From Rene to Lucien: English Canadian Reflect on Sovereignty

Article excerpt


IN MID-NOVEMBER, as voting day in Quebec approached, Henry Milner wrote the Inroads listserv seeking thoughts to include in a talk on the election at the University of Umea, in Sweden, where he was spending the fall term. Milner was particularly interested in the views of people outside of Quebec. Rather than give topical comments, Iistserv members undertook a collective exercise, thinking about the changes over the decades in their views about Quebec and its sovereignty movement.

The listserv began operating in September 1997, as a means to link readers of the journal and others interested in policy discussion. With more than 140 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth.

This is an edited excerpt of the November discussions.

From: Reg Whitaker

I can't speak to or provide any texture for what is happening in Quebec, although I might be able to fill in some background regarding the rest of Canada (ROC). All the polls are showing an accelerating shift to the PQ among francophones, and ROC is wincing in anticipation of a defeat for the federalist champion. If there is any sense of engagement in the results, it is a numbing sense of dread, and consequently an averting of the eyes. I was on a Newsworld national TV show the other day. All the callers were from Quebec!

There is a perceptual problem in ROC. English Canadians see any election in Quebec as a referendum on Canada, not as another provincial election. That an incumbent government with as high approval ratings as the PQ and as popular a premier would be very difficult to dislodge in any other province gets lost when sovereignty/federalism seems to be the issue. I have no doubt that if the PQ is reelected with a big majority, the media will furiously redefine the contest as irrelevant to sovereignty.

Reg Whitaker is a professor of political science at York University.

From: Harvey Schachter

I suspect much of English Canada is puzzled and frustrated.

For the past few years the main coverage of Quebec has been of the budget cutbacks and referendum issues, as well as, of course, the decision of Jean Charest to head off to provincial politics and take on the mantle of Canada's saviour.

Traditional thinking is that governments that do nasty things and cut back end up suffering. That's not true -- but it's still the way we think and the frame for media coverage....

When Jean Charest took the Liberal helm and the polls soared, it seemed as if the universe was unfolding as it should: an anti-cutback momentum in a province that didn't want another referendum on sovereignty. Canada was saved.

So it's a nasty surprise that the Bouchard government isn't 20 points down in the polls. As well, in English Canada, Bouchard is seen as duplicitous (to put it mildly). His health care reversals recently add to that sentiment. But in Quebec, clearly he is seen differently and I don't think English Canadians understand that. Perhaps today, as Trudeau coincidentally happens to be back in the newspaper headlines after the tragic death of his son, English Canadians should realize that their generous feelings towards Trudeau are similar to Quebecers' feelings for Bouchard, a man also seen as having substance, courage, charisma, and the toughness to bob and weave politically.

Frustration? Well, as always, there's a feeling that this decides something about our future, yet we have no say. Over time, that's dangerous because it adds to the feeling that there is an Other -- an un-understandable other -- who is acting foolishly, against our interests.

Harvey Schachter is a freelance writer.

From: Henry Milner

Harvey is right about the attitude toward Bouchard, though another analogy comes to mind. Canadians developed a soft spot for Levesque. …