There’s going to be a Quebec election this year, and I’d like to vote for Jacques Parizeau. Ah, let me rephrase that. I’d like to have the option of voting for Parizeau and his Parti Québécois.
There’s no denying the man’s talent. If he had stayed with the Bank of Canada, where he worked briefly as a young economist, he’d probably be its governor today. He was one of the young tigers who made things hum along Quebec City’s Grande Allée in the 1960s and 1970s. And you have to warm, at least a bit, to a politician with such an impeccable English accent (he really does say “By Jove!”) and the Scottish blood of greatgreat-granddad James Munro coursing in his veins. He looked almost indecently at home with the upper crust of Anglo society at last fall’s St. Andrew’s Ball. He even liked the bagpipes.
There’s this wee problem on the constitutional front. Jacques/Jack/Jock Parizeau is a separatist. He’s even using the big S-word himself these days.
What’s more, he’s serious—not one of your fainthearts like René Lévesque, who by the end of his career had pretty well reconciled himself to remaining Canadian. Parizeau says that if elected premier, he will call a referendum on independence, perhaps within weeks. And if the answer isn’t Yes, well the PQ will try again, and again, in an infinity of referendums until Quebecers get it right. You can see why one hesitates to vote Péquiste.
Decision time is fast approaching, since we may have a provincial election as early as June. Since taking over as premier in January, Daniel Johnson has been all straight talk and swift decisions—delivering what the British call the smack of firm government—
Allan Fotheringham is on assignment
With Quebec’s next election looming, voters are facing a tough choice between two candidates and two visions of the future
and it has done wonders for the Liberals.
The deal with Ottawa to slash tobacco taxes provides an illuminating example. At one level, it was an appalling act. Many young lives will be blighted by the smoking that results from lower cigarette prices.
At the same time, the action showed Ottawa-Quebec co-operation in action, and calmed a developing hysteria in the province over smuggling, the black market, citizen tax defiance and Indian crime. Politically, dammit, it was a masterstroke.
The result of two months of furious activity is that the parties are neck and neck in the polls, with Johnson actually exceeding Parizeau in personal popularity. It’s not enough, yet, to re-elect the Liberals—the PQ’s lead among francophone voters would still give them victory—but suddenly a government that had been pronounced dead on its feet is kicking hard.
What now? Here are two scenarios.
In Scenario A, still the most likely, the Parti Québécois wins the election. Jacques Parizeau becomes premier and calls his referendum. This would be the Big One. No soft question on sovereignty-association; no promise of another vote to confirm things;
just Yes or No to independence, and if it’s Yes, we’re outta here.
There is something to be said for facing the issue now. The polls confirm what one feels in the tripes: Quebecers, battered by the recession, their metropolis on its knees economically, are not in the mood for a separatist adventure. They would likely vote No, and in so doing, put the question back on the shelf for at least a decade, perhaps a generation and maybe even for good.
A No vote would let us all unwind and get on with our lives. This could be the blinkered nationalists’ last chance, whatever Parizeau threatens.
The downside is that they just might win. A PQ government in Quebec City could be counted on to create confrontations, poison wells and to make the numbers dance. Nor would there be the Jovian figure of Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa, ready to sweep down and smite the foe as he did so effectively in the 1980 referendum.
And, of course, many things can happen during a campaign, most of them bad. Just ask the Yes campaigners of 1980, who were on a roll until they got handbagged by the province’s Yvettes (a movement of federalist women roused to fury by PQ putdowns). Anything that makes Quebecers feel they have been rejected by the rest of Canada—something as small and boneheaded as another Sault Ste. Marie declaring itself unilingual— could bring back the defiant, lef s-go-it-alone feelings that swept Quebec in 1990 when the Meech Lake accord went under.
So let’s try Scenario B: re-elect Daniel Johnson’s Liberals and remove the possibility of a referendum for the immediate future.
This has its attractions. It would be a punch to the solar plexus of the indépendantistes, who have been banking on an election win for nearly four years. It would let a federalist premier get on with the job of cementing sensible, solid relations with Ottawa (under the leadership of another Canadianized Québécois) and the rest of the country. In five years’ time, with both men elected to second terms, the case for Canada could look stronger than ever.
There is one tiny worry: Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Québécois. If Parizeau should lose this year’s election, he will be dumped as leader of the PQ—and replaced, almost certainly, by the man who may be the most compelling politician in the hemisphere.
Dynamic, principled, brooding, eloquent, Bouchard touches something fundamental that the Parizeaus, Johnsons and Jean Chrétiens miss by a mile. He makes Quebecers feel their humiliation; he paints visions of broad, sunlit uplands; he angers the blood and stirs the soul. Should he win the following provincial election and then call a referendum on independence, he would be a very dangerous opponent indeed.
In Quebec, as usual, everything is still to play for. Don’t go away until we do.
Norman Webster is a columnist for The Gazette and Le Devoir in Montreal.
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