CANADA

SHAKY START

Quebec’s hearings on sovereignty generate little public enthusiasm

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 20 1995
CANADA

SHAKY START

Quebec’s hearings on sovereignty generate little public enthusiasm

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 20 1995

SHAKY START

CANADA

Quebec’s hearings on sovereignty generate little public enthusiasm

ANDREW PHILLIPS

Premier Jacques Parizeau had solemnly declared that “the life and future of an entire people are at stake.” But when Parizeau himself turned up one bone-chilling night last week for one of the opening sessions of the Quebec government’s roving commissions on the future of the province, it looked like anything but a momentous exercise in democracy. It looked, in fact, more like a small-scale riot. A hundred owners of video-gambling machines, angered at a government plan to take over their industry, crashed the meeting in Repentigny, just off the eastern tip of Montreal island. And even after police had evicted the protesters, the signs of enthusiasm for Quebec sovereignty were muted at best. One by one, representatives of women’s, artists’ and environmental groups told the 15 commissioners that if Quebec ever does become independent, it should do much more for

women, artists and the environment. But almost without exception, they stopped short of actually endorsing sovereignty, leaving some militant separatists frustrated. “If this is all we’re going to get out of this process,” complained Bruno Desjardins, a leader of the local Parti Québécois youth group, “then we’re in big trouble.”

So much, then, for the jump start to the sovereignty movement that Parizeau’s government hoped the commissions would provide. Going into the week, the conventional wisdom was that the PQ was counting heavily on the provincewide public hearings to build support for independence in the run-up to the formal referendum campaign later this year. Certainly, it is an enormous, complicated and risky operation: 17 commissions holding a total of 304 sessions in 223 communities over period of four weeks (page 14). The price tag, originally set by the government at $2 million, will in fact top $5 million, as Parizeau was forced to acknowledge last week.

The government’s problem, judging by last week’s shaky start to the hearings, is twofold. First, the commissions did not turn out to be the platforms for spreading an undiluted separatist message that many observers had predicted they would be. Even though federal and provincial Liberals, Quebec’s main federalist force, are boycotting the process, the hearings heard many tough questions and few clear answers about independence. And second, Parizeau’s ministers managed to take attention away from the operation by continuing to plant their feet firmly in their mouths. Last week, it was the turn of Finance Minister Jean Campeau, who mused to a reporter 2 that an independent Quebec might refuse to £ pay its share of the Canadian debt if that un§ dermined the new country’s economic devel| opment. Campeau compounded his gaffe by c snapping at the reporter, who was interviewg ing him for the French service of the CanaI dian Press, “Are you a Quebecer?”—implicitly

`The life and future of an entire people are at stake'

questioning his loyalty to the province.

Campeau’s comments undermined Parizeau’s long-standing claim that Quebec will be fiscally responsible both on its way to independence, and as a sovereign country— and federalists could hardly believe their luck. Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson labelled Campeau’s statements “witchcraft, invoking, like a sorcerer’s apprentice, a magic recipe to get out of Quebec’s share of the debt,” and predicted that Parizeau will soon be forced to fire his finance minister, as he recently had to dump two cultural affairs ministers. Parizeau quickly countermanded Campeau’s remarks, insisting that Quebec has a “moral obligation” to assume between 18 and 23 per cent of the $515-billion national debt. But the whole affair deepened the impression of a government stumbling from one crisis to another. “It’s one of the worst starts for a Quebec government in decades,” said one senior federalist organizer. “They are terrifically gaffe-prone now, just when they need to give an impression of competence.” If anything, the PQ’s rocky performance has some federalists worried that their side might be lulled into an early complacency.

PQ strategists had left little doubt as to the importance of the roving commissions. For

Péquistes, the model is the BélangerCampeau commission, which held nine weeks of public hearings in late 1990 and early 1991 in the wake of the failure of the Meech Lake constitutional accord, and is credited with building high levels of support for sovereignty at that time. Officially, the new hearings are designed to encourage debate on the government’s draft bill on sovereignty, and to gather public suggestions for an inspirational preamble to the bill along the lines of the “We the people” introduction to the American Constitution. On a deeper level, they are aimed at turning sovereignty from a partisan PQ platform into a broad-based popular movement, and at letting ordinary people

air their concerns about independence in an atmosphere controlled by the sovereigntists themselves. When the hearings wrap up on March 5, PQ organizers will have to carefully assess whether they have succeeded in boosting support for sovereignty from the level of 40-to-45 per cent, where it has been stalled for months.

Last week, at least, there was little evidence of gathering momentum for the separatist cause. In Repentigny, school administrator

Gilles Bouchard complained to the local commission that there are too many school boards, and environmentalist Arthur Dubé warned of the dangers of toxic waste. In Laval, just north of Montreal, a convinced sovereigntist named Sylvain Daigle proposed lyrics for the national anthem of an independent Quebec, beginning: “Quebec, you are the flower of the French language/ You are a land of welcome, open to the world.” In Longueuil, south of Montreal, a Haitian-born immigrant named Maxime Zoéma complained that the government’s sovereignty plans pay little attention to the problems of ethnic minorities—a concern underlined by the fact that every one of the 21 members of

the local sovereignty commission was white. And Georges Brossard, a self-declared indépendantiste, compared English-Canadians to Holstein cows, who “eat all the grass and leave nothing to others.”

But amid the grab bag of wishful thinking, nationalist appeals and the occasional serious exchange, what was equally important was what did not happen. In the Saguenay/Lac StJean area, traditional stronghold of the sovereignty movement, members of the local commission did not hear a united chorus of support for independence. Instead, several people went so far as to raise the prospect of violence if Quebec moves to separate. “I don’t want my country to descend into fire and blood,” said Josée Morin, 26. “Do you think that in Yugoslavia people thought it would end up like it has?” And in Longueuil, half the 250 seats in the municipal theatre being used by the local commission stayed empty on the second day of hearings there, even though the theatre is in the same complex as Quebec’s biggest junior college, with 5,000 students. Even though young people normally provide the biggest pool of supporters for sovereignty, the students preferred to smoke and watch videos just outside the hearing room, leaving mostly middle-aged and older people to provide the commission’s sparse audience.

The hearings may provide more fireworks starting this week, when the Montreal commission begins sitting. The city has, by far, the province’s highest concentration of anglophones and ethnic minorities—groups who remain overwhelmingly hostile to independence. Alliance Quebec, English Quebec’s main lobby group, is boycotting the hearings, and the government managed to find only six anglophones and members of what are known in Quebec as “cultural communities” to sit on its 23-member Montreal commission. Even so, the commission will hear from many minority representatives— including leaders of the Greek, Italian and Jewish communities—setting the stage for some heated exchanges.

The government’s hope is that, despite the evident lack of emotion so far, the hearings will help to persuade voters that they must choose between Parizeau’s sovereignty plan and the constitutional status quo—what the Premier last week starkly described as “abnegation... renouncing the quest for greater autonomy for Quebec.” He personally announced the results of a government-commissioned poll, which said that an overwhelming 80.4 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec believe that Quebec should be treated like any other province. Parizeau’s interpretation was that Quebecers must vote to separate, or give up any chance of change. That, in turn, makes it more likely that he may, as he hinted last week, offer Quebecers not one referendum question, but two—a multiple-choice ballot asking them to select either his party’s option, or the status quo. Quebecers would then find themselves forced to choose between two options that polls show they clearly reject. □