THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Giving the federalist option a brave voice

‘Quebec now has all the attributes of a free and democratic modern society. Independence is the solution to a problem that no longer exists.’

Peter C. Newman July 17 1995
THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Giving the federalist option a brave voice

‘Quebec now has all the attributes of a free and democratic modern society. Independence is the solution to a problem that no longer exists.’

Peter C. Newman July 17 1995

Giving the federalist option a brave voice

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

‘Quebec now has all the attributes of a free and democratic modern society. Independence is the solution to a problem that no longer exists.’

PETER C. NEWMAN

As the battle lines are drawn for the approaching Quebec referendum, the most interesting flock of federalists to emerge on the Quebec scene is Le Groupe des cent (Group of One Hundred), a loosely knit, nonpartisan collection of young professionals, academics and business people. Like most other ‘No’ supporters, their rallying point is agreement on the obsolescence and uselessness of the separatist option. But unlike most of the other anti-sovereigntists, they’re defending the pro-Canada option primarily on a rational, non-emotional basis.

These are the best of the province’s young professionals, who want to make their careers in Quebec. Before staking their current position, they coolly examined the benefits of both options. “Upon reflection,” I was told by Paul Lalonde, an Aylmer, Que., lawyer who is one of the group’s organizers, “we believe that the best way for Quebec to develop economically and culturally is by remaining within the Canadian federation. While we’re supportive of the leaders of the ‘No’ campaign, we take no instructions from them. We view them as our allies, not our leaders. Our most important purpose is to challenge the myths on which the indépendantiste movement is based—not the least of which is that young, educated Quebecers are all sovereigntists. Our original intent was to gather 100 likeminded men and women in our cause, but we’ve since grown to 350 members and are still expanding.”

The group presented its point of view to Jacques Parizeau’s regional commissions and regularly debates sovereignty advocates. Its members concede that in the 1960s, when francophones didn’t have the same access as anglophones to higher education, and endured a lower economic and social status, a national government for Quebec may have made some sense. But now, they insist that circumstances have changed. The wage gap

between francophones and anglophones vanished long ago; 93 per cent of Quebecers regularly speak French and 70 per cent of immigrants to Quebec choose French as their adopted language. The flexibility of the federal system, they maintain, has allowed Quebec to establish distinct policies and powerful institutions, such as the Caisse de dépôt and Hydro Quebec. “In fact,” says Lalonde, “Quebec now has all the attributes of a modern society that is free, democratic and open to the rest of the world. It has developed a vibrant culture that fuels its political, economic and social environment. Independence is nothing more than the solution to a problem that no longer exists.”

Some of the more modern separatists argue that their cause is based less on historic wrongs than in wanting to jettison an inefficient and bankrupt federal system for a unitary state: Quebec. Group researchers point out that four out of five of the world’s wealthiest countries have federal structures, while such unitary states as the United Kingdom and France suffer from severe unemployment and high deficits. They also contend that the budgetary deficit of an independent Quebec would jump by at least $17 billion a year, or 10

per cent of the province’s gross domestic product, making it one of the world’s most indebted countries, with up to 500,000 extra Quebecers thrown out of work as a result.

Commenting on the recently signed political alliance among three Quebec leaders to fight together for sovereignty, Marc-André Blanchard, another group member, maintains that their economic union proposal “appears to be open, but in fact takes away the right of the people of Quebec to decide their own destiny. The contents and ratification of the illusory partnership proposed in the referendum will be left to the sole discretion of the Quebec government. This process is inconsistent with the democratic principles put forth by René Lévesque.”

Robert Greenhill, a strategic planner from Calgary who became a leading management consultant in Quebec, has emerged as one of the group’s most articulate bilingual advocates. “The challenge for both old-line federalists and old-line separatists,” he told me, “is that arguments based on fear won’t work for either side this time around. Both sides have to come up with more positive reasons, and we are finding our own emotional reasons to support our cause. There had better be a passion, because it’s like any relationship. You don’t stay together because it’s cheaper to share the rent.” Of the new Yes vote alliance, Greenhill makes the valid point that despite the so-called soft question that they support, ultimately Quebecers will be asked to vote for or against independence, because, unlike the Lévesque referendum of 1980, there will be no second chance to express public opinion.

Many of the group’s members are growing a bit apprehensive that the federal government is not showing more flexibility or imagination in its responses to Quebec, though they’re happy with the realignment of federalprovincial responsibilities contained in Paul Martin’s second budget. The concern is that most Quebecers have no idea that Martin’s proposals could eventually bring about the same desired decentralization envisioned by the Meech Lake accord.

They also hope that without attempting any major constitutional initiatives, Jean Chrétien will prove flexible enough, for example, to spin manpower training off to provincial jurisdiction. ‘That’s much more the Canadian way,” says Greenhill. “We tend to be a radically incremental people, preferring short, pragmatic steps to sweeping solutions. The trouble with those constitutional megaprojects of the past decade was that they were attempting to foist on us, in an almost irreversible fashion, major changes that hadn’t been tried or tested. A few incremental, but credible, steps that are good policy and just good politics will do much more to convince the skeptics in Quebec than a whole bunch of grand, undeliverable promises.”

Le Groupe des cent is dedicated to the notion that Quebecers will vote against separation because they’ll realize it’s not an option that will improve their lives. Let’s hope it’s right.