MACLEAN'S/CBC NEWS POLL

Distnct headaches

Quebecers are feeling the pinch in a tough economy

BRENDA BRANSWELL December 30 1996
MACLEAN'S/CBC NEWS POLL

Distnct headaches

Quebecers are feeling the pinch in a tough economy

BRENDA BRANSWELL December 30 1996

Distnct headaches

Quebecers are feeling the pinch in a tough economy

MACLEAN'S/CBC NEWS POLL

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien may crow about the kudos Canada receives from the United Nations as a great place to live, but from the tightly secured Montreal shop where Paulo Gomes runs his jewelry business, the nation seems rather sickly. Shortly before Christmas, Gomes, 37, folds copies of a Portuguese community newspaper while waiting for a rush of shoppers that has not materialized. By midday he has served only a few clients, making small purchases. Business is “too quiet for comfort,” says Gomes, calling it one of the worst years in a decade. Aside from high taxes, he notes that the country has a serious unemployment problem that needs fixing. “If it keeps going down, its going to be hard to live here,” Gomes predicts.

Many Quebecers share his pessimistic outlook. Respondents to the Maclean’s/CBC News poll are decidedly more negative than other Canadians about the country and their future. More than 60 per cent say they are more pessimistic about the future than they were a decade ago—well above the national average of 49 per cent. In a province where the unemployment rate in the main city hovers several points above the national average, it is not surprising that jobs are foremost among Quebecers’ concerns. But a more pessimistic view of society leading into the next millennium comes through on other subjects, as well—from whether government pensions will exist to whether people will work harder for fewer rewards.

Allan Gregg, chairman of Toronto-based The Strategic Counsel Inc., which conducted the poll, thinks the gloominess simply reflects the province’s political and economic uncertainty. “Quebecers,” he says, “are more acutely aware of the conflicts and conundrums that they face, and that they believe are, if not intractable, certainly enduring.” Economist Pierre Fortin of the Université du Québec à Montréal notes that Quebecers and their economy have been through a difficult year. The pessimism is colored by the “very short-term situation,” says Fortin.

Even so, with the prospect of another Quebec referendum looming before the turn of the century, threequarters of respondents in Quebec—and across Canada as a whole—believe the chances of separation have not increased since the narrow vote in October, 1995. “It’s been just about the status quo,” observes Laval University political scientist Louis Balthazar, who argues that “although the sovereignty movement is no closer to its ideal, Canada itself is not in very good shape, either.” Montreal businesswoman Louise Bouchard, who voted Yes to sovereignty in the 1995 referendum, thinks another Yes vote may be the route to go “so that we’ll be respected. And after that we can

of Canadians, including 49% in Quebec, think it is likely that Quebec will be a separate country in the next 10 years. What is more, 37% of Canadians, including 55% of Quebecers, find that an acceptable situation.

of Quebecers rank unemployment as the most important problem facing Canada, compared with 31 % in all of Canada.

negotiate agreements.” Ideally,

Bouchard says she would prefer that Quebec stayed in Canada, but she wants to see the province recognized as a distinct society and a founding people.

Premier Lucien Bouchard has placed sovereignty on the back burner to focus on the economy, but the issue is still hot. Almost perfectly reflecting the Yes vote of the 1995 separation referendum,

49 per cent of Quebec respondents say it is likely that Quebec will be come a separate country by the year 2005. And that is a prospect that fully 55 per cent of Quebecers—including 60 per cent of francophones—find acceptable, numbers that Gregg considers high more than a year away from the “hothouse environment” of the last referendum campaign. Outside Quebec, Canadians “don’t believe Quebec is going, and they don’t believe it would be acceptable,” notes Gregg. “For English-speaking Canadians, it’s a non-issue. And I think that’s part of the frustration of Quebecers.” Says Balthazar: “Many of us in Quebec thought the shock of the referendum would produce a willingness on the part of Canadians to come to terms with Quebec, and it’s just the opposite.” What the two solitudes do share, however, is a skepticism about the effectiveness of Ottawa taking a tougher approach with Quebec. Most feel that resorting to what has become known as “Plan B”—as an alternative to Ottawa’s fairly consistent policy of not ruffling Quebec’s feathers—would make the provincial government less willing to negotiate or, at best, have no affect on its position. “I think it’s a bad approach,” says Jocelyne Bolduc, a Quebec City college teacher and self-professed indépendantiste. Bolduc, 41, pressed Chrétien during a CBC TV forum on Dec. 10 on whether he would be satisfied if Quebecers stayed in Canada simply because Ottawa used fear tactics on them. She says a hard-nosed, Plan-B approach would polarize opinion. “It gets some people more determined to separate and, on the other hand, it does scare some.”

