Since Léon Dion died last Wednesday in the pool at his home in the Quebec City suburb of Sillery, many who knew this vigorous and influential man of ideas, and the many more who knew of him, have drawn a parallel between his own life and the life of modern Quebec itself.
The parallel is by no means forced or spurious. By the time of his accidental drowning at the age of 74, Dion was no longer a driving force behind Quebec’s social, linguistic and political movement. But for more than 40 years, he focused his considerable intellectual powers on the same big question that preoccupied Canada and the entity of Quebec: what kind of country should this be and how should Quebec fit into it?
His own answers, like Quebec’s, were loud, insistent, elaborately studied but variable, often contradictory and ultimately ambiguous.
They took root in his native province, but fell on stony ground in the rest of Canada. That did not stop him.
From his chair as head of Laval University’s political science department and as codirector of the Canadian Journal of Political Science, Dion poured out his views publicly in books, articles and lectures, and privately to prime ministers, premiers, ministers and anyone who asked.
Dion, chief intellectual usher of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, an enlightened and enlightening teacher who took on the real world outside the academy, called himself a federalist to the end. But like so many Quebecers, he was torn between Quebec and Canada, indecisive, irresolute, never giving an unconditional yes or no, a Hamlet forever posing the existential question. He voted Yes in the 1980 Quebec referendum on sovereignty-association, No in the referendum on the Charlottetown constitutional accord, No in the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty.
Dion himself acknowledged that he was “a bit mixed up at times,” but his lifelong position was consistent: that Canada is possible, and that Quebec is better off inside than outside. That is also the basic position of his son, Stéphane, who is Canada’s minister of intergovernmental affairs. But Stéphane is not the loose federalist his father was. The elder Dion favored asymmetrical federalism, with a deeply reformed constitution ceding powers to the provinces, recognizing the distinctiveness of Quebec, and resting on
James Stewart, a newspaper columnist and editorialist on Quebec affairs for 30 years, is a Montreal writer.
the concept that Canada is two nations living together in a loose union.
That concept, basically adopted by the Quebec Liberal Party, and in some degree by federal political parties and some provinces, in fact seems no closer to achievement now than it did in the 1960s, when the federal Laurendeau-Dunton Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, of which Léon Dion was a research director, failed to reach agreement on the key issue of Quebec’s place in a renewed federation.
Dion, like many Quebecers, was affronted by the 1982 constitutional agreement, when Prime Minister Trudeau and the provincial premiers, over the objections of the Quebec national assembly, patriated the Constitution and adopted a charter of rights that restricted the powers of the federal and provincial legislatures. He became a powerful influence on Quebec liberal leaders, Claude Ryan and later Robert Bourassa, advocating significant constitutional reform with special status for Quebec.
Léon Dion had an allegiance to Quebec, his homeland, and Canada, his country
Dion was hot and cold by turns on the Meech Lake constitutional agreement. But when it failed, he offered his infamous “knife at the throat” strategy: “English Canada will only yield—and even this is not assured—if there is a knife at its throat.” The Bourassa government and the Quebec Liberals actually tried that, threatening a referendum on sovereignty unless English Canada came up with a satisfactory reform. The result was the slapstick Charlottetown accord, roundly defeated in a referendum.
By that time, Dion was describing himself as a “tired federalist.” Semi-retired at his home in Sillery where he and his wife, Denyse, had raised five children, he said he felt increasingly isolated in his dual allegiance to Quebec, his homeland, and Canada, his country. The isolation of the man and his ideas was real. The new PQ government, naturally, was not much interested in consulting anyone but confirmed separatists. The federal government and the rest of Canada were not much interested in renewing constitutional debate or talking of special status.
So Léon Dion never saw the Canada he worked towards all his life. Instead, he saw a hardening of attitudes in English Canada and his own Quebec society congealing into a bitter dualism of federalists and secessionists. “It would be a lot easier for me to say I’m an indépendantiste,” he said a few years ago. “But I’m not, and since I can’t say I’m for federalism as it is, I have to find a new formula.” Death found him before he discovered the formula. But as long as there are people around willing to look as hard as Léon Dion did, the formula may yet be discovered.
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