THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Those dancing cats on Quebec’s hot tin roof

The independence movement is pure theatre in which the actors perform for each other. The audience has meanwhile grabbed a life.

Peter C. Newman August 14 1995
THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Those dancing cats on Quebec’s hot tin roof

The independence movement is pure theatre in which the actors perform for each other. The audience has meanwhile grabbed a life.

Peter C. Newman August 14 1995

Those dancing cats on Quebec’s hot tin roof

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

PETER C. NEWMAN

The independence movement is pure theatre in which the actors perform for each other. The audience has meanwhile grabbed a life.

A visit to Quebec in this sweltering, pre-referendum summer reveals a province in search of itself. Most citizens are busier plastering themselves with sunscreen than with bothering to follow the twisting subtleties of the independence debate.

But as the fateful day of the referendum approaches, it’s becoming clear that, as much as Premier Jacques Parizeau might prefer otherwise, the vote will not be decided on the basis of the passionate slogans he blows through his moustache. Instead, it will—as always—be the economics of the situation that sways the ballots.

The harsh fact is that more than 800,000 Quebecers currently live full time on welfare-including 18 per cent of Montreal’s population—costing the province in the range of $300 million per month. That’s a huge and politically volatile group, which, it could be argued, would have nothing to lose by voting for separation.

Another unpredictable factor is the province’s youth, once the fountainhead of the sovereignty movement. Survey after survey shows that, certainly at the university level, students are much more interested in the Internet and much more worried about getting jobs than they are about being politically active.

It sometimes seems as if the Quebec independence movement were pure theatre in which the lead actors take the stage to perform for each other. The audience has meanwhile grabbed a life. Yves Fortier, the eminent counsel who served as Canada’s chief delegate to the United Nations and is one of the province’s most astute political observers, told me recently that while he’s not complacent, he feels quite confident about the referendum’s outcome.

“I recognize that much can happen between now and the vote,” he said, “but barring any unforeseen events, I believe that the great common sense Quebec voters have

amply demonstrated in past referendums and at election times will reassert itself again. The gravest danger is that the referendum might once again be put off because Lucien Bouchard has stated that he doesn’t want to go into a losing battle.”

Fortier points out that if independence ever did take place, it would trigger a major financial crisis not just in Quebec but in Canada as a whole, because Ottawa might be stuck having to repay 100 per cent of the country’s outstanding loans, while having lost a quarter of its tax base. “Also,” he adds, “Quebec would eventually have to devise its own currency, which would be horrendously disruptive.”

It’s not weighty topics such as these that preoccupy most Quebecers. But for Parizeau, he realizes that at age 65 this will be his final shot at the Quebec presidency. Some of his recent decisions have had the mark of a desperate man taking desperate measures. The best example was his decision to hand a $60-million subsidy to the perpetually bankrupt MIL Davie Shipyard of Lévis, across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, because its 100 employees threatened to oppose sovereignty if he didn’t

keep their firm alive. Even if he never finds himself a place in history as independent Quebec’s first head of state, Parizeau has at least assured himself an entry in The Guinness Book of Records. It’s doubtful that any other politician anywhere has paid as much as $600,000 per vote.

Most of the bad news about the referendum focuses on the leadership of its “no” forces by Daniel Johnson of the provincial Liberals. Well-meaning as he may be, he brings little political savvy and no inspiration to his task. During a news conference last week, he insisted that he would not detail his party’s plans for Quebec’s future, because to do so might deflect the focus from the Parti Québécois sovereignty campaign.

That sounds discouragingly like the unfortunate rejoinder that turned Kim Campbell from a prime minister into a radio talk show host. (Remember her immortal words during the 1993 election about how 47-day campaigns were too short to discuss serious issues?) It’s just not enough for Johnson to become the champion of the status quo, because people never vote for what they already have.

One alternative might be for Ottawa to grant Quebec a veto over all future constitutional changes, before the referendum is held. That sounds like a huge concession, except that, as the Meech Lake and Charlottetown negotiations proved, no constitutional revisions are possible without unanimity among the provinces—and that’s almost the same as granting Quebec the veto power it wants. The point is that the federal government must seem to at least give the appearance that it cares about the referendum outcome, which it so far has failed to do. Its so-called secret document was a joke, because the only reason to keep it secret, it turned out, was that it suggested almost nothing that was new or effective. Worst of all, it accepted the PQ dictum that separating from Canada in the future would constitute a legal act. That’s not the case, as anyone steeped in the constitutional law of this country well knows. Neither does international law condone theunilateral secession of any part of a democratic state.

The only legal way for Quebec to achieve separation would be to pass a constitutional amendment that would require unanimous support not only from the Commons and the Senate but the legislatures of all 10 provinces. For Quebec to simply declare itself independent would at the very least allow Ottawa to support the territorial claims of the natives of northern Quebec, as Patrick Monahan, a law school professor at Toronto’s York University, pointed out recently in a C. D. Howe Institute study on this issue: “That would produce a period of legal uncertainty and the possibility of civil unrest. It would also result in a massive selloff and devaluation of Canadian securities, a drop in the value of the Canadian dollar, and a significant increase in interest rates.”

But it’s just too damn hot to dwell on such improbabilities.