CANADA

PARIZEAITS GAMBIT

BARRY CAME December 19 1994
CANADA

PARIZEAITS GAMBIT

BARRY CAME December 19 1994

PARIZEAITS GAMBIT

CANADA

It begins again. The debate that is as old as Canada is once more about to descend upon the land. And if there were any lingering doubts about the divisive, debilitating nature of the coming struggle, they were quickly erased last week when Jacques Parizeau finally unfurled the map he hopes will lead Quebec out of Confederation. The Quebec premier painted his plan in glowing terms, describing it as an invitation to “every woman and man’’ in the province to help “solve once and for all the constitutional problem that has preoccupied generations of Quebecers.” Within hours of the announcement, however, Parizeau met a withering storm of criticism. “This is a sad day for democracy,” declared Quebec Liberal

Leader Daniel Johnson, setting the tone for what was to follow. “The process initiated today is illegitimate, propaganda, a masquerade, a parody of popular consultation.” It was the referendum process outlined by Parizeau, as much as its ultimate goal, that outraged the premier’s federalist opponents and dismayed even many of those normally sympathetic to the separatist cause, Quebec’s French-language media in particular. In terms of content, there were few surprises in the plan. It is, in fact, a mirror of the Parti Québécois program in that it offers a blueprint for an independent Quebec, including assertions that Quebecers would be able to keep Canadian citizenship, Canadian currency, Canadian economic links and Canadian-sponsored membership in such

‘The process is illegitimate, a parody of popular consultation’

international trading arrangements as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the all-important North American Free Trade Agreement.

But the sting in the tail of Parizeau’s plan lay in the method he chose to coax Quebec voters into endorsing it: a vast public consultation designed to provoke debate exclusively on defining how Quebec should become independent without ever posing the question of why the goal is necessary, or even desirable. “It’s a hijack of Parliament’s prerogatives,” complained Laval University’s constitutional guru Léon Dion, “a public relations operation designed to create the kind of momentum for sovereignty that existed in

Quebec right after the failure of the Meech Lake accord.”

The vehicle—a draft bill that Parizeau tabled last week in Quebec’s national assembly—is unusual. In 17 separate clauses, it outlines the PQ’s plan for sovereignty, sets the terms for the debate, and lays out the question that will be put to the voters in a referendum that Parizeau has pledged to hold by the end of 1995—and which may come as early as next spring. The question is mercifully brief, a mere 17 words compared with the 109 words that were contained in the question for René Lévesque’s 1980 vote on sovereignty-association. But the question will not be the simple Yes or No to sovereignty that Parizeau repeatedly promised to put before Quebecers. Rather, it will ask voters: “Are you in favor of the act passed by the national assembly declaring the sovereignty of Quebec? Yes or No.”

Even worse, from the federalist point of view, is the intricate public consultation process that will precede the national assembly’s adoption of the draft legislation. Parizeau has budgeted $2 million to fund the work of at least 15 regional commissions, chaired by local officials designated by the government. To be appointed in January, the commissions will travel throughout the province during February, holding public

hearings on the draft bill. In March, they are to submit reports on their findings to a body composed of the individual commission chairmen, which will, in turn, submit recommendations to the government on changes to the legislation.

In presenting his plan during a meticulously orchestrated province-wide television address and news conference last week, Parizeau attempted to portray the entire process as a laudatory exercise in participatory democracy. “From this day forward, Quebecers will have an opportunity to open a new chapter in the history of Quebec,” he proclaimed. “The draft bill means the document is yours. Yours to modify. Yours to shape the way you see fit. Every Quebec woman and man will indeed be his or her own member of the national assembly and will vote for or against this law.”

