September 28 1992


September 28 1992




Eight years after he stepped down as prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau is Canada’s most prominent elder statesman and a formidable force in Canadian politics. He is also an unrelenting critic of Quebec nationalism. In the essay below, Trudeau breaks his long silence and denounces the drive for more power for Quebec that led to the current constitutional agreement. In a conversation with Maclean’s, Trudeau, 72, was, as always, passionate in his defence of his position. And from the indignant tone of his comments and his essay, he left little doubt that he will vote “no” in the Oct. 26 constitutional referendum, although he declined to make public his intentions. The essay, which will also be included in an updated version of his book, Towards a Just Society: The Trudeau Years, to be published by Penguin Books Canada next month, shows Trudeau ’s disdain for Quebec’s political leadership, past and present. That emotion is underscored by his unwillingness to refer by name to the men who have governed the province during the past two decades, Robert Bourassa and Rene Levesque—identifying them as the “profitable federalism premier” and the “sovereignty-association premier. ” It is a trenchant denunciation of Quebec nationalism that will likely spark a lively national debate.


Commenting on Quebec nationalist politics in the first issue of Cité Libre 42 years ago, I wrote, “The country can’t exist without us, we think to ourselves. So watch out you don’t hurt

our feelings.... We depend on our power of blackmail in order to

face the future____We are getting to be a sleazy bunch of master


Things have changed a lot since then, but for the worse. Four decades ago, all Duplessis was asking for his province was that it be left in peace to go its own slow pace. His rejection of proposals for constitutional reform was intended mostly to block an updating of Canada’s economic and social institutions. And Quebec’s “no” was formulated by a relatively small political class. In today’s Quebec, however, the official blackmail refrain gets backup from a whole choir of those who like to think they are thinking people: “If English Canada won’t accept Quebec’s traditional, minimum demands, we’ll leave....”

Leave for where? What for?

Consider that in the past 22 years the province of Quebec has

The blackmail will cease only if Canada refuses to dance to that tune

been governed by two premiers. The first was the one who coined the phrase “profitable federalism.” We’ll stay in Canada if Canada gives us enough money, he argued. However, adds the Allaire report that he commissioned, the rest of Canada must hand over nearly all its constitutional powers, except of course the power to give us lots of money. And to put a bit more kick in the blackmail, no opportunity is missed to point out that Quebec’s (alleged) right of self-determination is written into this premier’s party program. This is the premier who prides himself in not practising “federalism on bended knee.”

The other premier was the one who invented “sovereigntyassociation.” He demanded all the powers of a sovereign country for Quebec, but was careful to arrange for the sovereign country not to be independent. Indeed, his referendum question postulated that a sovereign Quebec would be associated with the other provinces and would continue to use the Canadian dollar as legal tender. Money, money, money!

So for 22 years the Quebec electorate has suffered the ignominy of having to choose between two provincial parties for whom the pride of being a Quebecer is negotiable for cash. And if by some

stroke of ill fortune the rest of Canada

seems disinclined to go along with the blackmail, as happened over the Meech Lake accord, it is accused of humiliating Quebec. In Quebec, humiliation is decidedly selective.

Except for a small

handful of dyed-in-the-wool separatists, together with the sprinkling of Montrealers who exercised their vote in favor of the Equality party, just about all the cream of Quebec society approves of this shameful horse trading, and so without batting an eye has backed one or the other of the above-mentioned premiers for 22 years.

Artists in general parade as indépendantistes, but want the Canadian government to keep giving them money. Big businesspeople and professionals endorsed the independence blackmail over the Meech affair, but with the economic crisis worsening are rediscovering advantages to “profitable federalism.” The francophone |l media line up in great numbers on the side of sovereignty, but 3 remain faithful to their hero and soft-pedal real independence because of the costs it would entail. Political scientists (and their students, of course), instead of analysing this spineless behavior with scientific detachment, subscribe to it almost unanimously;

some openly advocate knife-to-the-throat negotiations with English Canada, maintaining that with a certain kind of independence, Quebecers could continue to elect federal members of Parliament (from whence come equalization payments).

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice said. Want more examples of this ludicrous political thinking?

• In 1964 and 1971, Quebec premiers scuttled two constitutional agreements that they had signed (Fuiton-Favreau) or drafted and promised to sign (Victoria). In Quebec they were cheered. But when the premiers of two other provinces refused to back the 1987 Meech Lake accord, which they had neither negotiated nor signed, it was claimed that Quebec had been hurt and humiliated by the rest of the country.

