CANADA

HARDBALL POLITICS

Jacques Parizeau employs a mixture of smooth bromides and provocative images to sell his separatist cause

BARRY CAME December 26 1994
CANADA

HARDBALL POLITICS

Jacques Parizeau employs a mixture of smooth bromides and provocative images to sell his separatist cause

BARRY CAME December 26 1994

HARDBALL POLITICS

Jacques Parizeau employs a mixture of smooth bromides and provocative images to sell his separatist cause

BARRY CAME

VINCE BEISER

CANADA

For some three million Quebec households, a little Christmas surprise is coming in the mail this week. Not exactly a gift from the provincial government, it is nevertheless a personal note from Premier Jacques Parizeau, signed in his own hand and accompanied by season’s greetings—and a neatly packaged copy of his much discussed draft bill on sovereignty. “We are committed to consulting Quebecers as they have never been consulted before,” Parizeau told the Quebec National Assembly as he defended the yuletide mailer. What’s more, he saw nothing wrong with using $660,000 of the taxpayers’ money to do it. “It’s not an argument we are sending, but a draft bill,” he replied, wideeyed with indignation at Opposition suggestions he might be using public funds for partisan purposes. “Each citizen will be able to have a look and form an opinion. Why not? What’s wrong with that?”

Plenty, in the view of Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson, other federalist voices in the province, much neutral opinion and all but the most diehard supporters of the Quebec separatist movement. Johnson, demanding equal opportunity to advance the federalist point of view, described Parizeau’s postal project as yet another example of the PQ leader’s determination to “put the state in the service of the cause.” And, indeed, the mailer does underscore the extent to which the separatist party leader is willing to travel in pursuit of his ultimate objective. “There’s not much Parizeau won’t do to try to stack the odds in his favor,” says John Parisella, former chief of staff to Liberal premier Robert Bourassa and now a Montreal advertising executive and parttime political science professor at Concordia University. ‘The guy really does intend to take no prisoners.”

In public at least, that is certainly not the impression that Parizeau nor any of his chief advisers are anxious to leave. In New York City last week, the Premier chose to paint himself and his movement in calmly rational colors during a luncheon speech at the Americas Society on Park Avenue. He told a carefully preselected crowd of 150, composed mainly of corporate middle managers from Wall Street and not quite top-level foreign policy officials, that Quebec independence was as inevitable as divorce between a couple with “irreconcilable differences.” He said it was likely to be mutually beneficial for both parties and unlikely to disrupt existing continental trading arrangements and intergovernmental relationships. “What can America do about it?” he asked. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

Parizeau projected the same, imperturbable public image after his return home from New York, when he found on his doorstep a fractious gathering of 250 native chiefs from across Canada, most of them deeply offended by the entire notion of Quebec independence. The chiefs, delegates from the Assembly of Lirst Nations (AFN), opened a three-day conclave at a Quebec City hotel, just down the street from Parizeau’s office, with a five-hour debate on the Premier’s draft bill on sovereignty. At the end of it, they passed a unanimous resolution condemning the PQ program. The chiefs maintained that Quebec sovereignty constituted a threat to inherent aboriginal rights. They rejected the idea, dogma among committed Péquistes, that the province’s borders are unalterable. And, for good measure, they reiterated their long-standing claim that Quebec cannot separate from Canada without first obtaining the consent of native peoples. “We will not allow our rights to be determined by the descendants of those who characterized us as savages, wild creatures, squatters and heathens,” vowed Matthew Coon Come, grand chief of the Grand Council of the Crees of Quebec.

Even though there are no more than 60,000 natives in Quebec, scattered among 11 separate nations, they are important to the PQ’s plan for independence. Cree Chief Coon Come put his finger on the reason why following last week’s AFN meeting. “This is going to be a battle of international recognition,” he remarked, pointing to Parizeau’s New York sojourn and the premier’s scheduled visit to Paris in January. ‘What they’re after is one important country to recognize them as a state.” The natives hope they can thwart that effort. Last week in Quebec City, the AFN chiefs agreed to send a delegation to the United Nations to argue that Quebec independence poses a discernible threat to the continuing survival of native peoples in the province.

