THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Is gunboat diplomacy the way to fight the PQ?

We were citizens of the only nation who would rather he Clark Kent than Superman. No more. From now on, we defend our country.

Peter C. Newman March 27 1995
THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Is gunboat diplomacy the way to fight the PQ?

We were citizens of the only nation who would rather he Clark Kent than Superman. No more. From now on, we defend our country.

Peter C. Newman March 27 1995

Is gunboat diplomacy the way to fight the PQ?

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

We were citizens of the only nation who would rather he Clark Kent than Superman. No more. From now on, we defend our country.

PETER C. NEWMAN

It’s difficult and probably not strictly relevant to link the turbot dispute off Newfoundland with English Canada’s reaction to Jacques Parizeau’s fight for Quebec independence. But there is a bit of a common undertow worth noting.

The fish-war incident was one of those rare moments when Canadians have fired shots in anger on their own behalf. In the past, we’ve seldom had a war to call our own and have instead usually fought other people’s wars on distant battlefields. What was most significant about the armed intervention in the heaving Atlantic in the so-called nose of the Grand Banks was that instead of being embarrassed by what happened, Canadians felt proud to be cast in the unusual role of aggressively defending the national interest. True, the machine-gunner aboard the fisheries patrol vessel Cape Roger who fired the four bursts of .50-calibre bullets was shooting across the bow of the Estai, making sure that he didn’t hit anyone or anything. But Canadians don’t use machine-guns to impose their will; we never draw lines, even invisible ones on the water, and say, ‘This far, and no more.”

In the past, we have always behaved as the overly cautious diplomats, the eternal compromisers—the only citizens of any of the world’s major powers who would rather be Clark Kent than Superman. Our relatively young civilization has no moated castles in its past to symbolize military intent or feudal wealth. Instead, we sprang from log cabins (which leaked when it rained and were drafty the rest of the time), representing hope and determination and, above all, survival.

But here we are, using arms to subdue Spanish trawlermen because the fish they’re catching might, at some point in their watery circuits, conveniently swim into Canadian waters, where we could scoop them up. No matter how hard Ottawa tries, the Law of the Sea doesn’t support our action. The Spanish fleet was fishing more than 200 miles offshore, be-

yond our jurisdiction. In a way, the dubious legality of what we did gives added emphasis to how strongly we feel about the issue. It simply isn’t right to allow anyone to deplete our fisheries stock beyond their already pitiful state. Enough is enough. There came a moment when the diplomatic niceties had exhausted themselves, and we just damn well stood up for what we believed in. We came to the defence of our own country.

The fact that Brian Tobin, a onetime parliamentary Rat Packer whose previous reputation was more for noise than substance, has behaved with strength and dignity throughout the entire episode, has helped to buoy up public acceptance of the potentially violent situation. But I believe that what happened echoes a deeper resonance within the Canadian character, a basic shift from deference to defiance that may well translate itself to the way the rest of the country deals with Quebec’s aspirations to independence.

We must not resort to machine-guns as a means of keeping the country together. But we must draw lines beyond which we will not go to satisfy Quebec’s aspirations. Having gathered the national will to face down a group of “fishers” we caught acting against

our national interest, we ought to use the same criterion vis-à-vis Quebec.

Whatever the legality—surely as dubious as our claims to offshore bits of the Atlantic—I believe that Quebec has the right of self-determination. But that doesn’t mean we are obliged to help make Parizeau’s dreams come true. It is not in our national interest, for example, to share our dollar with a sovereign Quebec, which every study indicates would run into major economic problems following independence. It is difficult enough to take the Canadian dollar seriously as a world currency without subjecting it to the diluting influence of becoming the official medium of exchange for a rogue socialist republic straddling the St. Lawrence Seaway. Common currencies simply don’t work anywhere else in the world (except for Belgium and Luxembourg, which is a special case), and the suggestion of a common monetary policy must be officially rejected by the Chrétien government well before the referendum.

As well as promising our dollar, Parizeau has pledged that if Quebecers vote to support his referendum question (providing he dreams one up in time), they will be able to hold on to their Canadian passports and claim dual citizenship. No way. In Divided Loyalties: Dual Citizenship and Reconstituting the Economic Union, a fascinating study of the issue written by former federal deputy finance minister Stanley Hartt and published earlier this month by the C. D. Howe Institute, the conclusions are very precise. Hartt outlines in detail how the effect of the PQ’s current agenda would mean that dual citizenship would become a oneway street, with the liabilities borne by a truncated Canada.

Under the split, as visualized by Parizeau, Canada would still be liable for paying current benefits—including old-age security, student loans, medicare, guaranteed income supplements and so on—to Quebecers who retain their Canadian citizenship and move to Canada, even though they would have paid post-independence taxes to Quebec City instead of Ottawa. At the same time, citizens of Canada resident in Quebec would have the right to work anywhere in Canada while other Canadians would lose the right to work in Quebec. Hartt recommends that Canadian citizenship be revoked whenever its beneficiaries take on the citizenship of—and swear allegiance to—another country. “For Canada not to withdraw its citizenship,” he points out, “would be tantamount to enforcing extraterritorial legislation.”

Yet again, Jean Chrétien must make it crystal clear before the referendum that Quebecers cannot have it both ways—that if they decide to leave Confederation, it will be with their own currency and their own passports in their jeans. Not ours.

Such policies are not attacks on Quebec. They are declarations of Canada’s national interest, and our determination to defend it. If we find the guts to do so, we can thank the lowly turbot for setting us free.