• A Canadian prime minister is accused of having broken a promise made to Quebecers during the referendum of 1980, whereas the words interpreted as a promise were in fact addressed to the other provinces to urge them to resume constitutional negotiations after the referendum.

• Seven provinces that approved the repatriation of the Constitution in November, 1981, are accused of betrayal (on the night of Nov. 4, the so-called night of the long knives), after forming a common front with Quebec in April, 1981, to block the repatriation project. The truth is that during the negotiations on the morning of Nov. 4, it was the premier of Quebec who broke ranks with the other provinces of the Group of Eight and left them out in the cold.

• In 1992, the premier of Quebec considers a constitutional veto for Quebec a matter of life and death; yet in 1971 he himself rejected this veto when the federal government and the nine other provinces offered it on a silver tray. And his successor, who also considered Quebec’s veto sacred, turned it down several times between 1978 and 1981; he even went to the Supreme Court to prevent the federal government, which had the support of Ontario and New Brunswick, from putting a veto for Quebec in the Constitution.

• Once the Supreme Court had defined the rules of the game, the repatriation of the Constitution was carried out in strict accordance with the rule of law and respect for convention; furthermore, it was backed by a weighted 65 percent of the combined totals of Quebec’s members of Parliament in Ottawa and the Quebec National Assembly. Yet official Quebec history denounces the operation as “strong-arm tactics,” and a number of worthy individuals (including a former federal cabinet minister who had supported the operation) have discovered retroactively that it had humiliated them.

In short, Quebec governments had blocked all Canadian attempts at repatriation since 1927, and here was a separatist Quebec government trying to do it again in 1980. The premier of Quebec, they say,

loved to play the game. Well, he played at referendum and lost. He played at alliances and lost. He played at negotiation and lost. He played the Supreme Court game and lost. Finally, he played at getting votes from elected representatives and lost. How have Quebec’s nationalist thinkers explained this succession of failures? Since it is out of the question for them to consider that a Quebec government might have played its cards atrociously, they have had to distort history once again in order to blame it all on some imaginary betrayal.

So it goes that, with myths and delusions, the Quebec nationalist elites falsify history to prove that all Quebec’s political failures are someone else’s fault: the Conquest, the obscurantism of Duplessis’s time, slowness to enter the modern age, illiteracy, and all the rest.

It is never our leaders’ fault; it has to be blamed on some ominous plot against us.


The latest variation, the distinct society, turned up in post-referendum negotiations in 1980, when the premier of Quebec had to invent something to replace sovereignty-association, which had gone down with the referendum. The frivolity of the notion becomes apparent if we recall that its author considered his province so indistinct that he allied it with the other provinces of the Group of Eight in April, 1981, when all eight of them formally declared themselves equal to all the others, and approved an amending formula by which Quebec gave up its right of veto. Nevertheless, the phrase “distinct society” continues to be a hit.

That Quebec is a distinct society is totally obvious. The inhabitants of the province live in a territory defined by its borders. The majority speak French. They are governed under a particular system of laws. And these realities have been pivotal in the development of a culture which is uniquely theirs.

These are inarguable facts, arising from two centuries of history marked by intense struggles and juridico-political stubbornness. This produced the Canadian Constitution of 1867, whose federative rather than unitary form was imposed by French Canadians, led by Sir George-Etienne Cartier, on other Canadians. It was precisely this federalism which enabled and encouraged the development in Quebec of a province that is a distinct society.

This Constitution also gave birth to nine other provinces, all of them distinct from the others by reason of their territorial borders, their ethnic composition, their laws, and hence their cultures. (A society cannot be distinct in relation to another, in fact, without that other being distinct in relation to the first.)

Nonetheless, all these distinct societies share a considerable heritage, despite misconceptions to the contrary. Much is made of the fact, for example, that the civil law is the law in Quebec, whereas common law applies in the other provinces. Yet, however important the Civil Code may be, in reality it occupies a very small place in the total picture of provincial

The same glaring lack of professionalism is in evidence when nationalist thinkers in Quebec have used terms like “distinct society,” which succeeded “sovereignty-association,” which followed “equality or independence,” which was preceded by “special status.” None of these terms stands up to serious scrutiny.

laws by which we in Quebec are governed. Just like the other provinces, Quebec has enacted a vast number of statutory laws; they apply to all aspects of our collective lives and are the product of a juridical culture far more closely related to that of the other provinces than to the laws of New France or the Napoleonic Code.

