Québec!: Part Four
By Mark Wegierski
Many of the problems of Canada derive from the fact that 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. Québec). 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 Québec 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 Québec in the name of universal rights, and with a suspicion about Québec'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 Québec 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 Québec. The Liberal Party won 19 seats in Québec, almost all of these from largely non-Francophone (non-French-speaking) areas. However, the Liberal Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, was also a Québecker, 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 Québec, one of only two P.C. seats in the whole Parliament of Canada.
In the September 1994, provincial election in Québec, the main separatist party, the Parti Québécois, formed the government with a two-thirds majority of seats, although with less than a percentage more 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 Québec.
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, is the fact that the famous French-Canadian "revenge of the cradle" has ceased to operate. In traditional Roman Catholic Québec up to the 1950s, families of fifteen children were not uncommon. Today, Québec 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 Québec'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, "Québec 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 Québec election might have been cast illegally, and wanted to crack-down on this abuse. A prominent Bloc Québécois party member and MP 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.
Québec 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 Québec 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 Québec's north, and all the other minorities in Québec, against the Québécois cause.
On September 8, 1995, the referendum question finally came out: "Do you agree that Québec 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 Québec 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 sovreigntist party in the Québec National Assembly (the Parliament of Québec is now formally called the Québec 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 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 even more vociferous than 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.
The October 30, 1995 referendum in Québec could be seen as "a turning point that failed to turn". In a remarkably close result, with only a fraction of a percentage between them, the federalists won. (It might be pointed out that there were two other extremely close results in 1995 -- the striking down of the anti-divorce law in Ireland -- which has been interpreted as a signal for massive secularization of that society; and the election of the former Communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, over former Solidarity hero Lech Walesa, in Poland.)
In an unbelievably quick development attesting to the prevalent left-liberal climate of Canada, Jacques Parizeau was forced to resign in ignominy a day after his speech on the evening of October 30, where he had said that "60% of us [i.e. French-speakers] voted ‘Yes’", and that the defeat was due to "money and the ethnic vote". For this, he was called a "fascist", an "Adolf Hitler", and an "ethnic nationalist", in a massive wave of denunciation that swept the media countrywide, and was attacked even by some members of his own party.
Another casualty of the referendum defeat was Bernard Landry, Québec's Deputy Premier, and Minister responsible for Immigration. He was forced to resign from his immigration duties after raging in private against immigrants on the night of the defeat -- which was apparently reported to the media by two immigrant hotel-workers.
Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard, who was widely acknowledged to be Québec's most popular politician, then headed for the Premiership of Québec (and leadership of the Parti Québécois).
Because of the tightness of the race in the last few weeks of the campaign, Jean Chretien had hastily promised, five days before the vote, to try again to push through the constitutional recognition of "Québec's distinctiveness" -- the issue on which two previous constitutional agreements, the Meech Lake Accord (signed 1987; failed 1990) and the Charlottetown Agreements (1992), had foundered. After appearing to simply renege on his promise, he indeed brought down, in the Parliament of Canada, a recognition of this distinctiveness. However, the Parliament of Canada is no longer a sovereign body -- all its acts are referred to and interpreted by the Canadian Supreme Court in light of the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which means that such a measure means substantially less than some might imagine.
Some rather jaundiced and exasperated English-Canadian traditionalists might well have thought that the "No" vote (i.e. No to Québec sovereignty) was probably actually worse for English-speaking Canada, as a "Yes" vote might well have begun a process of salutary shock-therapy in this country. To wipe that perennial self-satisfied smirk off Chretien's and Liberal party-hacks' faces, the next day after a "Yes" victory, would have been hugely satisfying. Whatever else it was, the "No" victory was implicitly a vindication of the last thirty years of Canadian history, and of the Liberal vision which has so thoroughly dominated it. Chretien did indeed coast to another majority in 1997, in the afterglow of the "No" win.
From a more broadly world-historical perspective, some might argue that a "Yes" win could have been the catalyst for the restarting of true history in North America -- for the resumption of some kind of movement in history in North America, which was certainly preferable to the status-quo. The success of Québec separatism might have had some unexpected impacts on the U.S. While on the one hand, it might well have strengthened Hispanic separatism in the U.S. South-West, on the other, it might have led to a questioning by the long-marginalized hinterlands of the U.S. just what kind of benefits they derive from being under the control of the centralizing, bicoastal elites. Québec's possible re-association with France and Europe might also have strengthened Europe as a whole, in its perennial attempts to resist North Americanization. At that time, it was not as clear as today in which direction the European Community (as I believe it was called then) was heading. Perhaps such a triumph for the EC might have positively altered the whole trajectory of Europe’s future development.
To be continued next week.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.