The war of words over Quebec’s territory heralds a nasty fight over Canada’s future

BARRY CAME May 30 1994


The war of words over Quebec’s territory heralds a nasty fight over Canada’s future

BARRY CAME May 30 1994



The war of words over Quebec’s territory heralds a nasty fight over Canada’s future

At Wendake, the old Huron settlement on the northern outskirts of Quebec City, the atmosphere was a little rowdy. Thirty of Quebec’s native chiefs were assembled for a very private meeting last week with federal Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin. “There were a lot of frustrated Indians there,” Jerry Peltier, chief of the Mohawk band at Kanesatake near Montreal, later admitted. “We were not very quiet.” Upset by the looming prospect of Quebec independence, the chiefs, representing 10 of the province’s 11 aboriginal nations, wanted answers. But even they were unprepared for the candid reply they eventually received. Irwin told the native leaders in no uncertain terms they were free to remain in Canada if Quebec separates. More to the point, he indicated that he saw no good reason why they could not take their ancestral lands—roughly two-thirds of Quebec’s present territory—with them, calling into question the integrity of the province’s borders.

Irwin’s forthright declaration, reiterated in public the following day, ignited a fire storm that quickly swept across Canada. Inside Quebec, it lit up radio hotlines with a chorus of indignant protest and provoked predictable cries of outrage from the province’s separatists. Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau went so far as to label Irwin a “fool.” Even Quebec’s federalist forces, acutely aware of the incendiary nature of any question about the province’s territory, were moved to complain. But it was outside Quebec that the most unsettling developments occurred. For Irwin’s remarks came at the same moment that two provincial premiers,

British Columbia’s Michael Harcourt and Saskatchewan’s Roy Romanow, also decided to enter the fray by issuing dire warnings about the impact of Quebec secession. That appeared to herald a new phase in the national unity debate, an ominous sign that opinions are hardening in preparation for a nasty, no-holds-barred battle over Canada’s future.

The fight was quickly joined. While Irwin was busy on one side of the country offering natives Ottawa’s unqualified support in the contest with Quebec’s separatists, Harcourt was bluntly warning those same separatist forces to expect Western Canada’s “immense anger”—as well as undying economic and political hostility—should they succeed in splitting the nation. Romanow weighed in with a similarly bellicose view, labelling those who were travelling the world selling separatism

as being “phoney as a $3 bill” with their claims that separatism could be achieved without subsequent years of acrimonious dispute. In Quebec, separatist leaders replied in kind. Deriding the rising federalist chorus as nothing more than “empty threats,” Parizeau declared in the Quebec National Assembly: “You cannot threaten economic reprisals against us. Never again will we put ourselves in the hands of those we are negotiating with.” Caught squarely in the middle of the escalating rhetoric was Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, whose low-key strategy towards Quebec’s political future was compromised not only by his own Indian Affairs minister but also by the warlike pronouncements of the premiers.

No single issue in the coming fight is as explosive as Quebec’s borders. It is a matter that strikes a deep psychological chord within most Quebecers. And for that very reason it is central to the separatist program, a “sacred obligation” as Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard, with characteristic melodrama, phrased it last week in Paris. Both Bouchard and Parizeau cite Canadian law, intemational law and a host of legal experts to defend the integrity of Quebec’s current borders—which include vast northern territories granted to the province by the federal government after it entered Confederation in 1867. “The situation is totally clear,” Parizeau claimed last week. “Nothing in international law supports those who imagine having a right to secede or to parcel out land in the event Quebec becomes a sovereign country. When Quebec becomes a sovereign nation it will be within the present boundaries.”


Several English Canadian premiers waded into the debate over Quebec separatism last week. Here’s what they said, or did not say:

Michael Harcourt, British Columbia: “If they [Quebec] decided to separate we wouldn’t be the best of friends; we’d be the worst of enemies. The anger that would be felt by British Columbians ... would be immense.”

Ralph Klein, Alberta: “We could create some problems for ourselves if we start to make threats and a lot of noise.”

Roy Romanow, Saskatchewan: “The notion that sovereignty can be attained by a gentle discussion is pipe-dreaming.”

Gary Filmon, Manitoba: “I don’t want to do anything that would fuel separation.”

Bob Rae, Ontario: On a trade mission to Asia and unavailable

for comment. Has said in the past that Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard “wants to kid • everybody” by claiming that separation could be relatively painless.

Frank McKenna, New Brunswick: “We have to demonstrate a firmness, but also our love and our strong desire that Quebec remain part of the Canadian family.”

John Savage, Nova Scotia: No position, though his office said he is “saddened” by talk of separation. Catherine Callbeck, Prince Edward Island: No public position.

Clyde Wells, Newfoundland: No public position.

The vast majority of Quebec’s 130,000 native people do not agree. Nor does Irwin, judging from his remarks last week. “He told us that we were not pieces of furniture for the separatists to move around as they wished,” Mohawk Chief Peltier recalled. Huron Chief Konrad Sioui agreed with Peltier’s interpretation. ‘When we asked him if this was going to be yet one more silent assurance,” Sioui continued, “he promised that he was prepared to repeat the same guarantees in public, something that Mulroney and his crowd never had the guts to do.”

