992
CANADA

OPENING SALVOSa

HEATED DEBATE IN QUEBEC CITY MARKS THE START OF AN ACRIMONIOUS CAMPAIGN OVER NATIONAL UNITY

BARRY CAME September 14 1992

OPENING SALVOSa

CANADA

HEATED DEBATE IN QUEBEC CITY MARKS THE START OF AN ACRIMONIOUS CAMPAIGN OVER NATIONAL UNITY

In his seven years as a Liberal backbencher, Jean-Guy Saint-Roch never managed to attract much notice. The 52-year-old marketing executive, twice elected to represent the Eastern Townships riding of Drummond in Quebec’s National Assembly, labored loyally but largely in obscurity. But twice last week, Saint-Roch entered the provincial political spotlight, the result of hourlong sessions with Premier Robert Bourassa. On emerging from the second meeting in the premier’s Quebec City offices, the Drummond MNA confessed that while he found the unaccustomed attention flattering, it was ultimately futile. “No, Mr. Bourassa was not able to convince me to remain,” Saint-Roch declared

as he announced his intention to quit the Liberal party caucus in protest against the national unity package agreed to in Charlottetown last month by Bourassa, the other nine premiers, the federal government and aboriginal leaders. “I honestly believe this deal is no good,” he said later, “either for my own grandchildren or for those of any other Quebecer or, for that matter, any other Canadian.”

In choosing to abandon the Liberal caucus, Saint-Roch became the first—and so far only—MNA to bolt as a result of the new constitutional proposals. Still, the efforts undertaken by Bourassa to dissuade a relatively minor political figure from taking the step provides a measure of the current volatile mood in the province. Tempers ran high as the National Assembly gathered last week to clear the way for an Oct. 26 provincewide referendum on the Charlottetown package—while Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s federal cabinet met at Meech Lake to schedule a similar national vote on the same date. But there is widespread agreement that it is Quebec’s 4.6 million voters who will play the decisive role in the issue. “It’s probably still too early to predict a result,” said Fernand Lalonde, a key

The first salvos, fired in the National Assembly, certainly presage a debate as acrimonious as the one that characterized the 1980 Quebec referendum campaign, when the federalist option prevailed with 59.5 per cent of the vote. The mood was bitter as MNAs gathered to amend Bill 150, the province’s referendum legislation, to allow a vote to be held on the constitutional package instead of on sovereignty, as the legislation originally stipulated. An angry Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau accused Bourassa of reneging on his promise to hold a sovereignty referendum, while Bourassa repeatedly urged the PQ leader to “calm himself.”

The atmosphere is unlikely to improve as the campaign unfolds. This week, the referendum question will be tabled in the National Assembly. Bourassa has said that it will be simple and direct, most likely asking people to vote in support of or against the Charlottetown deal. Meanwhile, under Quebec legislation, groups or individuals who want to actively take part in the debate are legally required to join either the Yes or No umbrella committees that will be established to conduct the campaign. Those committees will be run by sitting MNAs: the Liberals in the case of the Yes side and the

Péquistes for the No forces.

member of the Liberal party’s newly created referendum campaign committee. “But it has all the appearances of developing into a lively campaign.”

Those rules are already creating strange bedfellows. Last week, Parizeau welcomed Montreal lawyer and prominent Liberal Jean Allaire to the No camp. Allaire wrote the January, 1991, Liberal party report recommending a full-scale transfer of federal powers to Quebec—a report that Parizeau ridiculed at the time. That point was not lost on Bourassa, who called the PQ “a gang of hypocrites” for welcoming Allaire into their fold.

For others, the legislation is clearly straining consciences. Noted Lalonde: “A lot of old loyalties are being tested.” Drummond MNA Saint-Roch, for one, is eager to take to the hustings to campaign against the deal—but loath to throw in his lot with the PQ. The staunchly federalist English-rights Equality party is facing a similar dilemma, stuck between what Leader Robert Libman ruefully described as “the rock and the hard place.” The Equality party, with just three MNAs, is critical of the Charlottetown accord because of the deal’s perceived failure to advance the cause of language minorities. But the party is faced with the unpalatable choice of campaigning under the overall direction of the hated PQ.

For his part, Parizeau stressed that joining the No forces does not necessarily mean supporting Quebec sovereignty. “It is important that Quebecers see clearly that people from very different political horizons have come to

the same conclusion about these offers—they are unacceptable,” he said. Liberal spokesmen, in contrast, presented a diametrically opposed view. John Ciaccia, Quebec’s international affairs minister, flatly declared, “If you don’t take this deal, you might as well kiss goodbye to Canada.”

In each case, the target is ! the same. Both Liberals and Péquistes are aiming their campaigns at voters who have not yet made up their minds on the issue. The undecided vote is large: according to the most recent survey, conducted in late August by the Montreal polling firm CROP, fully 22 per cent remain uncommitted, while 41 per cent of Quebecers are opposed to the Charlottetown deal and 37 per cent æ support it. I In Ottawa, the federal govemment was also readying g itself for the coming national 5 referendum battle. Late last g week, the government gave “ opposition leaders a tentative £ wording of the question that g will be put to the country on o Oct. 26: “Do you agree that the Constitution of Canada should be renewed on the ba-

sis of the agreement reached

on August 28, 1992?” The final text will be released this week and debated in Parliament before the referendum campaign begins in earnest. That campaign, said one senior federal organizer, will not be presented as “an initiative of the government of Canada or any political party alone. It will be presented as a nonpartisan, pan-Canadian initiative.”

In fact, the Conservatives appear to be choosing even their enemies with care. Last week, Mulroney said that it was “normal” that some Canadians would oppose the proposal because they perceive it to be flawed. In their case, he said, “a vote against the proposal is [simply] a vote against the proposal.” That, he suggested, contrasts with the situation in Quebec, where sovereigntists will oppose the proposal because they are “enemies of Canada.” That view was supported by Health Minister Benoît Bouchard, Mulroney’s senior Quebec minister. Bouchard, who supported the prosovereignty forces in the 1980 referendum, said that this time he will campaign for the federal package in his home province because saying “yes means yes to Canada, and no means no to Canada.” In the coming weeks, those battle lines will become even more clearly drawn—and potentially more explosive.

BARRY CAME in Quebec City with ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Ottawa

BARRY CAME

ANTHONY

WILSON-SMITH