The federalist forces, led by provincial Liberal Leader Johnson, immediately denounced the entire process as a sham, a partisan use of $2 million in public funds to manipulate popular opinion. “Even if everyone is invited, how can it be imagined that Quebecers who do not share the idea of separation from Canada will participate in this exercise?” Johnson angrily demanded in the national assembly. “How can federalist Quebecers participate in drawing up a decía-

'Quebecers have an opportunity to open a new chapter in their history’

ration of sovereignty?” He later convened an emergency session of the Liberal caucus that unanimously agreed to boycott the PQ’s consultation process. Appearing on television, Johnson outlined three reasons for that decision: it would force participants to tacitly accept sovereignty, divert attention from the real issue of whether Quebec should become sovereign, and violate the spirit of Lévesque’s 1980 referendum law. (That legislation places both sides of a referendum issue on an equal footing by establishing Yes and No umbrella committees, through which all decisions and funding are channelled.)

Others in the federalist camp were quick to follow suit. In Ottawa, Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, acting in the absence of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who was in Budapest attending the Conference on Security and Co-

operation in Europe, told the House of Commons that Parizeau “had no right to put a bill before the people when the people have not chosen the route of separation.” Federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Marcel Massé chimed in, demanding: “Why should we play Parizeau’s game? He’s asking questions on a law that’s not democratic.” And Reform Leader Preston Manning went a step further by suggesting that Parizeau’s action could well be illegal, infringing on jurisdictions that are within the federal government’s sole purview. “The government of Quebec has put forward a draft bill that is clearly beyond the powers and competence of the Quebec government,” he said. Elsewhere, condemnation was equally swift and sweeping from most premiers and, upon his return to Canada, from Chrétien.

There was criticism as well from non-politicians. Signalling potential trouble on the horizon for the Péquistes, Matthew CoonCome, grand chief of Quebec’s 12,000 Cree natives, took particular issue with one clause in Parizeau’s draft bill. It recognizes the right of aboriginal communities in the province to self-government— but only on lands over which they have full ownership. And it stipulates further that “such guarantee and recognition shall be exercised in a manner consistent with the territorial integrity of Quebec.” According to Coon-Come, the bill “places the territorial integrity of Quebec above the human rights of the aboriginal inhabitants of Quebec. It’s like one parent in a divorce announcing unilaterally that he’s leaving, but saying he’ll keep the house, the car and the children.” As a result, the Cree plan to battle Parizeau on two fronts—at the ballot box and in court. Coon-Come said his people will boycott the Quebec referendum and hold a vote of their own to decide whether they want to stay in Canada or secede with Quebec if the province separates. At the same time, he said, they are laying plans to launch a legal challenge against Parizeau’s draft legislation.

The Quebec government also is facing trouble on another native front. Late last week, the 7,500 Inuit in northern Quebec, inhabiting the vast territory known as Nunavik, publicly rejected Parizeau’s independence program and formally requested

the federal government to intervene to protect their rights in the one-third of Quebec they claim as their own. “If Quebec opts for sovereignty, the future of Nunavik will not be decided by Quebec or by the rest of Canada but by the Inuit who are resident in this territory,” Quebec Inuit spokesman Zebedee Nungak announced at the end of a two-day conference in Montreal of 80 Inuit leaders. Like their Cree neighbors, the Inuit indicated that they intend to boycott Parizeau’s public consultation process and stage their own referendum.

The Inuit call for federal assistance is likely to increase the pressure on Ottawa to step more actively into the Quebec debate. Until last week, in fact, there were few signs of that happening. Chrétien, who returned from Europe only on Wednesday, was one of the last major political figures in the country to pronounce on the unfolding developments in Quebec. When he finally did emerge, however, he was forceful in his denunciations. In his first public comment, he described the PQ program as a “farce.”

He told an audience in St. John’s, Nfld., that “the process is so flawed, no one will take it seriously.” While admitting that Canada is facing “a very exciting and difficult year,” he went on to add, “I’m not scared. There’s no reason to be scared. I have the best product to offer—Canada.”

In the Commons the next day, Chrétien attacked Parizeau’s soothing attempts to reassure Quebecers that in the event of independence they will have no trouble sharing citizenship, currency and economic association with Canada. “They want to keep the Canadian currency,” the Prime Minister declared, “so monetary policy will be decided by this Parliament and they will have no voice.” Similarly, he noted that “citizenship of Canada will be determined by the Parliament of Canada, not by the parliament of Quebec.”

