At the time this article was
written Robert Normand was President and Publisher of Le Soleil . this is a
revised version of the 5th Annual Jean Lesage Lecture to the
Americass Society in New York. In September 1990.
Many factors have led me to make a
very pessimistic evaluation of our desire to keep on living in the kind of
country that Canada was, and that you have been used to. But before trying to
decide whether divorce is the final answer, let's take a brief look at the
Canadian situation today to better understand the reasons why.
Western Canadians are frustrated by
the concentration of political and economic powers in central Canada and are
disillusioned as to the real possibilities of increasing their strength through
a "Triple E" Senate. Mind you, I never understood how Ontario and
Quebec could agree to dilute their representativity by accepting an equal
number of Senators for, let's say, Ontario and Prince Edward Island, or even
Ontario and the Maritimes together. Nor can I understand how we can improve the
efficiency of our political system by adding another elected body with real
powers to the numerous existing levels of government, i.e. municipalities,
school boards, regional authorities and provinces.
Westerners are also tired of having
to put up in post offices French signs which are useless and which they believe
were imposed by Quebec while this province, with its Bill 178, does not allow
English-speaking retailers to advertise in English on their store fronts! Of
course the Quebec Government never pushed for a bilingual Canada. Rather it was
the policy adopted by French-speaking politicians in Ottawa, particularly Mr. Trudeau
in the seventies.
The recent election of an NDP
Government in Ontario at a time when socialists are losing ground in Europe
shows that Ontarians are not the bunch of WASPS they used to be; that the
political leadership of the traditional parties does not attract the electorate
like it used to do; and more damaging, that flirting too closely with Quebec,
as Mr. Peterson did, is certainly not acceptable to most Ontarians.
I'll pass over the fact that
extremists in the Kingston area stomped on the Quebec flag, and that the
attitude of certain municipalities such as Sault Ste Marie have prohibited the
use of French in public affairs. These incidents are the work of a small
minority but they have attracted a lot of sympathy from other Ontario
I sense in English Canada a very
aggressive attitude towards French-speaking people and more specifically
against the French in Quebec. Until last year, English Canadians had little
sympathy for their English counterparts in Westmount, and considered them much
like loud-mouthed Rhodesians with their own English school system and their
three English universities in Quebec. Not anymore!
English Canadians also blamed
Quebec for passing Bill 178 that only partially reinforced the unilingualism
imposed by Bill 101. Instead of hearing the condescending phrase "what
does Quebec want?", we now hear "to hell with you" or
"good-bye and good luck!".
The non-adoption of the Meech Lake
Accord was not solely due to the combined efforts of premiers McKenna of New
Brunswick and Wells of Newfoundland, but rather was much more the political
result of a rejection of the Accord by a majority of English Canadians as
clearly reflected in the polls. Elijah Harper, who blocked the passage of the
Accord in Manitoba last June, was simply the instrument and concrete voice of
In Quebec, the rejection of the
Meech Lake Accord did much to increase our traditional nationalism. Those who
advocated federalism in the past cannot and do not do so anymore. This word has
become a swear word in Quebec, and in my opinion, Jean Chretien who has
reiterated his traditional belief in federalism would not even get 25% of the
vote if elections were held tomorrow. Those, like Claude Ryan, the provincial
Liberal leader at the time of the referendum, who voted NO in 1980, are now
advocating some sort of sovereignty-association, something they totally
rejected ten years ago.
The members of our business
community who were afraid of a decline in our economic wealth if the referendum
had succeeded, now believe that we might as well get it over with now and fast,
instead of letting the problem go sour. While this may not be true for all
economic leaders, it is certainly the case for those who have agreed to speak
English Canada in rejecting the
Meech Lake Accord missed the best opportunity of buying peace with Quebec at
the lowest possible price, as this Accord would simply have recognized in our
constitution facts that already existed, without giving Quebec any of the
additional jurisdiction that it had demanded over the previous 30 years, powers
that would enable Quebec to better develop its economy and its cultural
specificity. Canada rejected the olive branch that Quebec was offering and
Quebecers generally concluded, without hostility but with understandable
disappointment that either they surrender and revert to the status of water
carriers as their forefathers had done or that they seriously envisage
independence, one way or another.
