Backstage

Fencing with the neighbors

When it comes to the future of Quebec and Canada, Lucien Bouchard is quick to lecture, but slow to listen

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 21 1997
Backstage

Fencing with the neighbors

When it comes to the future of Quebec and Canada, Lucien Bouchard is quick to lecture, but slow to listen

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 21 1997

Fencing with the neighbors

Anthony Wilson-'Smith

Backstage

And now, a test of community values. Suppose that your neighbors don’t like broccoli, cannot stand hearing about it, and will not allow it on their property. One day, some members of their family speak with some of your family members while standing on their property. Your family members enthusiastically discuss their fondness for broccoli. The neighbors are furious. Not content with wanting your family members off their property, they call the police. They demand that criminal charges be laid against your family members—even though there is no law in the community outlawing broccoli (and even though many discerning eaters might be relieved if there were).

If you agree with the neighbors, you probably agree with the Quebec government, which believes that Quebec laws should also apply to people and actions outside the province. If not, you understand why Judge Daniel Tingley of Quebec Superior Court last week dismissed charges against four Ontario residents and businesses accused of violating Quebec’s Referendum Act. The charges related to their role in helping Canadians outside Quebec to attend the massive pro-unity rally that took place in Montreal three days before the October, 1995, referendum. Tingley, noting that the alleged acts took place outside the province, ruled that Quebec laws cannot be applied.

There is nothing surprising in legal terms about the ruling. But the rancor it evoked among political leaders and commentators in Quebec reflects a growing trend to stifle attempts by the rest of Canada to participate in the debate over the country’s constitutional future. Parti Québécois politicians, predictably, described it as portending yet another humiliation. A columnist in Le Journal de Montréal suggested that the “truly frightening” decision could lead to people attempting to influence Quebec voting results from strategically placed command posts outside the province. Quebec City’s Le Soleil suggested: “Imagine the reaction of Mike Harris if the Quebec Federation of Labor flooded the neighboring province with pro-NDP propaganda.” And, the editorial intoned dramatically, it is “preposterous to think that democracy stops at provincial borders.”

Quite right on both counts—but not for the intended reasons. First, given the antipathy towards the pro-sovereignty Quebec labor movement outside the province, a delighted Harris might be tempted to finance such a campaign himself. And, suggestions to the contrary, democracy has existed in Canada beyond Quebec’s borders for 130 years. Although no other province has Quebec’s prohibitive restrictions on electoral spending, other Canadians generally resist the temptation to spend much effort telling one an-

When it comes to the future of Quebec and Canada, Lucien Bouchard is quick to lecture, but slow to listen

other how to vote provincially. Even if they did, a sure way to stampede voters in one direction is for outsiders to tell them to do the opposite. Finally, the belief that you can tell people how to behave outside your own jurisdiction smacks of rather breathtaking arrogance. Push that idea to the most absurd limits—as sovereigntists often do in their arguments—and consider this: if Quebecers believe they can tell Canadians in other provinces how to behave, why not just pass a provincial law declaring French as the only official language in all of Canada?

Sadly, that antipathy towards outside views extends elsewhere in Quebec. Witness the vehement opposition to efforts by the federal government to clarify in the Supreme Court whether the province has the unilateral right to declare sovereignty. No member of the federal cabinet has questioned Quebec’s right to secede if a clear majority of Quebecers vote Yes to a clear question. But Premier Lucien Bouchard repeatedly describes the court challenge as “undemocratic”—and suggests that Quebec will do as it wishes regardless of any such ruling. In other words, Bouchard’s government wants the rest of Canada to abide by rules that apply only in Quebec, but says his government is not bound by rules that apply to all of Canada.

Now, there are attempts to bar Reform party Leader Preston Manning from a televised French-language election debate because he would need simultaneous translation. When the networks agreed last week to allow Manning to take part, furious Bloc Québécois MPs suggested that the party may boycott debates as a result. Never mind that Reform has the second-largest number of seats outside Quebec of any political party and can legitimately claim to speak for millions of Canadians.

Many Bloc MPs are unilingual, or struggle in a second language—just like Manning and more than 80 per cent of Canadians. Bouchard spoke virtually no English when he first ran federally in 1988. Imagine the reaction of BQ members if there was no simultaneous translation in the House of Commons.

Sovereigntists argue that if Quebec becomes independent, the rest of the country will agree to an economic partnership if only because shared geography and business interests make that desirable. But partners and neighbors must be able to speak freely, even if the subject is something as unpalatable as broccoli, or the dissenting views of other Canadians. Whether sovereigntists acknowledge it or not, negotiations with hurt, angry Canadians in the event of a Yes vote would be nasty, brutish, and probably very long and draining for both sides. If Quebecers won’t listen to other views about the full potential consequences of sovereignty now, should they be surprised if, upon achieving it, they are unprepared, uncertain and unhappy with the results?