At the time this article was
written Lucien Bouchard represented La Saint Jean in the House of Commons. He
was Head of the Bloc Québécois and Leader of the Official Opposition.
One major change in the House of
Commons following the October 25 election is the presence of 54 members of the
Bloc Québécois dedicated to the attainment of independence for Quebec. Enough
members of the Bloc were elected to form the Official Opposition in the 35th
Parliament. In this article the Leader of the Bloc outlines why he and his
colleagues support sovereignty. This article is a condensed version of a speech
in the House of Commons on January 1994.
Many in English Canada were
surprised by the Bloc Québécois's achievement on October 25. The channels of
communication from Quebec to English Canada are significantly distorted as they
cross the border. The Quebec reality is perceived in a very confused way on the
other side. That is a first justification for the presence of Quebec
sovereigntists in this House.
Institutions often lag behind
reality. The previous House of Commons was no exception. The stinging rejection
of the Charlottetown Accord by voters in Canada and Quebec is striking proof.
Today, the main architects of that accord have all disappeared from the
political scene. The voters have set the record straight. For the first time in
contemporary history, this House which is now beginning its work reflects the
very essence of Canada, its binational nature and the very different visions of
the future which flow from that. Truth is never a bad advisor. As General de
Gaulle said, one may well long for the days of sailing ships, but the only
valid policy one can have is based on realities.
What are the realities with which
this House will be faced? First of all, a singularly bad economic situation.
One of the most obvious, if not spectacular, signs of this is the chronic
inability of federal governments to control the budget deficit and the enormous
resulting debt. It seems that this voracious monster can at will, take its toll
in terms of jobs, of the minimal security of the poor, of the financial health
of the federal State, and even of the future of our young people. Not only have
those deficits been relentless for the past 18 years, but this year's, which
stands at some $43 billion confirms that the system is totally out of order.
In order to get out of this mess,
it will not be enough to blame the previous government. In any case, Canadians
have already said what they thought of its performance. The ineffectiveness
inherent to the system cannot escape the scrutiny of an observer who does not
bury his head in the sand.
One only has to look at the
relative performance of the various countries subject to an identical
international environment. This is a sure criteria, since everybody is facing
the same economic problems and requirements. Therefore, the global context does
not justify Canada's mediocre performance in terms of productivity since 1979,
the worst of all OECD countries, nor the persistence of such a hugh
unemployment level, nor the uncontrolled growth of the debt. Canada is also in
first place in terms of relying on foreign investors, since 40 per cent of its
debt is owed to foreign interests.
Be that as it may, it is not free
trade agreements, global markets, or the requirements imposed by the
competitiveness of the world markets which, in the last few decades, have
forced the federal government to embark on all kinds of programs and
expenditures, to encroach upon provincial jurisdictions, and to create a
tentacular bureaucracy. Rather, this extravagance and this inconsistency were
motivated by a triple internal concern: to give to the federal government a
legitimacy snatched from the provinces: to affirm its role of strong central
government; and to contain the centrifugal forces of the structure. It is our
political structures which are called into question when we wonder why we have
become the most overgoverned country in the Western world, with 11 governments
for a population of 28 million people.
We only have ourselves to blame if
overlapping federal and provincial activities prevent the creation of cohesive
programs and generate an outrageous amount of waste in human and financial
resources. That reveals a second reality as inescapable as the economic crisis.
Such inefficiencies are at the very heart of our system. They constantly affect
each other and reflect the vicious circle of Canadian federalism. At the core
of the economic crisis is a political crisis.
But for the better part of English
Canada, there is no political crisis. Or, if there is one, they choose to
ignore it. They have sent to Ottawa a new government with the mandate to better
manage the present system without changing anything in it.
On the other hand, Quebecers not
only sent a completely new team to Ottawa, but they gave their elected
representatives the mandate to get prepared to bring about a new order. The
Bloc Québécois was given a double mission: to manage the economic crisis and to
handle the political crisis. Does the distribution of elected members in this
House not prove the very existence of this second crisis?
