THE NATION’S BUSINESS

A doomsday scenario for Canada in 1996

Lucien Bouchard could turn a provincial election into a decisive vote on the future of the country— and win with an overwhelming majority

Peter C. Newman January 15 1996
THE NATION’S BUSINESS

A doomsday scenario for Canada in 1996

Lucien Bouchard could turn a provincial election into a decisive vote on the future of the country— and win with an overwhelming majority

Peter C. Newman January 15 1996

A doomsday scenario for Canada in 1996

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Lucien Bouchard could turn a provincial election into a decisive vote on the future of the country— and win with an overwhelming majority

PETER C. NEWMAN

The new year began with a wave of insider speculation about how Canada’s future would unfold in the next 12 months, and the prevalent predictions left those who heard them feeling a distinct chill in their hunkered-down Canadian souls. The most frightening scenario being sketched out among those who occupy the nation’s top political and business circles runs something like this:

Almost as soon as Lucien Bouchard takes over the Quebec government, likely before the end of the month, he will feign surprise at the size of the province’s deficit ($5 billion and counting) and with all the humbleness he can muster (which isn’t a hell of a lot) the new premier will confess that being a good democrat and all that jazz, he really can’t continue in office without obtaining a renewed mandate from the people. He will exploit federal Finance Minister Paul Martin’s toughlove, cost-cutting budget, due in February, to drive home his point that only by receiving a strong mandate from the voters can he fight effectively to preserve Quebec’s social welfare programs and create jobs. He will “reluctantly” call an election for April, and devote his remarkable political talents to re-creating—and exceeding—the triumphant march through the province that brought him so close to victory last Oct. 30.

With Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson fatally held back by increasing dissension in his own ranks, and the feds unable to campaign effectively in a strictly provincial contest, Bouchard would quickly soar to historic popularity highs, with the polls awarding him two-thirds or more of the votes. At a mass rally, say a week or so before election day, Bouchard would switch from his platform of seeking a mandate to create jobs and balance the budget, and confess that he really can’t attain either objective, because remaining part of Canada is too much of a burden. From being a provincial election, the contest will suddenly turn into a decisive

vote on the future of Canada—and the separatists will win with an overwhelming majority. At this point, Bouchard will claim—and indeed will have earned—a mandate for independence from the people of Quebec. (Despite all the fuss devoted to them, referendums do not have nearly the legal status of elections.)

That doomsday scenario remains strictly speculative, though no one is dismissing it lightly. At the same time, Quebec nationalists were shaking their heads last week, as Prince Edward Island claimed and was awarded its place in Jean Chrétien’s regional veto initiative. Now, P.E.I., with the help of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, can block any proposed constitutional change. That means that the country’s future could hinge on the island’s 136,000 people. Such insanity will make Bouchard’s mission much easier.

Whether or not this scary possibility really happens, many Canadians—particularly in British Columbia and Alberta—have begun to take it for granted that Quebec will decide to go its own way, sometime in the next 18 months. A vocal exponent of this trend is Pat McGeer, a Vancouver politician-scientist who held five portfolios in the provincial

government of Bill Bennett’s Socreds, though he has spent most of his life doing internationally recognized neurological research. (He has a PhD in chemistry from Princeton as well as his MD from the University of British Columbia.) ‘We need to set a course that will allow Canada to thrive with or without Quebec,” he told me in an interview last week. “As long as we remain on the edge and feel that we can’t go on unless we can somehow persuade the Québécois to throw their lot in with Canada, we will remain paralyzed. We must set an achievable direction for the country, invite Quebec to come along, and if they decide to opt for their own independence, God bless them. The way to set that course is to determine now what the terms of such a divorce would be.”

McGeer believes that the resultant stability would enhance both economies and allow more Canadians to follow their dreams. The conditions for separation that he sets would be included in a federal act, passed by Parliament at its next session. It would include provisions that more than 50 per cent of all eligible voters (not just those who have actually cast ballots) of any province petitioning to opt out of Canada approve the separation in a referendum; that the departing province guarantee to Canada free access through land, rail and water corridors; that areas of the seceding province contiguous to Canada with populations that strongly, over 60 per cent, reject separation would be allowed to remain in Confederation; that all economic, social, and legal ties between the newly independent province and Canada would be severed and the seceding province would assume its per capita share of the national debt; that any disagreements would be arbitrated by the International Court at The Hague.

“As far as setting some national vision for this country,” he continues, “who is really mandated to do that? Certainly it’s not the politicians. Such things really consist of the sum of the accomplishments of individual citizens; they are defined in advance, they emerge out of prevailing circumstances. National dreams will evolve out of more Canadians being granted more opportunities, and I believe that will happen as a result of the stability brought about by setting out solid and acceptable secessionist policies before they may be required.”

McGeer believes that Canadians should stop trying to subvert what appears to be a natural evolution toward separatism in Quebec, and let the people go. He is convinced that western Canadians will never approve conditions that don’t guarantee equality of all citizens. McGeer wants to establish a foundation to promote some of his ideas, which also speak to eliminating the national debt and doing away with the layers of bureaucracy that still separate the governors and the governed.

Certainly, in western Canada he will have little trouble rounding up disciples. “Everything,” he maintains, “flows from the fundamental principle of equality.”