Accommodate Quebec or Canada Is Gone

Article excerpt

Last year, almost to the day, I spoke to the Association on my perceptions of the future. I am back to explain why I was wrong and to show that, by constant practice, I may actually do the job well. Come to think of it, by reading over what I said to you on December 7, 1994, I am not sure that I grossly misled you. I suggested that 1995 would be a year of decision, that persuading Quebec to remain in Confederation would be a tough job made much tougher by what had happened in the previous 15 years.

I spoke of my pride in the valiant souls who would be making the struggle for Canada. And I suggested that the rest of Canada would reassure what friends our country still has in Quebec by lecturing less and listening more. I said then that we had to keep this country together and I believe it still, with all the greater passion of someone who has shared in the heat of the struggle, if not the bleeding.

In the intervening months, we at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada have been preoccupied with Quebec-Canada relations. It was not for want of interest in other subjects -- Canada's access to the electronic highway, the future of peace-keeping, how to break cultural barriers with China. But always we have been dragged back to the national preoccupation of both our nations.

In the intervening months, the rest of Canada has felt rather complacent. Polls told us all, until mid-October, that Quebec would vote No. And for good reasons., most of them economic. The breakup of Canada would be devastating to all of us, Quebecois and others, at least in the short run. And the beneficiaries of any run away industries would not be Mike Harris or even Frank McKenna but our American neighbors. Business knew that this was a classic lose-lose scenario, at least in the short-run and, in the long run we are all dead.

However the campaign was a lot harder to win than most people realized. I warned last year that the federalist message seemed terribly negative. There was little appeal then or later to another bond of Quebec-Canada unity, a proud identity with a country Quebecers helped build as much as anyone. Nor was there much sense of what Quebecers', rightly or wrongly, had come to feel about the events of the years since their last referendum. If federalists still had a safe margin, why were the polls showing sovereignists inching ever upwards? Why did polls show federalist leaders, on the whole, far behind sovereignist leaders like Lucien Bouchard? And, above all, why did a majority of Quebecers show such distaste for the constitutional status quo?

These were not mysteries in the federalist strategic planning. But what flexibility did they have? Could they tell Jean Chretien to depart? Most of them have been his supporters for years. Could they ask the rest of Canada to rethink positions taken with such ringing certainty in 1990 and 1992? In doing so, would they have not called down the dual fire of Reformers and Pequistes, wakening Quebecers to bad memories and fresh anger? Yes, the Bouchard danger was always there. So was the danger posed by the alliance of the three sovereignist leaders, Parizeau, Dumont and Bouchard. But perhaps Parizeau would insist on carrying the campaign himself. One could pray. One could pray that, as in 1980, the gaffes would be on the sovereignist side. One's knees ached.

And ached. The gaffes came from enthusiastic federalists. Claude Garcia's demand that separatism be crushed was shrewdly translated into a call that Quebec's hope and pride be crushed. Yes, Parizeau stumbled too, but then came Bouchard, rescuing certain failure, adding a full 5% with his Teflon-coated charisma. Here was a man Quebecers believed, much as Westerners find Preston Manning convincing. Both men have used the fiction that they are removed from politics and ambition. Both, in their utterly distinct ways, speak to distinct societies. Neither they nor their supporters have the remotest understanding of the other though they have much in common. …