The past, present, and future of Québec (Part Seven)
By Mark Wegierski
Many of the problems of Canada derive from the fact that the country is, in essence, "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state". The "two nations" are, of course, English-speaking and French-speaking Canada (i.e., Quebec). A great number of problems of the Canadian polity can be traced to this initial dualism. English-speaking Canada traditionally often tried to pretend that Quebec simply did not exist; then it moved, probably too late, into a stance of extreme accommodation; and finally, when English-speaking Canada became generally very ideologically liberal, it moved to oppose Quebec in the name of so-called universal rights, and with a suspicion about Quebec's "illiberalism".
In the October 25, 1993 federal election, the Bloc Québécois, under the leadership of Lucien Bouchard, which was going to take the case for Quebec sovereignty to the Parliament of Canada, won 54 seats. It thus became the Official Opposition in the federal Parliament. The Bloc Québécois, of course, ran candidates only in Quebec. The Liberal Party won 19 seats in Quebec, almost all of these from largely non-Francophone (non-French-speaking) areas. However, the Liberal Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, was also a Quebecker, though of course despised by the Québécois nationalists. One former Tory running as an independent (who had been forced to resign from the P.C. party over corruption charges) was also elected. Finally, Progressive Conservative leader Jean Charest won one seat in Quebec, one of only two P.C. seats in the whole Parliament of Canada.
In the September 1994, provincial election in Quebec, the main separatist party, the Parti Québécois, formed the government with a two-thirds majority of seats, although with 44 percent of the popular vote, because of the "first-past-the-post" system of geographic areas called ridings. Again, most of the support for the provincial Liberal Party came from non-French-speaking areas of Quebec.
The Parti Québécois set the stage for the critical referendum on sovereignty, which took place on October 30, 1995. A number of factors have to be considered when discussing the run-up to this referendum.
First of all, there is the fact that the famous French-Canadian "revenge of the cradle" has ceased to operate. In traditional Roman Catholic Quebec up to the 1950s, families of fifteen children were not uncommon. Today, Quebec has one of the lowest birth-rates, and highest abortion-rates in Canada, if not the world. Indeed, the situation is so acute that some Québécois nationalists had dared to hint at instituting pro-natalist policies focussed on "old-stock" Québécois. The proportion of Quebec's population in Canada is quickly dropping below 25%, and the demographic battle of the Québécois is clearly being lost, which constitutes a profound psychological blow. There was the article in The Globe and Mail, April 7, 1995, pp. A1 and A8, "Quebec population drop fuels talk of political weight loss: Province may not be able to reverse trend, demographers say".
Throughout the run-up to the campaign, the Parti Québécois was faced with the obvious fact -- which, however, could barely be discussed in public -- that virtually all recent immigrants were going to vote overwhelmingly for Canada. The Parti Québécois did argue that 200,000-300,000 votes in the 1994 Quebec election might have been cast illegally, and wanted to crack-down on this abuse. A prominent Bloc Québécois party member and M.P. even dared to suggest that recent immigrants should not be allowed to vote in the referendum. Bouchard, of course, repudiated him right away -- relieving him of his special parliamentary functions. The PQ did, however, modify the procedure of compiling the electoral lists, which, according to the federalists, tended to work somewhat in the separatists' favour.
Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau spoke to the Canadian Club in Toronto on November 22, 1994. (See the Toronto Star, November 23, 1994, p. A23, “’Your national will and ours no longer converge’."). It appeared to me at that time as a rather forthright, fairly subtle, and quite sensible statement of a type of nationalism which was certainly far more meaningful than anything to be found in English-speaking Canada in the 1990s.
The liberal English Canadian media indulged in such taunts at Quebec as the Macleans cover of a Cree Indian chief, dressed in military-style fatigues, shouting "NO!" English-Canadian liberals anticipated with relish turning the Cree in Quebec's north, and all the other minorities in Quebec, against the Québécois cause.
On September 8, 1995, the referendum question finally came out: "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?" (Toronto Star, September 8, 1995, p. A1 and A28). The agreement of June 12, 1995 had included the Bloc Québécois, led by Lucien Bouchard; the Parti Québécois, led by Premier Jacques Parizeau; and a smaller sovereigntist party in the Quebec National Assembly (the Parliament of Quebec is now formally called the Quebec National Assembly), led by the young Mario Dumont.
Jean Chretien, for most of the campaign, managed the federalist side abominably. When the federalists led in the early polls, he thought the issue settled, and said little about it. On September 18, 1995, he said he would not accept a "Yes" vote for sovereignty as valid, because he considered the referendum question to be too ambiguous.
On October 15, 1995, Lucien Bouchard, who had been recently nominated as the chief representative of the "Yes" side, was considered by many to have made a truly huge "gaffe", when he said that the Québécois were "one of the white races whose birthrates were very low, and that it would be a good idea if Québécois women had more children". He was immediately assailed for being both racist and sexist. Interestingly enough, his condemnation by feminists was probably even more vociferous than that by anti-racists. Some typical comments were that he was, "telling women to have babies", and "trying to force women to have children regardless of their own preferences", etc.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.