Canada: Can We Survive?

Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis, Annual 1996 | Go to article overview

Canada: Can We Survive?


Seventeen years ago I spoke to the Vancouver Institute on the then view of our never ending constitutional crisis - I talked on the Pepin-Robarts Report. Two years ago when I was President of the Institute, Angus Reid spoke to the Institute pretty well on the same subject, and in general I think it's fair to say he was quite optimistic about the evolution of Quebec public opinion, believing that certain demographic factors were strengthening the "no" rather than the "yes" forces. And, in between, I'm sure there have been other talks on our constitutional discontents. In my more concerned moments I'm reassured by a former colleague of mine, the late Donald Smiley, who used to say that whatever bad things the constitutional crisis has done for Canada, it has been extremely good for political scientists. On the other hand, whether the political scientists have been good for the constitutional crisis remains a question open for future examination.

Now about the survival of Canada I'd like to be clear from the beginning. I don't actually mean the survival of Canada as it presently exists. I mean the survival of Canada if Quebec votes "yes" and if Quebec leaves; that is, what will happen to the rest of us if what we tried to prevent does happen, and a referendum produces a decisive enough Quebec "yes" that we accept the result.

So the question to which I will try to give an answer is: "How can we outside of Quebec prepare for the fact that we will be unprepared to respond intelligently to the reconstitution of the rest of Canada should Quebec vote a convincing "yes" in the next referendum?" Putting that in another language: given the fact that we will really be almost completely unprepared to respond to our own crisis situation - that is, can we live as a separate people after Quebec has gone - how can we prepare for our lack of preparation?

I will have to make a few observations on what has come to be known as Track 1 and Track 2 or Plan A and Plan B. Plan A is really the renewal of Canada focus, and we can say that this is a focus or an orientation which has been in existence in the contemporary period at least since the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism of the sixties. That commission, as you recall, said in 1965 that Canada was in a state of crisis. Since then we have had a succession of Plan A proposals up to the 1992 Charlottetown Accord. But up until the recent Quebec referendum, Canadians outside of Quebec essentially only had a Plan A. We did not have a Plan B or a Track 2. The territory that Plan B tries to encompass is: what should we do if Quebec votes yes? That is, instead of concentrating all our efforts on trying to prevent Quebec from voting yes, although efforts would still continue on Plan A, we now ask ourselves the supplementary question, "How can we prepare ourselves for the outcome that we do not wish?"

Now formerly Plan B was taboo territory. We were not supposed to discuss Plan B on the ground that to discuss it meant we were indicating a high probability that the "yes" forces would win. Thus we were facilitating the "yes" forces in Quebec by letting them know we thought the momentum was on their side. So up until very recently, to operate in Plan B territory, even to talk about it, was off limits. That is no longer the case. One of the most important transformations in our constitutional public discourse is that Plan B is now vigorously discussed, although one could not argue that there is a coherent program which occupies all the territory which a comprehensive Plan B should include. So, Plan B from a taboo topic has become a topic that is now actively pursued and considered by Canadians and their governments.

But why has this policy focus moved out of the "let's not talk about it" category to one where it now attracts significant attention? There are two essential reasons. The first reason is the regrettable but undeniable record of constitutional reform failures that has been our experience since the 1980-1982 discussions culminating in the Constitution Act of 1982. …

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