In the summer of political discontent, the major players face off over the future
Somewhere beyond the gateway to hell, many Canadians probably suspect there is a room devoted entirely to the constitutional future of Canada. Its shelves are lined with thick academic studies and the findings of countless royal commissions and provincial task forces: Pepin-Robarts, the Spicer Commission, BélangerCampeau, Beaudoin-Dobbie and the Allaire Report, to recall just a few whose names now are condemned to constitutional infamy. Etched in the walls are the gloomy words of all who have studied Canada since its founding in 1867, and found it wanting. A sample quote: “God has made Canada one of those nations which cannot be conquered and cannot be destroyed, except by herself,” observed Norman Angelí, a visiting British economist. He said so in 1913. And in the centre of the room from hell, chattering earnestly and endlessly about such topics as the notwithstanding clause in the Constitution and Canada’s identity—and lack of same—are constitutional lawyers, politicians, academics, journalists, pollsters and representatives of special-interest groups.
It is late June, 1994. Through the windows of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s second-floor Parliament Hill office, the sun shines high and brilliant in a cloudless Ottawa sky. The weather is dry and moderately hot—a rare compromise in the city’s weather cycle. Inside the office, Chrétien’s buoyant mood matches the welcoming spirit of the day. He has come in for an interview wearing a Vancouver Canucks hockey jersey, autographed by team players, and eventually leaves clutching a handful of his own autographed books and photographs destined for admirers. Repeatedly, and predictably, Chrétien waxes optimistic on the future of Canada—a country which he describes as “a solution looking for problems.” Ordinary Canadians in all provinces, he insists, “know what they are and what they want to continue to be: Canadians.”
If only it were so easy. But despite Chrétien’s often-tested vow not to talk about the country’s constitutional future, the debate moves inexorably on, driven by factors seemingly beyond anyone’s control. If it is not Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard denouncing federalism and rhapsodizing over the benefits he says sovereignty would bring Quebec, then it is Reform party Leader Preston Manning offering contrary views of the repercussions. Or Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau doing the former. Or Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow doing the latter. And so on. And with the promise last week from Bouchard, the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, to spend the summer stumping for independence, the evening newscasts promise little prospect of relief.
Those are among the people, Chrétien noted acidly, “who thrive on constitutional debate because it keeps them so busy.” They are a revolving cast: the real sufferers of eternal damnation are Canadians condemned to listen.
To talk or not to talk about the topic? That question may divide Canadians even more than the traditional debate between Quebecers and the rest of the country. Some, such as Chrétien and Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson, say they would rather never debate Quebec sovereignty again. Others, such as Bouchard and, recently,
Manning, seem entranced by the subject and their conflicting views of its potential repercussions. The two men, says Progressive Conservative party Leader Jean Charest, “are the alter egos of each other: without one, the other could not survive.” In the Maclean VDecima poll, Chrétien was the person whose views were closest to the most respondents in all regions—except in Quebec, where he trailed Bouchard by seven points. Manning was in a virtual dead heat with Chrétien in British Columbia. Chrétien, though, beat all comers in all regions when respondents were asked to pick the best leader in the current climate.
Somewhere in the middle, provincial politicians—such as Ontario Premier Bob Rae—are trying to shift the focus to other ground. Rae does so with good reason: his province, once regarded as the cheerful paymaster of the federation, now wrestles with the reality of paying $10 billion more a year to the rest of Canada than it receives.
“The old days of talking about the country’s future in tenus of Quebec and the rest of the country are gone,” says Rae.
“Ontario, like every other region of Canada, has new and specific concerns that must be addressed. The old idea of one national economy is dead.”
And so it is, in an era of international free trade, north-south trading blocs between Canada and the United States and a powerful developing sense of regionalism. The old rules no
MACLEA N’S/ DECI MA POLL
WHOSE VIEWS ON QUEBEC ARE CLOSEST TO YOUR OWN?
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien
Reform Leader Preston Manning
Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard
Your provincial premier
Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau
Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest
None of the above
WHO WOULD FOR CANADA
Jean Chrétien Preston Manning
PROVIDE THE BEST LEADERSHIP AT THIS TIME?
