Canada's political leaders fight separatism with silence

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 12 1994


Canada's political leaders fight separatism with silence

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 12 1994


Canada's political leaders fight separatism with silence



Finally, after months of insisting that he would not involve himself directly in Quebec's provincial election campaign, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien could resist no longer. But while the audience with which he shared his thoughts on the Quebec political scene was an appreciative one, it was limited to the other end of a

telephone receiver, and amounted to a grand total of one. Placide Poulin, a businessman in Ste. Marie-de-Beauce, 70 km south of Quebec City, said he was startled recently to pick up the phone at his home and hear a voice at the other end of the line say: “Hello. This is Jean Chrétien, the Prime Minister of Canada.” The Prime Minister was calling, he told Poulin, to give “thanks for your defence of federalism.” The reason: Poulin, a successful manufacturer of bathtubs, had expressed his strong opposition to separatism when Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau made a campaign visit to his factory. In their 10minute chat, said Poulin, Chrétien also shared “his vision of Canada.”

And that, despite Chrétien’s passionate federalist convictions, constituted almost the

full extent of his personal involvement in a campaign that many consider pivotal to the future of Canada. Seldom seen and even more rarely heard from—that is a strategy that Chrétien has not only applied to himself, but enforced upon the members of his cabinet this summer. “Basically,” said one of his advisers, “we have been telling our people to

just say no if they’re asked to talk about Quebec.”

That policy is unlikely to change much. Even if the PQ wins the Sept. 12 provincial election— as now seems almost inevitabl senior Liberals insist that will make no difference to the timing and plans for several key and controversial measures. They include,

in particular, sweeping changes tions to existing social programs along with further budget cuts in unspecified areas. “Our agenda,” said another Liberal adviser, “has not changed one iota.”

That runs contrary to the prevailing notion that the federal government, in the period leading up to an expected referendum on Quebec independence, would be wary of annoying Quebec voters with such measures. But Liberals say that any delays would have

even more serious economic consequences and play into the hands of the PQ by arousing an inevitable backlash in the rest of Canada. “The PQ objective,” said the adviser, “is to show that they can tie the rest of the country up in knots. Ours is to show the absolute opposite.” In fact, Chrétien will deliver precisely that message when he makes a

postelection speech in Quebec City on Sept. 18.

One of the reasons the Liberals can afford to strike that confident posture is that none of those crucial measures is due in the immediate future. The government’s already delayed reform of social programs, for example, is at least eight months away from introduc-

tion in the House of Commons (a discussion paper on the options for reform is not likely to appear until at least the end of this month). In the meantime, Chrétien’s policy of avoiding comment on Quebec’s constitutional future will persist—and may even be catching on among the other first ministers. At last week’s annual meeting of provincial and territorial leaders in Toronto, most of the premiers acknowledged that they were deliberately avoiding public comment on the Que-

bec election. One prominent exception was New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, who declared that the election of the PQ would “throw all of us into a vortex of debt and despair.” That prompted a cynical journalist’s rejoinder: ‘Yes, but would anything change?”

In fact, what has changed is that the first ministers from outside Quebec have at least temporarily found silence to be their most effective weapon for dampening enthusiasm for separatism. Since the Quebec election campaign began on July 24, support for sovereignty has dropped sharply. And it has been separatists—rather than federalists, as is often the case—who have been making conflicting statements. Parizeau and Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard have, for example, given contrasting opinions on such topics as the timing of an eventual referendum and the mandate needed to achieve sovereignty.

Similarly, the level of sovereigntist support has always been highest following particular incidents in the rest of the country that left Quebecers feeling insulted or hurt. The most obvious example of that was after the failure of the Meech Lake constitutional accord in 1990, when support for sovereignty briefly soared over 60 per cent—compared with the 40-per-cent level in several recent polls. Even Bouchard acknowledged earlier this year that to win a majority in a referendum, sovereigntists would have to find a way to recreate the passions of the post-Meech period.

One of the most obvious ways to do that would be for Parizeau, as premier, to provoke an incident that would arouse a furious reception from the rest of Canada—something he appears able to do even when he is not trying. Unlike the late René Lévesque, whose rumpled charm and magnetism often evoked affection and admiration even among his political enemies, Parizeau does not even try to court his opponents’ favor. In the past, he has antagonized Canadians outside Quebec any number of times

with his flat insistence on the right of an independent Quebec to continue to share the use of Canadian passports and the dollar. Last week, he scornfully dismissed the premiers’ meeting, and made much of his amusement at the fact that they gathered in the Vanity Fair room of a Toronto hotel.