More than 30 years ago Quebec
awakened to the world and decided to catch up. The Quiet Revolution transformed
Quebec. It did not take long before the spirit of reform in Quebec collided
with the spirit of Canadian federalism in Ottawa. Thirty years ago the horns
were locked. Thirty years later we are still at it, as if frozen in a time
warp. We should learn from the past, and this we should have learned: The
political problem with Canada is Quebec, and the problem of Quebec is Canada.
That many Canadians refuse to
acknowledge the problem only serves to compound it. For example, the Bloc
Québécois has been on the federal scene for more than three years, but until
recently we were ranked alongside the bizarre and the outer fringes.
Our aim, of course, is not to win
popularity contests in English Canada, but you have here in a nugget the
essence of the political predicament which bedevils Canada. A new political
party which had led systematically in the polls in Quebec for three years was
regularly dismissed as a quirk on the charts or a manifestation of a temporary
leave of the senses.
Some are willing to deny the
obvious in order not to upset the status quo. They speak of one Canadian
nation, whereas Quebec and English Canada are two different nations. Even when
nobody in Quebec was contemplating sovereignty, the Canada that steered
Quebecers was not of the same cloth as the Canada that seized the minds and
hearts of Maritimers, Ontarians or Westerners. Quebecers were in the vanguard
of the struggle for more Canadian autonomy under the Red Ensign and eventually
for the political independence of Canada. This tends to be forgotten in certain
quarters where Quebec bashing is a popular pastime.
Hugh MacLennan's powerful novel Two
Solitudes was published in 1945. Half a century later the title still
mirrors the political landscape.
Canada and Quebec have both changed
tremendously in the last 100 years, but they are travelling on parallel tracks
and remain as different today as they were yesterday. By and large they both
continue to ignore the history and the culture of the other. This is no
accident: language, geography and history largely account for it.
Quebecers do not deny that English
Canada constitutes a nation in its own right with its own sense of community.
Every single poll in the last few years has shown that the vast majority of the
people in each of the nine provinces want to remain politically united after
Quebec becomes sovereign. This small detail is conveniently neglected by all
those who question the existence of an English Canada on the shaky basis of
In France the people of the north
are certainly as different, if not more so, from the people of the south as
Maritimers are from the people of British Columbia. But they both feel a strong
attachment to France, or to Canada.
In fact, by clinging to the one
nation thesis, English Canada is running the risk of undermining itself. As
Kenneth McRoberts, the political scientist from York University, wrote in 1991:
"In its effort to deny Quebec's distinctiveness, English Canada has been
led to deny its own".
If one accepts the obvious, one
must surely accept the consequences. Every nation has the right to
self-government, that is to decide its own policies and future. We have no
quarrel with the concept of federalism when applied to uninational states. It
is a different matter when it come to multinational states, particularly to the
Canadian brand of federalism.
Canadian federalism means that the
government of Quebec is subordinate to the central government both in large and
lesser matters. Within the federal regime, English Canada in fact has a veto on
the future development of Quebec.
When the theme of national
sovereignty is brought up in English Canada a nice paradox almost always
emerges. I shall call it the paradox of English Canada. First, the tendency to
consider passé the concept of national sovereignty, what with the European
Community, GATT, NAFTA and so on. This is a patent misreading of the situation.
Take a look at the western world. Ninety-five per cent of its population live
in nation states.
The fact is that Quebec is the only
nation of more than seven million people in the western world not to have
attained political sovereignty. I invite members of this House to reflect upon
this. As a political structure Canada is the exception rather than the rule, an
exception that is not working well, to understate the case.
The particular situation of Quebec
was inadvertently recognized by a member of the Canadian delegation to the
final GATT negotiations in mid-December. As will be recalled, Canada was
seeking to be exempted from the clause attacking subsidies by sub-national
governments because, in his words: "There is only one Quebec". He was
right of course.