At any rate, it is a truism if not a platitude to assert that Quebec is a distinct society, since the Constitution we adopted in 1867 has permitted it to be a distinct society. Since this is constitutionally recognized already, why are so many Quebec politicians, public law experts and businesspeople clamoring to have it inserted in the Constitution all over again? And why do they say they are humiliated when people wonder why this is so necessary?

Because, they say, the Constitution of 1982 recognizes the collective rights of other communities: ancestral rights of the native peoples, !§ the multicultural heritage of s many newer Canadians, even

0 women’s rights. So why such

1 niggardliness when it comes to writing into the same Constitution “the promotion of Quebec as a distinct society”?

This is gross sophistry. Unlike Quebecers, neither the native peoples nor the “multiculturals” nor women are collectivities defined by a specific territory and enjoying executive, legislative and judicial powers. Consequently, the Constitution does not give them, as collectivities, any specific jurisdictional power to “promote” their distinct societies. The only effect of these charter provisions is to give individuals belonging to these collectivities an additional judicial guarantee of protection against any interpretation of the charter whereby their rights could be overlooked. Somewhat in the same fashion, the charter has given to members of the French-Canadian collectivity scattered throughout Canada not the power to make laws to promote the French language, but the power to have the courts insist on the equality of French with English, to the extent guaranteed by the charter.

On the other hand, when the words “promotion of Quebec as a distinct society” are proposed for insertion either in the body of the Constitution or in the charter, they would apply to a province—that is, a constitutional entity with power to make laws, give effect to them and have the courts impose respect for them. The courts will be called upon to define these words. First, they will need to determine what new powers the Constitution intends to give to Quebec in order to better enable it to “promote its distinct society.” They will also need to consider how the province of Quebec is different from the other provinces, all of which are distinct societies, and all of which are empowered by the Canadian Constitution to promote the interests of their respective populations. Then they will ponder the wording of the proposed insertion whose purpose is to guide their interpretation of the charter: “ ‘distinct society’.. . includes a French-speaking majority, a unique culture, and a civil law tradition.”

Now the consequences become clear. The charter, whose essential purpose was to recognize the fundamental and inalienable rights of all Canadians equally would recognize thenceforth that in the province of Quebec these rights could be overridden or modified by provincial laws whose purpose is to promote a distinct society and more specifically to

Each new ransom paid to stave off the threat of schism will simply encourage the master blackmailers to renew the threat and double the ransom

favor “the French-speaking majority” that has “a unique culture” and “a civil law tradition.” There is a very good chance, then, that Quebecers of Irish, Jewish, or Vietnamese origin—even if they speak perfect French— would have trouble claiming to belong to this “distinct society” in any attempt to protect their fundamental rights as individuals against discriminatory laws enacted in a jurisdiction where they are in a minority. And even an “old stock” Quebecer would risk losing his fundamental rights if he were rash enough to pit them against Quebec laws passed for the promotion of “collective rights.”

This most recent ideological fad in Quebec, collective rights, has an enthusiastic following. Journalists, academics, students, businesspeople and politicians are all ready to man the barricades to protect the “collective rights” of Quebecers against any interference from the Canadian Constitution or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In this they are following the lead of their premier, who at the proclamation of Bill 178 banning signs in languages other than French, bragged that in the name of collective rights his government had trampled individual rights guaranteed by the charter.


The poverty of nationalistic thinking in Quebec is abundantly clear from the dispatch with which so many of our Québécois thinkers have embraced the concept of “collective rights.”

Under the charter, all Canadians stand as equals before the state. But Quebec’s nationalist elites, who are fearless in the face of competition from the United States and even the whole world, are scared stiff of English Canada. Only in the St-Jean Baptiste parade are we a race of giants; when the next day dawns and we come to measure ourselves against other Canadians as individuals, we are afraid we are not equal but inferior to them, and we run and hide behind our “collective” rights which, if need be, we invoke to override the fundamental rights of “others.” But what politician or academic or businessperson will tell us which collectivity is supposed to have those rights?

Is it the French-Canadian collectivity living here and there across Canada? Of course not, since the preponderant ideology in Quebec doesn’t give a fig about bilingualism in Canada, and Quebec has gone to bat in court for Alberta and Saskatchewan when they have denied French rights acquired even before these provinces joined Confederation in 1905.

