King into Trudeau: Jean Chretien Seeks Clarity

By Whitaker, Reg | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

King into Trudeau: Jean Chretien Seeks Clarity

Whitaker, Reg, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion

IN THE LEAD-UP TO QUEBEC'S 1995 referendum, Reg Whitaker writes, federalist options were constrained by Ottawa's fiscal position and the failures of Meech Lake and Charlottetown. But as long as a federalist victory appeared inevitable, Prime Minister Chretien's low-key approach was defensible. Then Lucien Bouchard took over leadership of the sovereigntist camp and led the YES forces to near victory. Everything changed. Finally, the prime minister "had to shed his gray Mackenzie King suit and come out as a decisive and resolute Pierre Trudeau." The result was the Supreme Court reference on the legality of unilateral independence and the Clarity bill. Professor Whitaker reviews and evaluates the new strategy.

FOR OVER A CENTURY, QUEBEC AND THE LIBERAL Party of Canada have been inextricably linked. Now that Quebec's continued place in Canada has been rendered permanently problematic, the Liberal Party's crucial role in maintaining or losing the Quebec pillar of the federation is firmly in the spotlight. And the reverse is true as well: if Quebec leaves, the future of the Liberal Party of Canada itself becomes problematic. If these fates have been intertwined, the nature of the linkage has recently undergone a dramatic transformation. The stakes, both for Canada/Quebec and the Liberal Party, are higher then ever, but the game is being played differently today than at any time in the past.

The Liberals continue to be the "government party," but their hegemonic position is now constituted quite differently than in the past. There is no longer a Quebec monolith holding up the governing Liberal caucus. That monolith broke up in 1984 and has never been recovered. Worse, from the Liberals' point of view, since 1993 the dominant party in francophone Quebec has been the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois. When the Liberals returned to national office under yet another Quebec leader, Jean Chretien, they did so for the first time with a majority supported by a monolithic Ontario caucus and facing a Quebec represented predominantly, both in Quebec City and in Ottawa, by sovereigntists. This new balance of forces shaped the way in which Quebec's second referendum on sovereignty was played out, by comparison to 1980. Ottawa's near-death experience in 1995 has, in turn, shaped the federal government's subsequent strategy to head off, or defeat, a threatened third referendum.

Jean Chretien's position in 1995 was very different from that of his predecessor, Pierre Trudeau, in 1980. Lacking Trudeau's prestige, and with only a rump of Quebec seats from predominantly anglophone and allophone areas, Chretien was also constrained, by the federal government's fiscal position and by the negative memory of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown fiascoes, from offering financial or constitutional inducements. In the face of these constraints, Ottawa adopted a "what -- me worry?" stance. So long as the polls showed an easy federalist victory, this was defensible: there was no point in making promises that could not be delivered. However, the strategy blew up on the way to the launch pad.

The turning point was Lucien Bouchard's assumption of the lead role in the YES campaign. A prime minister, seen as a marginal, even discreditable, figure in much of francophone Quebec, faced, in Lucien Bouchard, a charismatic Quebecois folk hero. Beyond the personalization, the NO campaign in 1995 was too obviously negative, able to offer no more than the federalist status quo, which seemed even more galling to Quebec after the ignominious collapse of Meech Lake, which had commanded wide support across the Quebec political spectrum. When the prime minister made an erratic last-minute promise of constitutional reform, it was largely seen as a sign of panic, lacking credibility.

The result of the 1995 referendum, with its paper-thin victory for the NO side, changed everything in Ottawa. Three facts were now indisputable. First, the sovereigntists could win a referendum, if not now, then in the near future. …

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