The very next day, Irwin lived up to his word. “The natives are really frightened and they want to remain part of Canada,” the minister announced as he headed into a two-day federal-provincial meeting on native self-government in Quebec City. “The separatists say they have a right to decide, then why don’t the aboriginal people who have been here 20 times as long have the same right?”

Irwin’s remarks came on the heels of a similar hard-edged declaration from B.C. Premier Harcourt. And like Irwin, Harcourt raised the delicate subject of Quebec’s boundaries, claiming that British Columbia would question an independent Quebec’s claim to the resource-rich northern territories where the majority of its native peoples live.

The reaction from Quebec was instantaneous and equally combative. Parizeau accused both the federal government and Harcourt of using natives as pawns in the struggle against separatism. “As the sovereignty of Quebec becomes more probable, people are getting angry,” he charged. “I’ve got to say periodically, ‘Pipe down.’ A great deal of your ill will, of your hollering, has absolutely no legal or constitutional basis. And therefore, as ministers or premiers, keep your shirt on.”

The advice went unheeded. In rapid succession, a widening circle of political leaders were drawn into the debate. Saskatchewan Premier Romanow claimed that Parizeau and Bouchard were perpetrating a “con job” on Quebec’s people, creating the illusion that the move to independence “would be inevitable and easy with some kind of economic association with Canada afterward.” From Paris, where he was romancing French leaders, Bouchard shot back: “Now we know what they think of us. We know now the masks are falling down.” Back in Quebec, Premier Daniel Johnson was reluctantly dragged in, forced into the uncomfortable

position of siding with the separatists in asserting that decisions about the province’s future would be made “in Quebec by Quebecers.” Finally, even Chrétien had to abandon the studied silence he had previously struggled to maintain. He described the remarks by Harcourt, Romanow and Irwin as “normal” in light of Bouchard’s recent travels to sell separatism. “Mr. Bouchard is moving around the country provoking these debates,” the Prime Minister asserted. “He’s bound to have some reaction.”

While Chrétien refused to criticize his Indian Affairs minister publicly, advisers in the Prime Minister’s Office took pains to privately indicate that Irwin’s blunt comments did not reflect a new and more combative federal strategy towards the prospect of Quebec independence. “He most certainly was not speaking on the Prime Minister’s behalf and certainly not with the Prime Minister’s prior knowledge,” said a Chrétien aide. Irwin’s indiscretion likely came as no surprise to Chrétien. In his 1985 autobiography, Straight from the Heart, the Prime Minister recalled that while soliciting leadership support for him in the early 1980s, Irwin “on several occasions got so excited talking to the press that I had to cool him down.” As one of Chrétien’s closest political allies, Irwin will likely be reprimanded, but not too severely. “We regard this as nothing more than a little hiccup in our overall strategy,” said the Chrétien aide.

However, it will be far more difficult to contain the tenor of the national unity debate now that the simmering emotions have been released. Quebec’s natives have certainly been given a powerful boost in their campaign to resist inclusion in any future independent Quebec no matter what steps are taken to dilute the effect of Irwin’s unqualified support for their cause. “We’ve now been placed in the position of helping Canada,” argued Huron Chief Sioui. ‘We’re going to help hold this country together. And we’re not going to do it because we’re for English Canada or because we’re against French Canada. We’re going to do in order to help ourselves.”

Even Quebec’s separatists agree that the natives’ campaign has been bolstered. “The rabbit is running,” agreed David Cliche, Parizeau’s principal adviser on native matters and the man most likely to be placed in charge of native affairs should the PQ win power. But neither Cliche nor any other senior Péquiste acknowledged being disturbed by the prospect of stiffened native resolve. “I think we have a solid legal case for preserving Quebec’s territorial integrity,” Cliche maintained, citing the same legal sources as those Parizeau has repeatedly mentioned—a panel of five UN legal experts who carried out a study for the Quebec National Assembly in 1992.

Like Parizeau, Cliche argued that the panel concluded that under international law the province’s current boundaries would remain intact after independence. Neither Cliche nor Parizeau, however, pay much attention to the fact that the UN panel also admitted that the case is not watertight, particularly if Canada refuses to consent to the continued existence of the province’s boundaries as they now exist.

Legalities aside, Cliche also conceded that the separatists’ problems with the natives are largely political. Any doubts on that score were quickly erased when tension suddenly heightened last week in the pine forest outside Oka, Que. Resurrecting memories of the summer-long crisis four years ago, Mohawks from neighboring Kanesatake moved bulldozers and other heavy machinery back into the disputed forest in an attempt to clear the land for an expanded native cemetery right next to Oka’s infamous golf course.

But even as that dispute simmered away, Quebec’s separatists could not hide their pleasure at last week’s barrage of verbal sniping from their critics. “I really believe that all the scaremongering is simply helping our cause,” said Cliche. “The more threatened Quebecers feel by the hostility in the rest of the country, the more they are likely to simply say To hell with it, let’s vote for a country of our own.’ ” Cliche may have a point. It is true that, beneath all of the sound and the fury, there was a discernible glint in the eye of at least some leading separatists last week, almost as if they were relishing the unfolding battle.