Is it the collectivity of all Quebecers, then? No, because that collectivity is called a province, and the powers of the province were explicitly recognized long ago by the Constitution Act of 1867.

So it can only be some distinct collectivity within Quebec—but which? Certainly not the members of the anglophone collectivity, since Quebec law denies them any collective rights in relation to signs and certain aspects of education. We can rule out the native peoples, too, since they have been clearly given to understand that they cannot be a distinct society with the right to self-determination because the term has been reserved by Quebecers of another race.

When the nationalists talk about protecting collective rights, then, they are thinking only of French-speaking Quebecers. But are we sure we know

All the demands made by the Quebec nationalists can be summed up in just one: keep giving us new powers and the money to exercise them, or we’ll leave

what that means? There are plenty of anglophones who speak very good French and plenty of francophones of various cultural backgrounds who speak languages other than French. Will they all get protection of their collective rights at least for the French-speaking part of their being? If so, what will these rights consist of?

Can Haitian Quebecers, for instance, protect certain aspects of their

own culture by claiming protection as part of the French-speaking collectivity? Or are they excluded from the “unique culture” which Quebec will have the power to promote through derogations from the charter? Can neo-Canadian Quebecers of whatever origin choose to renounce their heritage and origins so as to share with “old stock” Quebecers the protection sought for the French-speaking collectivity? Or are we dealing with a frankly racist notion that makes secondor third-class citizens of everyone but “old stock” Quebecers?

There are no certainties here, but what does seem clear is that it will not be for the individual to decide whether or not he or she belongs to the collectivity of “old stock” Quebecers. This will be decided by a Quebec government through laws adopted by majority vote in the National Assembly. And so from collective rights on down to the distinct society, thirst for power in some, together with apathy and sometimes stupidity in others, will have established that, as a basic element of Quebec society, a legislative majority will have justification for arbitrarily overriding the fundamental rights of any citizen who has the privilege of living in Quebec.


Max Nemni, professor of political science at Laval University, has shown in a book published last year that between 1980 and 1992, Quebec’s “traditional” and “minimum” demands have been anything but traditional or minimum.

Looking back further still, it can be seen that there has never been a definitive answer to the question “What does Quebec want?”, which is still being asked by the few Englishspeaking Canadians who are not sick and tired of the evasiveness of Quebec nationalist thinking.

As far back as memory serves, French Canadians were essentially asking for one thing: respect for the French fact in Canada and incorporation of this fact into Canadian civil society, principally in the areas of language and education, and particularly in the federal government and provinces with French-speaking minorities. After two centuries of struggle and a few symbolic victories (bilingual money and stamps, for example), the Official Languages Act was passed in 1969 and minority-language education rights were entrenched in the Charter of 1982. The gates had suddenly opened and institutional bilingualism was recognized in Canada.

Then, equally suddenly, the Quebec nationalists no longer wanted the French language to be made equal with English throughout Canada. They denounced bilingualism as utopie at the very moment it was becoming a reality. With Bills 22 and 101, Quebec declared itself unilingually French and abandoned the cause of French-speaking minorities in other provinces, the better to marginalize the English-speaking minority in Quebec; the Quiet Revolution had suddenly empowered us to become indifferent to the first minority and intolerant of the second. It is as if we had practised

virtue only out of weakness or hypocrisy.

Yet Premier Jean Lesage, the father of the Quiet Revolution, had spelled out Quebec’s traditional demands at the federal-provincial conference held in July, 1960, a few weeks after the election that had brought him to power. In substance, they were as follows:

• Immediate resumption of talks on the repatriation of the Constitution and the constitutional amending formula;

• Insertion in the Constitution of a charter of rights, to include both language rights and education rights for French-speaking minorities outside Quebec;

• Creation of a constitutional court;

• Creation of a permanent federal-provincial affairs secretariat;

• Annual meetings of provincial premiers;

• An end to conditional grants and sharedcost programs.

But whenever these objectives were about to be reached, Quebec’s “traditional” demands would begin to evolve. Then, in 1964, Premier Lesage gave in to the nationalists and repudiated the Fulton-Favreau agreement on repatriation, which his government had negotiated and signed, and came up with an entirely new “traditional” demand, which came to be known as “special status.” The content of this notion remained deliberately vague, for it was to become essentially an instrument of blackmail:

Quebec would never allow the Canadian Constitution to be brought home unless the country paid a ransom to Quebec.