Premier Bourassa's final decision
following the failure of the Meech Lake Accord was, and rightly so, to boycott
all federal-provincial conferences, just as Premier Levesque had done in 1981.
This means that Senate reform will not take place for a long time, that the
Indians and Inuit can forget their special constitutional status, and that the
frustration of English Canada towards French and Quebecers will continue to
These are the perfect ingredients
for a divorce! And that is where we stand now. What will happen next? Let's look
at various possible scenarios.
First, the status quo. Possible,
but certainly not probable based on the description I have just given you.
Some, like Mr. Chretien and Mr. Trudeau, say we should forget constitutional
discussions for a while, go through a cooling-off period, and concentrate on
economic growth. But they are about the only ones to take such a stand in
Quebec. I thought the dramatic increase in Quebec nationalism after the
rejection of Meech Lake might fade away over the summer vacation and be partly
forgotten in our long Indian summer, but that is not the case right now. Those
like the former Canadian Ambassador in Paris and former Member of the Mulroney
Cabinet, Lucien Bouchard, who became an Independent MP because of Meech Lake,
did much to convince the voters of Montreal-Ste-Marie, a Liberal riding, to
elect by a strong majority a pro-independent candidate in a recent by-election.
Second possibility: A renewed
federalism for Quebec through one-to-one negotiations between Premier Bourassa and
Prime Minister Mulroney. In my opinion, this mechanism can only be used to
settle concrete problems that arise from time to time between governments and
not to develop a constitutional package that would satisfy Quebec and then be
imposed on the rest of Canada. Mr. Mulroney was elected by all Canadians and
not just Quebecers. If he ever believes that he could be re-elected again, he
must count on English Canada which is certainly not ready to give Quebec more
than it refused just a few months ago!
The other Premiers want to have
their say if there are going to be constitutional talks because they believe
they are worth as much consideration as Mr. Bourassa, and they know that they
must say "yes" to any substantial constitutional amendment requiring
unanimity under our constitution. Therefore, this possibility is also very
Third possibility: new
constitutional discussions that would deal not only with the traditional
demands of Quebec but also with Senate reform, Aboriginal rights, ecology and
so on. This possibility is more interesting but it is not for now and is anyway
full of potential pitfalls.
I see some merit in following this
path because I believe that constitutions are not changed to please academics
or to improve the esthetic qualities of the document. They are usually amended
to settle crises after clashes that are often accompanied with violence,
bloodshed and death.
We were nowhere near that with
Meech Lake and you know the results, but we may come close to it if Quebec
decides to change its place in the constitutional structure and if its decision
is rejected. Then we will be faced with a real crisis requiring a real
solution. But this is not for today. In trying to resolve too many problems at
the same time, we often fail to resolve any of them, as was the case for the
numerous constitutional discussions held in the seventies.
The fourth possibility is a real
crisis: the imposition by Quebec of a special constitutional status which if
not accepted would result in a unilateral proclamation of independence. Wow!
Now we're talking business! And that, in my humble opinion, is what is going to
happen with a few variations.
An Act was passed recently by the
Quebec legislature to create an enlarged parliamentary commission to examine
our constitutional future. This body, presided over by two prominent Quebec
business leaders, has among its members, the Premier, the Leader of the
Opposition, Mr. Parizeau and Mr. Bouchard. Many believe that this commission
will come up with a report next March that will propose some form of
sovereignty-association with the rest of Canada. I do not think so. I feel that
it will be useful to air problems, to submit a list of various possibilities,
to assess their economic impact and to let the political players choose what
suits them best.
Mr. Parizeau knows what he wants;
full and immediate independence, Mr. Bouchard goes along the same lines. Only
Mr. Bourassa, who can no longer be a federalist after the failure of Meech Lake
(the young members of his Liberal Party advocated Quebec Independence at their
last convention recently), needs time to develop a solution that would seek to
accommodate the rising nationalism of Quebecers and their taste for Canada at a
time when countries are integrating their activities rather than separating and
What could that solution be for Mr.