Let us ask ourselves: Who was in
the driver's seat during the European revolution of 1989-90 which saw German
reunification and the accession to political sovereignty of so many nations in
central and eastern Europe? Was it the supranational institutions, the EC,
NATO, the Warsaw pact, or was it the different nations, each one of them seizing
the chance of a lifetime? In short, Quebecers aspire to what is considered
normal in the western world.
The paradox of English Canada pops
up with the second part of the discussion about national sovereignty, the part
that deals with the issue of Canadian sovereignty. A large part of the free
trade election of November 1988 was spent, in English Canada, on the impact of
the free trade agreement on the sovereignty of Canada. Everybody agreed that
this was something important that should not be tampered with. If Canada's
political sovereignty vis-à-vis the USA is valuable and must be preserved, why
is it that Quebec's political sovereignty vis-à-vis Canada is depicted as
irrational in the anglophone media of the land? When the preceding Prime
Minister said that she preserved Canadian sovereignty during the last stage of
the NAFTA negotiations, why is it that nobody rolled their eyes and derided
this quaint idea of sovereignty? What mysterious alchemy transforms the quality
of a concept according to the people to whom it applies or according to the
year of accession to sovereignty? One must not forget that independent nations
are not born. They are made.
All this does not prevent Canadians
and Quebecers from having quite a few things in common: a respect for democracy;
a large degree of openness to people of other cultures; and a fascination with
our neighbours south of the border. They both love their country. The problem
is and has been for a very long time; that it is not the same country.…
By its presence and actions in this
House, the Bloc Québécois will be doing every Quebecer and Canadian a service
by preventing them from going back to square one. Now that the Meech and
Charlottetown accords have stripped the varnish of political correctness off
the Canadian federal system, revealing its obstinate fixedness, everyone is
immune to promises of renewal. So much so that nobody dares make any, not even
to score political points.
Thus we should be able to make in
the clear light of day the decision we are supposed to make by referendum in
Quebec. We are left with only two choices: either we settle for the status quo
that almost every federalist in Quebec since Jean Lesage has denounced or, the
alternative is clear. Quebec attains full powers to assume full responsibility.
This imposes upon us a basic civic
duty, which consists in sparing ourselves three more decades of fruitless
discussion, endless trials and lost illusions. This waste of resources, this
dilution of collective hope, this misuse of our energy has been going on for
too long already. All we have to show today despite the best wills in Quebec
and English Canada is bitterness, suspicion, lack of understanding and a
profound collective loss of affection. We are about to lose even the will to
face reality squarely.
More importantly, there is the
waste of time. I am not only referring to that of the people who, in the
excitement of the sixties, dreamed of solving our conflicts and building in
Quebec and Canada societies that would be tolerant, imaginative, open to the
world and concerned with social justice. I am thinking of our two nations in
particular. Because time is running out for them too. While we are moping
around, the world is coming apart and rebuilding around us. The boat is going
by and we are missing it.
Whether we like it or not, there
will be a debate on our political future, and it will take place right here.
The government is free to immure itself in silence as it has been the practice
in this House with regard to the sovereigntist aspirations of so many
Quebecers. Is it out of fear or powerlessness that they are evading subjects
that put into question the old political structures of Quebec and Canada as
well as their capacity to solve social and economic problems? Whether
fainthearted or resigned, this total silence is irresponsible and leads to
paralysis. The Bloc Québécois has been sent here precisely to break this
conspiracy of silence.
We will not be afraid to point out
that Quebecers are and will always be in a clear minority position within the
federal system. The population ratio is three to one. We can fool ourselves and
believe that we can determine the course of events despite this ever-present
handicap which relegates Quebec to second-place status when interests diverge.
This would imply constant tension and a superior performance on our part. In
other words, utopia.
Quebec sovereigntists advocate a
modern concept of political sovereignty, one which is exercised within the
framework of major economic structures and which is respectful of minorities.