The Prime Minister’s comments marked a departure from the previously existing policy of saying as little as possible in public about the Quebec issue. It is not yet clear, however, that a change in federal tactics is evolving. Certainly, a senior adviser to Finance Minister Paul Martin told Maclean’s last week the timing of Quebec’s referendum “will not change one iota of our budget planning.” The federal government is intent on avoiding any perception that Ottawa is pandering to Quebec, largely because it would infuriate the rest of the country, not to mention international money markets, which have so far remained remarkably indifferent to events in Quebec. “We think it would be insulting to Quebecers to imply they were somehow less aware of the importance of deficit reduction than other Canadians,” sniffed Martin’s adviser.

The aim, as it has been all along, is to persuade Quebecers of the benefits of the federal system by demonstrating an ability to

govern well, not least by meeting Martin’s stated goal of reducing the federal deficit to three per cent of GNP by 1997. In pursuit of this target, there are even some members of Chrétien’s entourage who have been urging an acceleration of cost-cutting precisely because of the situation in Quebec. With Parizeau’s government deficit now forecast to hit a record $5.7 billion, and with still more public money being channelled into the referendum campaign, so the reasoning goes, at least some Quebec voters may be

Tm not scared:

I have the best product to offer'

impressed by efforts to bring federal finances under control.

The larger challenge, of course, is the one that Manning continues to raise in the Commons: the fundamental legitimacy of Parizeau’s referendum plan. In view of the widespread consensus that it is unconstitutional under Canadian law, the Quebec premier is counting heavily on the weight of international law and opinion to support the province’s claim to independence. It is for this reason that Parizeau has taken pains to remove potential irritants in Quebec’s relationship with the United States, whose attitude towards Quebec will likely be crucial if independence ever draws near. In his continuing effort to address American concerns, Parizeau was to travel to New York City this week on his first official trip outside of Canada since being elected premier. He was scheduled to address a meeting of the Americas Society

and to appear on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS.

Despite the separatists’ hopes, it is not clear that international law will be of much help to their cause. In 1992, a provincial commission asked five prominent international jurists for an opinion on the issue. The jurists took five volumes to come up with two basic conclusions: Quebec cannot legally separate from Canada, but if the province does somehow manage the feat, then it could leave Confederation with its boundaries intact. Karen Knop, a professor of international law at the University of Toronto, points out that international jurists are divided. “Self-determination has merged very much with human considerations,” she says. “If there really are gross human-rights abuses, then secession is permissible.” While that would not appear to apply to the Quebec situation, Knop says there is also “a school of thought that is willing to lay increased emphasis on representative democracy as another good reason to exit.”

Others warn that the country may be plunged into a constitutional crisis if the PQ’s proposed sovereignty bill is sent to Quebec Lt.-Gov. Martial Asselin for royal assent. John Whyte, a leading expert on constitutional law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., says that it is quite possible that the lieutenant-governor— who in effect would be abolishing his own office if he went along with the law—might balk. That, in turn, could set the stage for a protracted political and legal struggle between Ottawa and Quebec City. “We could have a serious conflict,” says Whyte.

But no matter what the opinions of the legal experts, in the end much will depend on the attitudes of Quebecers themselves. And at the moment, Quebec opinion remains confused and extremely volatile. Only last week, La Presse and Radio-Canada published the results of the first public opinion survey taken after Parizeau unveiled his contentious program. Conducted by the Montreal-based polling firm SOM the day after Parizeau’s announcement, it found that 45 per cent of the 1,022 Quebecers surveyed supported his referendum plan, 37 per cent were opposed and 18 per cent were undecided. At the same time, however, the poll also discovered that only 32 per cent favored the definition of sovereignty outlined in Parizeau’s draft bill, while 44 per cent were opposed. A strong majority—68 per cent—wanted federalists to participate in the consultative process. That is not likely to happen without significant changes in the ground rules to permit a balanced debate. So for the moment, at least, Parizeau and the Péquistes risk preaching to nobody but those already converted to the cause of Quebec’s independence.

BARRY CAME

in Montreal with

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

in Ottawa and

TOM FENNELL

in Toronto