Jacques Parizeau Clyde Wells Me
Kim Campbell Other No one Don’t know
longer apply, new ones have yet to be drafted. But the immediate problem, at a time of supposed economic recovery, is that such progress appears slowed or even stalled by a real unity crisis— whether or not Canadians want to talk about it. Interest rates are rising, the value of the dollar is falling and unhappy foreign investors in Europe and Japan have been dumping Canadian bonds as quickly as they could find buyers. At least part of the reason, according to investment analysts, is foreign investors’ concern over the country’s future. Another concern is Canada’s apparent unwillingness to control its ballooning debt, which now totals more than $500 billion. “The government seems to have adjusted to these $35to $40-billion deficits,” says Manning. But both he and some Liberals already suggest that Finance Minister Paul Martin’s second budget this fall—which was supposed to contain more cost-cutting measures than the first—will be softened out of fear of annoying Quebec voters who may be preparing for a referendum. Meanwhile, the Liberals privately acknowledge, Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy faces pressure within the party to delay planned social-program reforms and cuts, for similar reasons. Both those delays would only increase investors’ concerns.
The news gets worse. Across Canada, virtually everyone but members of the Quebec Liberal party seems to have given up on its chances of winning the upcoming provincial election, expected to be called in July for mid-September at the latest. “It is a little frustrating,” concedes John Parisella, the president of the Liberals’ campaign committee, “to hear your federalist friends musing about a referendum before you have even begun the campaign that will decide the election—and which could ensure that the referendum will never take place.” If the provincial Liberals win, the debate over sovereignty would be put aside. And a Liberal win is still a possibility: the party has closed the gap recently with the Parti Québécois in the polls and may be in far better shape to contest the election than many people outside the province believe. But even Parisella will say only that “it doesn’t look as hopeless as many people thought several months ago.”
Still, the Parti Québécois stood at 50-per-cent support in a CROP/La Presse poll released on Saturday, compared with 43 per cent for the Liberals. But consistent with past surveys, 59 per cent said they would vote to keep Quebec in Canada while 41 per cent opted for independence. Clearly, many Quebecers want the PQ to deemphasize sovereignty—as it did in the 1976 campaign— and stress its commitment to good government. That is not Jacques Parizeau’s plan. Rather, the PQ leader says he will treat an election win as a mandate to begin negotiating sovereignty with the federal government. He would appoint cabinet ministers whose sole mission would be to conduct such negotiations, and, he said recently, the PQ would also challenge Ottawa head on by intruding into areas that are recognized to be under federal jurisdiction.
In fact, the one such area that Parizeau has already cited is indicative of just how nasty and wasteful that federal-provincial battle could be—and how little it would ultimately have to do with the people it is supposed to serve. As a first step, Parizeau has said he would build a new ferry to link the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with the Quebec mainland. That would be done without waiting for federal approval—which is necessary since Ottawa has jurisdiction over navigation in the Gulf. But, Parizeau noted, the move would supply immediate jobs to the Quebec government-owned MIL-Davie shipyard in the Quebec City area, and help the islands’ economy by providing better access to the mainland. And, as PQ strategists suggest, the federal government would face the impossible dilemma of either angering Quebec by blocking the proposal, or alienating the rest of Canada by allowing a deliberate violation.
But many islanders say that Parizeau’s proposal only glosses over the real problem faced by Magdalen Islands fishermen: rather than building a new link to Quebec’s Gaspé peninsula, they would rather replace the battered 30-year-old ferry that now provides service between the Magdalens and Souris, P.E.I. The reason: Magdalen Islands fishermen rely on the regular air link between P.E.I. and Boston to export their lobster catch. It takes five hours to ship lobster to Boston from P.E.I., but more than 15 from the Gaspé. “That means they would be spoiled when they arrive,” says Patrick Gagnon, the Liberal MP who represents the area. “So Mr. Parizeau’s grand plan would ignore the link the islanders need, and give them one they don’t—in the name of the greater glory of Quebec.”