That ransom would vary from year to year, the only constant being that as soon as the ransom was paid, the Quebec government would come up with a new one. Thus, under Lesage, there was a lot of “opting out,” by which various federal programs that were applicable throughout the country would be administered in Quebec by the Quebec government, but at the Canadian government’s expense. There was also much hoopla over the new politique de grandeur, through which it was hoped that Quebec would gain recognition as an international power.

In 1966, Daniel Johnson’s government took power, and Quebec’s new demand became “equality or independence.”

In 1971, the profitable federalism premier scuttled his own agreement on repatriation and, as ransom, demanded the right to opt out of family allowances. This had barely been paid when he demanded another: cultural sovereignty.

In 1976, the sovereignty-association premier demanded sovereignty-association as ransom, failing which Quebec would become totally independent. After the defeat in the referendum, this premier demanded merely a massive transfer of federal powers to the provinces (the Château Consensus of September 1980) and refused to discuss even the possibility of repatriation until the transfer was assured. Then, in April, 1981, this premier allied himself with seven English-speaking provinces to demand a “notwithstanding” clause that provided for opting out with compensation.

On Nov. 5,1981, the same premier spelled out his three conditions for agreeing to the constitutional deal that had just been made: an amending formula with a guarantee of full compensation to a province opting out of a transfer of powers; restrictions on the right to work anywhere in the country; and restrictions on minority-language education rights.

The federal government indicated that it was ready to talk, but less than

The Quebec nationalist elites falsify history to prove that all Quebec’s political failures are someone else’s fault

two weeks later, on Nov. 13,1981, these three conditions had disappeared and been replaced by three others: recognition of Quebec’s distinct society, a constitutional veto and limitations to the charter.

After the federal election of 1984, the selfsame premier recommended that Quebec give “the fine risk of federalism” a try.

The profitable federalism premier, when he had returned to power in 1985, demanded that Quebec’s “distinct society” be mentioned in a preamble to the Constitution, failing which he would break off negotiations. A year or two later the “distinct society” was to be incorporated in the body of the Constitution as an interpretive clause (the Meech Lake accord), failing which Quebec would “resort to self-determination.” In February, 1990, while the Meech Lake accord was still being negotiated, this premier created the Allaire committee, whose mandate was to define the “traditional demands” to be made after the conclusion of the Meech Lake accord. The Allaire report, published less than a year later, demanded a massive transfer of federal powers just to Quebec. If this ransom were not paid, there would be a referendum on Quebec independence. As we know, this report was set aside by the premier at the policy convention of the Liberal Party of Quebec on Aug. 29, 1992.

Many in Quebec have the cheek to call this incredible grab bag “traditional demands”! And every time a new demand is announced, the self-appointed elites snap to attention, g ready to feel humiliated if the ransom is not 5paid at once. Most incredible of all, there are z still good souls in English Canada who are I ready to take these temper tantrums seriously and urge their compatriots to pay each new ransom for fear of losing each “last chance” to save Canada. Poor things, they have not yet realized that the nationalists’ thirst will never be satisfied, and that each new ransom paid to stave off the threat of schism will simply encourage the master blackmailers to renew the threat and double the ransom.

It has become clear that all the demands made of Canada by the Quebec nationalists can be summed up in just one: keep giving us new powers and the money to exercise them, or we’ll leave. If Quebecers are offered the chance to have their cake and eat it too, naturally they will accept. But as Canadians they also know that a country must choose to be or not to be; that dismantling Canada will not save it and the nationalists cannot be allowed to play the game of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose, or to hold referendums on independence every 10 years. And anyway, you cannot really believe in Canada and at the same time claim the right of self-determination for Canadian provinces.

“French Canadians have no opinions, they only have feelings,” Sir Wilfrid Laurier said. For unscrupulous politicians, there is no surer way of rousing feelings than to trumpet a call to pride of race. French Canadians will be rid of this kind of politician if the blackmail ceases, and the blackmail will cease only if Canada refuses to dance to that tune. Impartial history has shown that it was exactly this attitude that pushed separatism to the brink of the grave between 1980 and 1984.

Separatism has regained a lot of ground since 1984, of course, but as the Portuguese proverb goes, “The worst is not always certain.” However, to ward it off, our leaders will need a bit of courage. □