THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Can the BQ make the PQ dream come true?

Jacques Parizeau’s rival and would-be successor may have provided the formula for achieving the sovereignty option

Peter C. Newman April 24 1995
THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Can the BQ make the PQ dream come true?

Jacques Parizeau’s rival and would-be successor may have provided the formula for achieving the sovereignty option

Peter C. Newman April 24 1995

Can the BQ make the PQ dream come true?

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Jacques Parizeau’s rival and would-be successor may have provided the formula for achieving the sovereignty option

PETER C. NEWMAN

The most fascinating politician in the country, by quite a wide margin, is Lucien Bouchard, the leader of the Bloc that’s still a Crock. Dedicated to the single-minded goal of destroying the country that he swore as an MP to uphold, he manages almost effortlessly to dominate Canada’s political agenda.

Any political movement like the Bloc Québécois that champions no greater cause than destruction of the system that gave it birth has little claim to legitimacy, and by rights ought to be relegated to the outer fringe of things that matter. But by the sheer strength of his personality and intellect, Bouchard has transformed the debate over the country’s future.

Through a series of carefully planned manoeuvres, he has in the past two weeks revealed how blinkered Jacques Parizeau’s political vision really is. The PQ premier’s idea of great government comes down to the simple act of exacting revenge for the British Conquest of Quebec in 1759. Parizeau is such a true believer in the cause of separatism that he cares not a whit how independence is achieved or how Quebec’s economy and its citizens might suffer in the process, just so long as he gets to be president of the new Republic and can fly the Fleur-de-lys from the fender of his limousine.

The great irony of the situation is that to achieve that goal he needs the support of Bouchard, his rival and would-be successor—who last week may have given him the formula for achieving the sovereignty option for which he pants.

It’s difficult to keep up with the Bloc leader’s policy (and loyalty) switches, but his latest incarnation goes all the way back to Feb. 24, 1984. That afternoon, Robert Bourassa, then a defeated Liberal premier whose party was out of power, presented a brief to the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, better known as the Macdonald

commission. The paper, which he had conceived while teaching and studying at the University of Southern California, Yale and Johns Hopkins in the United States, and the Institut des affaires européennes in Belgium, proposed a new system of government for Canada. Nobody paid much attention because Bourassa seemed to be permanently sidelined, but his “bridge for all the partners in the federation” is almost exactly what Bouchard is advocating now.

Bourassa recommended replacing Canada’s Senate with “a permanent intergovernmental forum that would have real powers in areas where the governments operate concurrently” or, as an alternative, institutionalized federal-provincial conferences with executive powers on jurisdictional issues. His vision of Canada was indistinguishable from René Lévesque’s sovereignty-association initiative, calling for this country’s government to consist of “two orders of government which function in harmony, independent of each other, as if they existed in two parallel universes.” Although the former premier maintained that nothing in his submission “justifies in and of itself a concentration of all powers of

the state in the capital of an independent Quebec,” his brief bristles with many references to “two equal and sovereign orders of government within a single state, each having their respective areas of jurisdiction.” It’s not surprising that in 1967, when Lévesque and he were both members of the Quebec Liberal Party, Bourassa helped the future founder of the Parti Québécois draft the initial sovereignty-association proposals that went down to defeat in the 1980 referendum. Bourassa stayed with the Liberals mainly because Lévesque proposed that his version of an independent Quebec would have its own currency, and as an economist Bourassa knew this wouldn’t work. But in 1970, when he first became premier, Bourassa came out strongly for Quebec becoming a francophone state within a Canadian common market.

Now, Bouchard, by advocating a similar policy and using the threat of not campaigning in the fall referendum if Parizeau doesn’t come on side, has forced the issue to a flash point. Most Canadians outside Quebec who have watched the two men duelling in public have assumed that the separatist threat is over. They have comforted themselves with the notion that even if the PQ referendum question is switched to some form of sovereignty-association, it would be a dead issue, since no one in the other regions of Canada is in a mood to accept a proposal that would allow 24 per cent of the population to exercise 50 per cent of the power.

But it’s not that easy. The first and most obvious advantage of having the sovereigntyassociation option on a ballot is that it would bring on side Mario Dumont’s Parti action démocratique, the small but pivotal group of “soft” nationalists who oppose outright secession but want to maintain links with Canada. (Had the Parti action démocratique votes gone to Parizeau in last year’s provincial election, the PQ would have won a slim majority of all votes cast.) It would also polarize the issue between Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson’s position of supporting federalism with stronger provincial rights (the direction Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin have been moving) and the PQ’s sovereigntyassociation stance, which would claim that as well as its own powers, Quebec would get a 50-per-cent say in what’s left of the federal powers.

Bouchard is far too shrewd to believe for a moment that English Canada would accept such a one-sided deal, but he sees it as the only way of winning the referendum. If the question submitted by the PQ government this fall has three parts, asking voters to rank their preferences for independence, economic union or federalism, chances are high that the total of ballots marked for the first two choices would add up to well over 50 per cent. Parizeau and Bouchard would then argue that the cause of Quebec independence had been achieved, and demand that Ottawa begin some heavy negotiations.

It’s a risky scenario, but it could happen.