If You Have the Answers, You Don't Understand Canada

Article excerpt


Director, McGill Institute for the Study of Canada

Quebecers vote for a separatist government but don't want to separate. Federalist get the answer they sought from a Supreme Court ruling but separatists call it their victory. The most visible result of the first balanced federal budget in a quarter of a century is quarrels about what to do with it. Global warming in the land of the cold brings a devastating ice storm. Confusion reigns. Speech to a seminar on Canada organized by the U.S. State Department at the Meridian International Centre, Washington, D.C., October 14, 1998.

Invitations to Washington are intimidating. As an historian, invited to talk about the economics, politics and the world view of Canada in 20 minutes, do I know where to begin? Familiar with my weaknesses, an American collegue said: "Start Now." I shall.

Last night I left Canada under a Liberal government with an eight-seat majority over the combined opposition and overweening pride that, for the the first year since 1974, the federal deficit has vanished and the national debt might shrink. Far from gratitude, Canadians are restive but divided about how this blessing should be shared. Should surpluses be used to shrink the national debt, cut income taxes or patch the health system? Should it compensate female civil servants for years of pay inequity, pay off Hepatitis-C victims for transfusions of tainted blood or stop a hunger strike of World War II merchant seamen who want full veterans' benefits?

Meanwhile, Ottawa lives with "Pepper-gate." Our Reform party loves Newt Gingrich but is incensed that our famous Mounties pepper-sprayed student demonstrators at last year's APEC summit -- perhaps on the prime minister's orders -- to avoid offending Indonesia's now departed head of state, General Suharto.

Life continues in the peaceable Kingdom. And the global economy unravels, Canada's dollar sinks to a current 65 cents, and the revenues that underpin budget surpluses fade. You may accept the business consultant's professional reassurances but I have looked at my own third-quarter financial results and Morton's broadly-based but patriotic portfolio ain't a pretty sight. Other Canadians, exasperated by this much hard slogging, may become very cross if anyone tells them. Like you, they believe in the fashionable mantras of the free enterprise system.

The Supreme Court Reference on Quebec

In October, 1995, Quebeckers came within a percentage point of voting yes to what then-premier Jacques Parizeau confessed would lead promptly to a unilateral declaration of independence. The referendum question did not say so, of course -- or did it? Hadn't Chretien said the question was clear?

In the aftermath, Ottawa split its options between Plan "A" -- be nice -- and Plan "B" -- get mean. Under Plan "B" Ottawa asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether Quebec had a right to separate under Canada's Constitution, or under international law, or without consulting the rest of Canada. Quebec's post-Parizeau premier, Lucien Bouchard, was furious. Whenever the Court released its judgment, Quebec would explode, and Bouchard would win re-election.

Instead, as some of us foresaw, the court gave joy to everyone. Federalists boasted of a "slamdunk" victory. The answer to their three questions was No! NO! No! But the judges continued. Seeking independence was legitimate, even if proclaiming it was not. To be taken seriously, Quebeckers must give a clear majority to a clear question. If they did, Ottawa and the other provinces would have to negotiate. Federalists proclaimed that Quebeckers never would.

Bouchard responded that of course the 1995 question was clear and 50% plus one was all the majority a democracy required. (1) Forcing negotiations was why Parizeau had threatened a UDI. A sovereignty vote need not lead to chaos. The nervous could relax. Apart from a few instinctive denunciations, sovereignists praised the judgment. …