Quebecers, in fact, mirror other Canadians on many issues, including their support of deficit cutting. And despite their premier’s studious avoidance of the issue, a majority of Quebecers—although in smaller numbers than other Canadians—believe the separation threat has had some impact on the Quebec economy. They also share a strong conviction that none of the federal political parties—including the separatist Bloc Québécois—has concrete solutions to the country’s major challenges. Supported by 49 per cent of Quebecers and vaulted into official opposition status in the last federal election, the Bloc garnered a nod by only three per cent of Quebecers in the poll as a party with solutions.

Daniel Turp, chairman of the party’s policy committee and a potential candidate to succeed Bloc leader Michel Gauthier when he steps down in March, dismisses that finding as meaningless. Quebecers have not given the party a mandate to govern, he says, but

rather to defend their interests and ensure that the government does what it is supposed to do. “It’s the nature of the Bloc that people don’t see it as having concrete answers to some questions,” says Turp. But federal Liberal minister Marcel Massé, president of the treasury board, counters that people don’t trust the Bloc because it can’t deliver. “What they have proven is that a regional opposition that has a very narrow mandate, especially a separatist one, can have almost no influence on what happens in parliament.” Still, the Liberals didn’t fair much better on the same question, receiving the support of only nine per cent of Quebecers. Predictably, Quebec also carves its own distinctive path on some issues, including finding it more likely and acceptable than other Canadians that Canada or any part of the country will join the United States within the next eight years. Quebec also has what Gregg calls a “strong pro-business ethos,” with more Quebecers than other Canadians willing to see private business take on a greater role in society. In their personal attitudes, Gregg notes, Quebecers are “far more permissive and hedonistic.” After Newfoundlanders, they report the most sexual activity among Canadians. They are also the least likely to call Canadian society too permissive, and are slightly more accepting than other Canadians of gay couples adopting children, although the majority of Quebecers disapprove of the idea. Says Gregg: “That whole notion of live fast, have fun, because it may all just be fleeting, is very strong.”

Françoise Guénette, host of the television show Droit de parole, which features debates about social, political and cultural issues, believes that in modern, multicultural Quebec, it is a cliché to chalk the differences up entirely to a Latin character. They also stem from Quebec society’s rapid evolution in the past 30 years, she says, which saw the voluntary rejection of the Roman Catholic Church, marriage and many other conventions and institutions. There may also be a tendency to rebel, she adds. “Smoking is not as badly viewed in Montreal as in Toronto,” says Guénette. “We still smoke illegally here in public buildings without much complaint.”

In his jewelry store, Gomes, who opposes separation, says he does not expect to see an independent Quebec in the near

future. His reasoning: deficitinduced provincial spending cuts have hurt people who voted for separation. “They’re feeling they cannot do without the rest of Canada,” Gomes says. Laval’s Balthazar argues the opposite: “For many people, this pessimism might produce a reaction that, whatever happens, we have nothing to lose, that things are so bad anyway.” Both are sentiments that federalist and sovereigntist forces will no doubt play on when the unity debate— as it must—becomes front and centre again.

BRENDA BRANSWELL

in Montreal

of all Canadians and 37% of Quebecers say the chances of Quebec leaving Canada have decreased in the past year since the October, 1995, referendum.

in Quebec and 47% in the rest of Canada say Canada should just let Quebec go if it wishes to separate. (Highest: British Columbia and Alberta at 55%.)