COVER

Westerners contemplate two distasteful options

CHRIS WOOD November 13 1995
COVER

Westerners contemplate two distasteful options

CHRIS WOOD November 13 1995

Westerners contemplate two distasteful options

COVER

Postcards from the edge

In the rest of Canada, patience is wearing thin

Quebec is not the only part of the country where the political mood seems so finely balanced that the first strong breeze might tip it irrevocably in one direction or anoth-

er. Last week in the West, the sense was still unscientific, but a subjective sampling of chatter at the coffee machine, the columns of regional papers and the talk-show airwaves provided the elusive but inescapable impression of a region hesitating before two equally distasteful choices. One was whether to acknowledge finally, after years of resistance, Quebec’s glaringly obvious differences

from the rest of the country—and to make some real concessions to those differences. The other: to conclude, with regret but no further delay, that patience has run out and it is time to help the separatists pack.

One thing, though, was abundantly clear: whichever it was to be, it should be soon, and it should be final. Whatever politicians had in mind last week as they repeated their post-referendum mantra of “change,” what most ordinary westerners want is simply for the Quebec question to go away—forever.

The conventional wisdom is somewhat different. Until the Oct. 30 vote, it held that westerners—and especially those in Alberta and British Columbia— would never accept anything that smacks of special status for Quebec. And in the wake of the decision, both B.C. Premier Michael Harcourt and Alberta’s Ralph Hein embraced the notion for change while making it very clear what was not possible. “It is not my job to offer up anything to another province,” said Harcourt. Agreed Hein: “Special status—I don’t think Albertans are in the mood to

have that revisited.” What both leaders offered instead was to work with Quebec to decentralize federal powers to the fullest extent possible within the existing Constitution. Those cautious pronouncements earned the premiers little applause and plenty of derision—both from

hallway analysts and professional pundits. First, argued critics, neither Lucien Bouchard, nor anyone else who might succeed Jacques Parizeau as Quebec’s premier, will be disposed to goodfaith negotiations on renewing federalism. Second, the gap be-

tween the minor rejigging of federalism that Hein and Harcourt contemplate, and the deeply emotional dream of many Quebecers for “a country of our own,” is both wide and obvious. At the same time, there were indications that voters were in a more _______ daring—or maybe just desperate— _____ mood than their leaders. “I want to

know what it is that we can change to make Quebecers feel wanted,” said a Victoria woman who called Maclean's Vancouver office in search of more information about constitutional options. Editorialized the Calgary Herald: “What is really wrong with a federation that is already asymmetrical becoming somewhat more so?”

But if some westerners were shocked into taking a second look at Quebec’s constitutional uniqueness, for others the tensions of the latest vote simply drained the last reserves of patience for its perennial complaints. “Now, as hotly as any separatist,” wrote conservative commentator Trevor Lautens in The Vancouver Sun, “I want to see Quebec invited out.” At bottom, westerners seemed transfixed by an intractable dilemma: what they are prepared to give to Quebec, it no longer wants; but what Quebec does want, not even the most generous westerners are willing to give.

CHRIS WOOD in Vancouver