As premier of Canada’s second-most populous province, home to a quarter of the country’s population, Parizeau could also inevitably sidetrack or stall initiatives that have an impact on the entire country. Some of the damage may be indirect: if the PQ’s list of election promises, which are not costed but are likely expensive, causes the province’s debt to increase dramatically, that could lead to increased concern on international money markets—and a sell-off of Canadian bonds.

Other steps would be more deliberate. The most obvious example is medicare reforms: although the overall conditions of national health care are governed by the federal Canada Health Act, and Ottawa pays a percentage of the cost of such programs, they are actually administered individually by the provinces. Quebec, by simply refusing to attend conferences dealing with such reforms, could effectively scuttle them at the outset. Similarly, Parizeau has said he will deliberately challenge federal jurisdiction in some areas, such as control of fishing rights and right of passage in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. And there are a wide range of other fields that are subject to joint federal and provincial jurisdiction—and therefore particularly susceptible to intergovernmental bickering—including justice, environment, communications and agriculture.

One key question that only Parizeau can answer concerns how mischievous he is prepared to be in his attempts to elicit an angry reaction in the rest of Canada. Publicly, of course, he and his advisers say benignly that they have no particular wish to do so: rather, they are motivated solely by a wish to defend Quebec’s interests. But some of the PQ’s election platform, as outlined in the party’s published program, indicates a desire to go further than that with a series of strictly symbolic acts. An example is the PQ’s intention to ask the National Assembly to make a “solemn declaration” of support for sovereignty even before a referendum is held. Such a motion would have no legal significance. Similarly, the PQ program calls for it to begin negotiations towards sovereignty with the federal government immediately upon election. To that end, the PQ has said that, in addition to the regular provincial cabinet overseeing Quebec’s affairs, there would also be a second group of ministers entrusted solely with the task of preparing each jurisdiction for sovereignty. Chrétien has already made it clear—and even Bouchard has conceded—that the federal government would not have a mandate to conduct such negotiations.

At the same time, sovereigntists face their own potential pitfalls if they pursue a strategy of confrontation. For one, there is no reason to believe that the majority of Quebecers would welcome such a tactic, since any measures that are detrimental to the whole country would, by definition, also hurt Quebec. As well, Parizeau and Bouchard, by downplaying sovereignty during the campaign, have implicitly acknowledged that Quebecers’ preoccupations lie elsewhere. And as long as Quebec remains a part of Canada, it would be pointless for its government not to take part in discussions over programs that it could benefit from. That, at least, is

the argument made by federal Liberals who say that, like it or not, a PQ government would have to adopt a pragmatic tone in its relations with the rest of Canada. ‘You cannot just cut all ties,” said an adviser to a senior minister. “You cannot just come in as a new government and say, ‘No truck nor trade.’ ”

Some optimistic federalists even argue that there may be unexpected benefits in a PQ win. One is that Bouchard’s Bloc Québécois would no longer be free to spend all its time attacking the federal Liberals; they will, in turn, have to defend any mistakes made by the PQ. Another is that the heightened spotlight on Parizeau as premier may further highlight differences between himself and Bouchard. In fact, one of the curious and unexpected aspects of the provincial campaign is that Bouchard, although recognized as Quebec’s most popular politician, has appeared curiously diminished.

He has deliberately played a secondary role to Parizeau and his speeches have received less and less attention as the campaign has progressed.

Similarly, Bloc MPs, faced with declining support for sovereignty in the polls, appear to be developing a new affection for life in the House of Commons. As recently as last month, Bloc officials were insisting that their 53 MPs would resign en masse if sovereignty was defeated in a referendum. But at their caucus meeting last week, many were swiftly and publicly backpedalling from that promise. Instead, they said, in such an event there would still be a continuing need to defend Quebec’s interests.

And finally, concern over Quebec produced a new group of allies for the federal government in one of the most unlikely of sources: the premiers. Traditionally, their annual conference has been dominated by Ottawa-bashing, complaints of federal government abuses of its powers and spending cuts. But this year, the premiers, eager to demonstrate the efficiency of federalism, stayed away from all that. Instead, their most significant reproach to Ottawa came in the muted form of creating a new administrative support structure to co-ordinate dealings between the provinces and Ottawa. “We are here to show that federalism works, and to make it work even more efficiently,” said Ontario Premier Bob Rae, host of the conference. It would be the ultimate—though unlikely—irony if that was the result of electing a PQ government.