THE NATION’S BUSINESS

One anti-PQ strategy: a snap election

Jean Chrétien can’t soothe separatists by mouthing clichés about the Rockies, Don Cherry, Anne Murray and Newfie Screech

Peter C. Newman May 30 1994
THE NATION’S BUSINESS

One anti-PQ strategy: a snap election

Jean Chrétien can’t soothe separatists by mouthing clichés about the Rockies, Don Cherry, Anne Murray and Newfie Screech

Peter C. Newman May 30 1994

One anti-PQ strategy: a snap election

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Jean Chrétien can’t soothe separatists by mouthing clichés about the Rockies, Don Cherry, Anne Murray and Newfie Screech

PETER C. NEWMAN

Canada’s great political mystery these days is simpler to define than to resolve. How will Ottawa respond to the looming threat of Quebec independence? How, precisely, will the feds deal with Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard if their followers capture provincial power this fall and go on to win the ensuing referendum?

No definite strategy has been chosen, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien can’t continue to soothe the rage of Quebec separatism by mouthing clichés about how his Canada includes the Rockies, Don Cherry, Anne Murray and Newfie Screech. That kind of blarney won’t wash if, as expected, the Parti Québécois walks away from the autumn polls with an overwhelming majority and our dollar turns into Monopoly money.

Because the strategists advising Chrétien realize that whatever tactic Ottawa chooses can only be used once, they’re tending to be super-careful as much about its timing as its content. At the moment, they visualize interfering in Quebec’s proposed march to independence only after the post-election referendum, hoping that even if the PQ wins a massive electoral majority, it might still lose its lustre when Quebecers are actually confronted with the stark prospect of abandoning their Canadian citizenship.

In the interval, of course, Chrétien and his ministers will do all in their power to advance their cause within Quebec. That will be difficult because their efforts will inevitably be compared with the federalist blitz during the 1980 referendum. At that time, the anti-independence forces were spearheaded by Pierre Trudeau, a prime minister in his prime, fresh from having been re-elected by a nation that missed his natural arrogance, having just stumbled through Joe Clark’s humiliating nine-month interregnum. Official leader of the No camp in Quebec was Claude Ryan, then having recently been cho-

sen as leader of the provincial Liberal party. Nearly every businessman in the province, including a young and dynamic Brian Mulroney, went on the hustings to promote the federal option.

Leadership of the federalist forces in any 1995 referendum would fall to Daniel Johnson, by then the defeated leader of a defeated party. Despite (or maybe because of) his popularity in English Canada, Chrétien’s standing in Quebec remains accurately reflected by the fact that he won only 19 of the province’s 75 ridings in the 1993 campaign. (In the 1980 election, Trudeau carried all but one of Quebec’s seats.) Paradoxically, Jean Charest, who won only his own seat last time around, retains significant public support and will no doubt play a decisive role in the referendum battle. His success could spark a national revival of the PC party.

More important than the personalities involved is the fact that in the referendum battle 14 years ago, the federal side could campaign with a cogent message: vote No and well deliver a new Constitution that Quebec will be proud to sign. Instead, Trudeau drafted and Chrétien sold a Constitution that Quebec’s premier could not support. That

was followed, nearly a decade later, by rejection of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, leaving Quebec with no realistic hope of constitutional renewal. The only message the Yes spokesthingies can credibly deliver is that Canada is a great country, and that those who dream of a separatist Quebec are much more interested in fulfilling their own ambitions than in the well-being of ordinary citizens. That’s true enough, • but it will not be an easy sell.

The thinking in the Prime Minister’s Office at the moment—and it is by no means the definitive option—is that if the Quebec referendum goes pro-separatist, Chrétien should immediately call a national election to seek support for the position that Ottawa be empowered not to negotiate the breakup of the country. That patriotic stand might well earn the Liberals a mandate right across the country—especially if, as expected, Bouchard and Parizeau begin to issue some fairly nasty threats should English Canada not see the future their way. But the crunch of the election outcome would depend on how Quebec voters cast their ballots. If a majority of Liberal Quebec MP’s were elected, that would serve to repudiate the pro-separatist mandate of the provincial referendum—or so the thinking goes. (This rather convoluted tactic just might work, providing the PQ’s referendum win is tight, say 52 per cent or so, which is what the Chrétien strategists currently speculate it might be.)

It may seem strange that the Prime Minister would prefer an election to a national referendum. One reason is that if Quebec was on the verge of separation, the Bloc Québécois would depart from Ottawa, leaving 54 vacant seats. Chrétien would thus have to call an election anyway. He couldn’t call 54 byelections.

It’s early days, but if one side is actively pursuing its destructive strategy, the other must follow. Bouchard’s successful appearance before Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies earlier this year and his visit to Paris last week, where he charmed the pants off many a latter-day Gaullist, underline the urgency of the feds formulating a long-term plan.

What they’re coming up with is nothing dramatic, each proposal being based on the very basic and entirely credible notion that Canadians, in and out of Quebec, will not give up their country without another chance at reconciliation.

Luckily, the federalist side can count on Quebec separatists, like any other group of true believers, becoming so enamored of the righteousness of their mission that they will wildly overreact and seriously hurt their cause. One example is an interview earlier this year in the Paris-based newsmagazine L’Express, in which Parti Québécois vicepresident Bernard Landry charged that Quebec is the Western world’s last colonized nation, and that for centuries its population has endured a cataclysm comparable to the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe.

Yeah. Right.