A special status in a renewed federalism? That would be the minimum to
retain credibility among the electorate.
A federalism à la carte in which the status of its components could
differ? Quite possible!
A true Confederation like Switzerland with Quebec as one participating
state and either the 9 other provinces or the four other regions as political
entities? Why not?
A mixture of these options with defence, monetary policy, currency,
postal service and so on in the hands of a central authority controlled by the
constituent parts, be they province or regions. Not such a bad idea, is it?
But, and this is my conclusion
regarding the fourth possibility - the special status of Quebec in a completely
renewed Canada will only be agreed to by the rest of Canada and implemented, if
Quebec has the courage to affirm, calmly and seriously, that it is ready to
declare independence unilaterally failing an acceptance by the rest of Canada,
and intends to be taken seriously when it says so!
Separation and independence
therefore constitute the fifth real possibility that we can envisage. I
personally do not think that this is the best solution for Quebec or Canada, or
for the United States for that matter, at a time when we must open our borders
to survive instead of closing them and when nations are taking full advantage
of the fantastic development of communications on our planet. But it is
essential to consider this option seriously. It is viable and would allow
Quebec to prosper on its own after a period of economic upheaval during the
transition phase. This would not be a high price to pay to buy peace for the
future instead of maintaining the growing frustrations that we have witnessed
for so long! Some cynics, me included, add, more or less seriously, that Quebec
will have to face the realities of competition if it becomes independent,
instead of being partly supported by federal transfer payments and will
therefore be forced to swing to the right and become a paradise for
But such thoughts are cynical
indeed. Quebec can very well develop and enjoy prosperity as an independent
state. We are no longer a traditional priest-ridden society where cheap labour
abounds and Quebecers are much better educated than 30 years ago. They are
proud of themselves and they show it in their cultural products to the point
that our song writers and performers are often at the top of the hit parade in
France. We have formed a young generation of skilled and aggressive business
persons and managers convinced that they must attack foreign markets
vigorously. We have also used government and crown corporations as a lever to
develop our economy in cooperation with the private sector. The SGF controls Domtar
and Marine Industries, the Caisse de Depot has assets in excess of 30 billion
dollars, Hydro Quebec has brought us many aluminum companies through its
pricing policies, and Desjardins, our huge financial cooperative movement
controls nearly 40 billion dollars with the savings of Quebecers.
I have outlined five possibilities
for the future of Quebec and Canada. There may well be others or at least
variations on the ones that I have mentioned. One thing is certain: Quebec is
about to determine where it intends to stand vis-à-vis the rest of Canada and
should complete this process within a year's time with an election, a
referendum or a statement by the National Assembly.
My biggest question is, what is the
rest of Canada going to do? Most Canadians believe that they have shut the
mouth of Quebec by rejecting Meech Lake and that the Mohawks have completed the
job that Elijah Harper started last June in Manitoba. They believe that Quebec
is not ready for real action, and they add, without having seriously thought
about it, "If Quebec wants to go, let it go!" But if we do go,
Ontario and Ottawa will continue to generate the same frustrations in the rest
of Canada, and Ontario, with its NDP Government, will not always be willing to
continue to subsidize the rest of Canada since it will need the money to pay
for social measures. As for the Maritimes, they would be geographically
isolated from the rest of Canada. Canada would also have a price to pay to keep
on going its own way. Only a few intellectuals in English Canada have begun to
address these issues.
Some even wonder if provinces like
British Columbia or the Prairies would be tempted to become part of the United
States, and wonder at the same time whether our American friends would be
interested in subsidizing them.
Canada is bound to change
substantially over the next five years. Quebecers will demand a new deal with
Canada. Quebec will become independent and prosper if Canada refuses. An
independent Quebec would be bound to enter into all sorts of agreements with
Canada after independence and they would then form some sort of common market
or Confederation. So instead of reaching the goal through a long and costly
process, we might as well do it right now.
I guess my conclusion is that
politics being what it is, si vis pacem para bellum –if you want peace,
prepare for war.