CANADA

‘Let the people speak’

Grassroots unity groups challenge the politicians

CHRIS WOOD January 15 1996
CANADA

‘Let the people speak’

Grassroots unity groups challenge the politicians

CHRIS WOOD January 15 1996

‘Let the people speak’

CANADA

Grassroots unity groups challenge the politicians

The insight came to Myriam Laberge during a flight back to her home in Vancouver from a conference in San Francisco. Brothers Fred and Robert Robertson, both retired executives, reached the same conclusion while playing late-season golf at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club. The identical thought struck Charles Schom, a paint store owner with a PhD in genetics, while he was sipping coffee and watching deer dine on his lawn in St. Andrews,

N.B. To educational software consultant John Aubry, it came during a literary discussion at the Vancouver Public Library. What was evident to each of them in the dramatic days surrounding last October’s Quebec referendum was this: that politicians had very nearly let Canada come apart at the seams, and that the task of saving the country may now be up to its citizens. As Aubry put it: “Legislatures need to be quiet for a while, and let the people speak.”

Each of the five—and a striking number of other Canadians coast to coast— have since taken action to see that that happens. With friends, Laberge sponsored a public meeting in Vancouver on Jan. 6, where more than 100 people discussed their vision of the country. The Robertson brothers formed what they call The October 27 Group, named for the date of last autumn’s giant proCanada rally in Montreal, to mobilize grassroots support for Quebecers who voted No. Schom and Aubry (who also planned to attend Laberge’s meeting) have organized their own groups at which Canadians eager to become involved in the search for national reconciliation can discuss their views.

They are not alone. Galvanized by the outcome of the referendum, Montreal businessman Mark Kotier, who claims never to have so much as written a letter to an editor until last November, founded the Citizens Committee for a New Province, which plans to hold pro-Canada rallies in several Quebec centres later this month. Another Montreal group, the Special Committee for Canadian Unity, plans to hold

a public conference on the same topic at McGill University on Jan. 21, featuring separatist-turned-federalist lawyer Guy Bertrand. At about the same time, For the Love of Canada, a group based in Kingston, Ont., expects to release resource material for what it hopes will be a national day of discussion about the country’s future in schools, homes and businesses, to be held on Feb. 19. And on March 2, yet another con-

ference will examine the issue in Vancouver, this one sponsored by several members of the Canadian Bar Association.

For many of those behind the spate of new save-the-nation campaigns, the motivation is intensely personal. Eleanor Belfry Lyttle resolved to launch For the Love of Canada after watching the referendum results with her daughter, Mary Beth. “For me there was no choice,” she told Maclean’s. “I need to do whatever I can do.” And in a view that organizers of several of the other initiatives plainly share, Jeffrey Scouten, a Vancouver lawyer involved in planning the March conference, worries that Canadians must find a solution to their perennial divisions soon—or face

dissolution. ‘We had a reprieve,” says Scouten, “and we are losing our chance.” Whether so-called ordinary Canadians can succeed where their political elites have failed is far from certain. Similar endeavors have been tried before. Indeed, Maclean’s itself sponsored one of the earliest attempts in 1991, when it invited 12 representative Canadians to draft a declaration of shared national principles. At about the same time, the federally funded Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future sponsored a series of nationwide discussion groups similar to those now envisioned by For the Love of Canada. Whatever consensus those earlier efforts managed to reach, they plainly failed to alter the historic currents that led to last fall’s razor-thin federalist victory in the referendum. At the same time, the groups that have sprung up in response to the referendum vote seem to share few views beyond the conviction that politicians have fumbled the ball on national unity and ordinary citizens must pick it up. The October 27 Group, for one, argues that Ottawa should take a hard line against Quebec’s separatists, using its reserve powers under the constitution to prohibit any future referendum—or secession—in areas of Quebec that voted No in the last vote, including Montreal. British Columbia’s Scouten and New Brunswick’s Schom, by contrast, argue that other Canadians must rethink their opposition to recognizing Quebec as a distinct society. “Unless Canada changes,” warns Schom, “Quebec will vote Yes the next time.”

For Myriam Laberge, meanwhile, the answer may lie at either extreme—or somewhere in between. The _ Alberta-born meetings faciliz tator admits that she had not £ thought much about what 1 lies at the heart of the nation, or what its future should be. In the wake of the referendum, she says, “My first anger was at myself. I thought, ‘I have abdicated my responsibility as a citizen.’ ” Even now, Laberge concedes that she has no clear view of what shape a national reconciliation might take, only a faith that “there is a wisdom that can be tapped in people.” But despite her own uncertainties and those that loom over Canada’s future, Laberge is emphatic on one point: “We have to begin.” That, at least, is one idea that a growing number of other Canadians plainly share.

CHRIS WOOD

MERLE MacISAAC

HELENA KATZ