Such incidents make it both tempting and easy to blame politicians exclusively for Canada’s unity problems—and, as the Maclean’s/Decima poll indicates, many Canadians do precisely that. Left to their own devices to get to know each other and freed from political rhetoric, conventional wisdom suggests that all Canadians would revert to being the happy— and unified—people they really want to be. But that view ignores the real and legitimate differences that exist between individual Canadians in different parts of the country. Sometimes, thoughtful and compassionate Canadians travel the country and come back much more knowledgeable, but no more certain that it will ever be possible to reach a constitutional solution that will satisfy everyone.
Michel Lamy is one such case. A 25-year-old native of Trois-Rivières, Que., now completing a master’s degree in political science at Quebec City’s Laval University, he took a summer job two years ago in Alberta, with the twin goals of seeing something of the rest of the country and improving his English. He returned again last summer, and while he was there, conducted an informal poll of 100 people to evaluate their views of Quebec. His nonscientific survey, he said, showed him that “ordinary English-Canadians are not the homogenous rednecks that their political leaders sometimes make them out to be—and that some Quebecers believe them to be.”
Instead, Lamy found a wide variety of opinions that ranged, he said, from a small minority who “said frogs should stay in Quebec” to a large number who “genuinely like and admire Quebecers, and feel strongly
about our importance to Canada. They would be very unhappy if we voted for independence.” Partly as a result, Lamy now says he would be “very happy” if he were able to find a job outside Quebec and inside Canada after graduation.
Then there is Norman Whynot, a 35-year-old real estate agent in Mahone Bay, N.S. In his early 20s, he got to know Quebecers when he spent parts of four summers in Quebec City, while travelling up the St. Lawrence as part of the crew of Nova Scotia’s goodwill ambassador the Bluenose II. The experience, he says, was enough to show him that “behind the bluster of all the politicians, there are a lot of really decent, caring people that I developed real affection for.” His overriding constitutional sentiment is that “it’s all a darned shame: we had a chance to put all this behind us a couple of times in the 1980s. We missed the opportunity, and now it looks like it will be here one way or another forever.”
That gloomy prospect is, indeed, the most likely reality, despite Chrétien’s heartfelt wish that it not be so. Consider the alternatives: even if Quebec Liberals score an upset election win, Johnson has said that he will “eventually” want to reopen constitutional talks, and present Quebec’s “traditional demands.” Another possibility is a PQ election win followed by a defeat on the sovereignty issue. Although the PQ would then be obliged to put aside sovereignty as an issue for the rest of its mandate, sensibilities in Quebec would be fragile, and even federalist Quebecers would react angrily to suggestions from the rest of Canada that they should now put aside traditional constitutional demands.
The final prospect, of course, would be a PQ election win, followed by a Yes vote in the referendum. But even that would mark only a beginning of a new chapter, rather than a final end, to the traditional debate over Quebec’s relations in or outside Canada. Some immediate questions would then be asked. Among them: would the federal government recognize the result if it considered the question unclear? The only proper question to be asked, Chrétien told Maclean’s last week, “would have to include the word ‘separation.’ ” Other wrenching questions linger. If the vote for separation was only a point or two above 50 per cent, is that really enough to begin such a process? Even if the federal government recognized the result, who would conduct and approve subsequent agreements between a sovereign Quebec and Canada? No such provision exists in the Canadian Constitution. If Quebecers vote for sovereignty, does that mean they are giving their government a blank cheque to arrange whatever it can with the shape of their future constitution and relations with their former country of Canada? Or would there be more, and equally divisive, referendums in Quebec and the remainder of Canada as to how the two countries should deal with each other?
If the Prime Minister has answers to those questions, he isn’t saying. For now, for that matter, he isn’t saying if he has even considered the questions. “Quebec will stay in Canada, pure and simple,” he said again last week at the close of the interview. Perhaps, but the one real certainty about the future is that those people who live in what is now Canada, no matter what its constitutional shape, will still be finding new ways to worry about each other. Hell, after all, hath no fury like a constitutionally scorned Canadian.