Under no circumstances will the 630,000 francophones outside Quebec be
sacrificed. Moreover, Quebec sovereigntists were not the ones who rejected the
Free Trade Agreement with the United States and NAFTA. There is a difference
between withdrawing into oneself and pulling out in order to perform better in
the new global economy.
The close economic integration
between Quebec and Canada forces us to take a careful look at what is happening
in Europe. What lessons can we draw from the European model?
Some pundits like to believe the
European Community will gradually transform itself into something resembling
Canadian federalism, and use this as an argument against Quebec sovereignty.
Thus they reveal their lack of familiarity with European developments. In fact
the other way around appears much more likely. To solve the Canadian political
crisis our present institutions should evolve along the lines of the European
A few facts seem in order. The
European Commission in Brussels has a budget that amounts to 1.2 per cent of
the global GNP of the community. It has no fiscal powers and cannot run a
deficit. The federal government in Ottawa spends 22 per cent of GNP and has the
whole gamut of fiscal powers. As for deficits we all know what has happened.
The commission in Brussels has no army, no police, and a small bureaucracy when
compared to national governments. Community decisions are in fact executed by
national bureaucracies. If we exclude trade matters, national sovereignty
remains the basic ingredient of the community.
For instance the 12 members could
modify the structure and the workings of the EC without the commission having
any say in the decision. For these countries co-operation is the master word,
This is a far cry from the Canadian
brand of federalism. Who will pretend, for example, that only the provincial
governments determine the future of Canada? Who will pretend that the federal
government is but a benevolent arbitrator of inter-regional conflicts? For
Quebec, the central government is the problem. For English Canada, it is part
of the solution.
The Maastricht treaty extended the
process of economic integration to the field of monetary policy by setting the
objective of a common currency before the end of the century, and the process
of political co-operation by specifying the objective of a common thread in the
fields of defence and foreign policy. These sensitive fields will remain the
prerogative of the heads of state assembled in the European Council.
Hence the following question: If
the European union is indeed the wave of the future as is frequently alleged in
the Canadian media, why not propose this model as a solution to Canada's
national problem? If Maastricht represents the embodiment of the next century,
why does English Canada not propose the same kind of arrangement to Quebec? The
Maastricht arrangements would be much easier to implement between Quebec and
Canada than among 12 very diverse countries.
Let there be no mistake. Bloc members
will not forget that their commitment to sovereignty constitutes the real
reason for their presence in this House. One could say that as far as we are
concerned, the pre-referendum campaign has begun. Meanwhile, we will not let
the recession be dissociated from its causes.
For the time being, and until
Quebecers have made their decision in a referendum, members of the Bloc will
seek to safeguard the future by averting present evils to the best of their
ability. These evils include unemployment, poverty, lack of budgetary
restraint, undue duplication, threats to our social programs, fiscal inequity
and loss of confidence in our political institutions and leaders.
All these issues have a direct
impact on Quebec's interests but are equally important for the rest of Canada.
Our aspirations drive us apart, but our social, economic and budgetary problems
are the same.
Who can challenge the legitimacy of
any action the Bloc may take to limit the damage, create jobs, wrestle with the
deficit and fight off attacks against our social programs? The universal
character of these concerns confers a clear legitimacy on a common response to
these issues. In addition, we received an electoral mandate.
I can already hear our opponents
claiming that it was only thanks to an erratic division of seats of English
Canada between the Liberals and Reform members that the Bloc was able to come
to the fore with the second largest number of members. However, the impact of
spoilers and how this translates to the electoral map is also an expression of
the will of the electorate. It was a combination of all votes, whether they
were from Quebec or the rest of Canada, which made us the Official Opposition.
To criticise the fact that this responsibility has now been taken over by the
Bloc Québécois shows a lack of respect for the democratic process as a whole.
We intend to take these
responsibilities seriously; and we will do so loyally, correctly and with due
resolve. We know that is what Quebecers expect us to do, and they would never
forgive us if we deviated from this path.