Despite a facade of unconcern, Parizeau and his team are well aware of the threat posed by natives. In part, they plan to counter it by pointing out that Quebec’s aboriginal people do not speak with one monolithic voice. Certainly, Quebec’s French-speaking native nations do not share the deep-seated animosity to the PQ felt by the province’s more numerous English-speakers, such as the Cree and Mohawks. Significantly, Huron Chief Max Gros-Louis urged moderation upon the AFN chiefs last week, warning them to avoid being used by either side in the upcoming referendum battle. “Let us never forget that our basic objective is not to put on the boots of federalism or the shoes of sovereignty,” he said, “but rather, the moccasins of our inherent rights to govern our own affairs.”

This week, the PQ government will launch an attempt to exploit those cracks in native unity when Parizeau’s parliamentary secretary for native affairs, David Cliche, tables a self-government offer aimed at two of the French-speaking native nations—the Attikameks and the Montagnais. While Cliche declined last week to disclose details, it is believed to involve a land claim settlement worth about $400 million—a development that would roughly double the territory now controlled by the 5,000 Attikameks and 14,000 Montagnais in central and eastern Quebec.

Such apparent attempts to divide and conquer are consistent with the hardball tactics that Parizeau and his ministers have been employing in the run-up to the referendum campaign. In stark contrast to the soothing bromides that the premier delivered beneath the crystal chandeliers and frescoed ceiling at New York’s Americas Society, Parizeau revealed another side of his strategy to the Los Angeles Times. In the interview published on the eve of his New York visit, he frankly admitted that winning the upcoming referendum now depended largely on his own political skills—and the chance to exploit anti-Quebec sentiment in the rest of Canada. “I can’t say I’m a superb tactician,” he told the United States’ third-largest daily newspaper. “Other people will have to comment on how skilful I am. But it’s now a question of tactics and strategy. Get me a half-dozen Ontarians who put their feet to the Quebec flag, and I’ve got it.”

Parizeau was alluding to an incident in May, 1990, in which a handful of anti-French activists in Brockville, Ont., stomped on the Quebec flag—a scene that was played over and over again on Quebec television newscasts at the height of the debate over the Meech Lake constitutional accord. In an interview with Maclean’s last week, Prime Minister Jean Chretien said: ‘To base the history of a country on an incident like that, and hoping for another one to come, is pretty desperate.” Lise Bisonnette, publisher of the nationalist-minded Le Devoir, also rebuked Parizeau for the remark, accusing him of sending contradictory signals. While arguing the logical necessity of independence, he was also, Bisonnette wrote, “counting on rage instead of reason, on resentment more than a friendly divorce, on old reflexes rather than visions of the future.”

Parizeau seemed disinclined to take the advice. Later in the week, responding to questions in the National Assembly on whether or not an independent Quebec would gain admission into the North American Free Trade Agreement, Parizeau used a provocative image to describe the current state of relations between Quebec and the rest of the country. It is, he said, like “two scorpions in a bottle,” adding that “it’s time for Canadians to find their country and for Quebecers to find theirs.”

There is, perhaps, a straightforward explanation for Parizeau’s often strident tone. In public opinion polls since the election of the PQ government on Sept. 12, support for independence has remained sluggish. For example, a Léger & Léger poll released late last week indicated that 36 per cent of Quebecers supported sovereignty, while 42 per cent were opposed and 22 per cent were undecided. But, according to most experts on both sides of the debate, those who have not yet made up their minds are less likely to opt in the end for sovereignty. With statistics like that, Parizeau and his Péquistes may have no other choice than to place their hopes for success on hot emotion rather than cool reason.