Imagine, for a potentially delightful moment, that
you are one of the directors of a large corporation. One day, a group representing a significant
minority of shareholders informs you that it wishes to unilaterally withdraw its assets in order to form a new company. That decision, the group tells you, is not negotiable (although its members also say they plan to retain the right to identify themselves in future as part of your company even after they depart). They then invite you to devote your time to participating in and designing the structure of their new company, even as they remain a part of your own.
Call that proposal by the dissident
shareholders an attempt at a leveraged buyout—or, more to the point, an act of remarkable cheek. Either way, it is only logical that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said an unequivocal No last week to a similar offer in a constitutional sense from Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau. What is less logical, and more frightening for federalists, is the relative ease with which some of Chrétien’s caucus members and advisers were spooked in his ab-
sence into making panicky calls to play along with Parizeau.
With Chrétien still in Europe for international meetings, Ottawa’s first response to Parizeau came from Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, who said flatly that the federal government would not participate in Parizeau’s plan. Several hours later, Quebec Liberal party Leader Daniel Johnson—who will lead the federalist forces in a referendum—said the same. Almost immediately, some federal Liberal MPs and government advisers began wringing their hands and privately suggesting that Johnson and Copps had gone too far. Copps, said one Liberal MP, “should have left us more breathing room” by ceding the floor to a Quebec MP, such as Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Marcel Massé. And Chrétien, suggested one government adviser on constitutional issues, should be prepared to back off his refusal to discuss the Constitution and to indicate an eventual readiness to make a new offer to Quebec. It was not, said the same adviser, “a
very good start for federalists.”
That much is true, although the rest of that logic is not. Remarkably, some federalists have allowed themselves to be
swayed by the Parti Québécois argument that the federal government “has nothing to offer to Quebecers”—as if the non-existent, undefined, putative Republic of Quebec were somehow more real and less threatening than the existing country of Canada. True, it may not be the utopia that Parizeau promises. But, as René Lévesque once memorably noted, it is not a gulag either.
More to the point, Chrétien was not elected on a promise to help Quebec build a new state. How would the nine other
provinces react if some of the government’s most senior ministers—including such Quebecers as the Prime Minister, Massé, Finance Minister Paul Martin and Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet— took on part-time work constructing a new Quebec house in addition to their day jobs? And Chrétien would have even less to gain if he were to break his promise not to talk about the Constitution in order to make proposals to
a secessionist government that has no interest in receiving them.
That sort of talk ceased as soon as Chrétien returned to Canada and put a stop to it. But it underlined the fragility of federalist consensus when he is not present, and served as a potent reminder that Ottawa’s circling school of constitutional sharks, lobbyists and interest groups are never far from the swirling, tempestuous waters that surround the issue. For them, another crisis is never more than a notwithstanding clause away, thereby feeding their insatiable appetite for a fresh taste of conventions, contracts and compositions in which they can dissect subsections, subordinate clauses and freshly minted preambles for both the Quebec and Canada constitutions.
Mark down late January on the calendar. That is when the next attack of the Dread Constitutional Junkies is likely to occur in Ottawa, when Chrétien goes to Latin America for his next trip abroad. For all our sakes and collective sanity, wish him Godspeed, and a safe, swift return.
Amazingly, some Liberal advisers want to play along with Jacques Parizeau’s sovereignty game
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