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A trojan horse in our midst « Douglas Fisher



A trojan horse in our midst

Forget about the boring stuff of governing, jobs for the unemployed, delivering a letter on time. It’s no secret that the guts of our politics is French power within the federation. But it’s an issue presented to us, courtesy of the politicians,not the facts.

Sometimes I get the feeling we are all wandering with Alice through a “looking-glass” world. A few weeks after he announced his retirement Pierre Trudeau spoke in Quebec City to members of his party. “French power is in Ottawa to stay.” said the then prime minister. “No Canada can exist without support from this province … Quebec is strong and can decide by whom and how this country will be governed.” A few weeks later the previous prime minister, Joe Clark,declared in Montreal that “French power will survive on the federal scene no matter which party forms the next government. Quebec will be a force that will be listened to in all governments to come, because attitudes have changed.”

I remind myself to becalm on such statements. Who wants to be tagged as a bigot or a redneck? Perhaps Canada is leading the rest of the world toward the new society and economy for the century to come, one based upon such fair and necessary growth industries as bilingualism and multi culturalism and proving up on the Charter of Rights. What profit, a reasonably-priced cord of pulpwood or a letter delivered on time? Our Canadian realities are much more noble. Other countries may have lower unemployment and inflation, but is as much good being done in the name of culture and language?

The politicians have certainly read the signposts to their advantage. Six weeks into the leadership campaign of the reigning Liberal Party, bilingualism stood almost alone as the major issue. At a time of obvious economic uncertainty, with high unemployment, a threatened resurgence of inflation, and even ordinary people fretting over our colossal and growing public debt, the major tactical ploys of the aspirants seemed to centre on Quebec and how one could draw full support in the French province while regaining strength in the West.

Rather than rue the pursuit of John Turner over the obstacle course of language, Bill l0l, and the Manitoba question, I chose to analyze why the language and the political expression of almost a quarter of our population(about 6.3 million of 25 million people) remain dominant in our politics.

We’ve had 32 federal elections since 1867 32-Parliaments in the past 17 years. For 39 of those years we’ve had a French Canadian prime minister from Quebec, a 3O% share of the time in office. How did Quebec vote in party terms in elections over this period? Did it usually line up on the opposition side (as one might expect from a minority)? No. In 25 of the federal elections Quebec voters placed more MPs on the government benches. Only seven times were there more on the opposition side. Put in years, more Quebec MPs have been with opposition parties for only 23 of the ll7 years we’ve been a country. For 94 years Quebeckers have been with the government. (Indeed, for most of the past half century, Quebec has been with it in overwhelming strength.) Unlike Albertans the other folk from a homogeneous-province in terms of party solidarity Quebeckers clearly have an instinct toward the federal side which wins and rules.

This can hardly be called collective stupidity;quite the reverse. Still, the obvious political power they wield is not the grist for a tale of woe, of a people languishing outside the mainstream. As Trudeau’s regime petered out, he had a cabinet of 37 people; 16 of the ministers have French as mother tongue and 14of the ministers represent seats in Quebec. In the 32nd House of Commons, 82 of the 282 MPs had French as a first language, a34% share,compared with a43% share in the cabinet.Onto the bureaucracy. I turned to the political reporter’s bible. the Canadian Parliamentarv Guide. In the section entitled “Federal High Officials;’, I l6 are fisted. Of these, 33 seem to have French as a first language,2S%of the total. In his latest report Max Yalden, the retiring

Commissioner of Official Languages, says just over 25Vo of the federal public service is rated as having French as mother tongue. But just under 25Voo f those holding senior ” executive ” positions are French. The report states: ” … of the 22,000 or so public servants earning more than $40,000, 18.77owere French-speaking.” Yalden also says that the number of Francophone at the top is increasing.After the sudden surge into the House of Commons in 1962 of the Social Credit party, led by R6alCaouette, there came a rash of questions of how much federal money was going to Quebec. The Caouette gang was sure it fell short of a fair share. As their forces faded away,their grief over federal failure to spend in Quebec became a cry of these paratists of the Parti Quebecois.The mindless aspect of this exercise has two divisions.

Firstly, ever since some of the Rowell-Sirois report of the late 1930s became part of our federal system through statutory transfers from the centre to the provinces weighted to their economic strengths, the so-called “have not”provinces, Quebec among them. have done better from Ottawa than the “have” provinces like Ontario,B.C. and Alberta. Secondly,much of the spending by government departments can’t be traced to a particular province. In any case, itis obvious Quebec has not done badly.not even in the days when Duplessis rejected certain federal grants for higher education. I can’t prove it, of course, but it seems clear as a bell that many of those Quebec MPs were assiduous in ensuring that their hometowns got their share from the federal trough.

Lately I was reading the reverential references an aspiring Liberal leadership candidate, Mackenzie King, made to his recently deceased hero, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, at the leadership convention in 1919. What did King divine as Laurier’s grand and successful purpose? To bring the two peoples of Canada together.When King retired in 1948 the core tribute of praise that came forth was that “he kept us together”. It wasn’t West or East that was meant.but French- and English-speaking Canadians.

When St. Laurent bowed out as Liberal leader in 1958 what did he assert as his achievement? National unity. Lester Pearson didn’t live to complete his memoirs but one of the volumes has some of his reflections on passing on the torch of office and party leadership to Pierre Trudeau. Of what was he most proud and certain? National unity. He’d also preserved and extended it, perhaps his prime achievement being the launching of official bilingualism out of the recommendations of the great Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Now we have Trudeau giving expression to satisfactions much like those of Laurier, King, St. Laurent and Pearson. To those of you who feel that you can’t eat bilingualism and multiculturalism: that these can’t be sold abroad or used to get inflation and unemployment in hand; or to establish a stronger Canadian component in NATO or a self-sustaining post office; or even to gain an end to Mirabels and Canadair bailouts, I agree. But these matters are not the gut stuff of our politics. For that, you turn to something which never seems to last or be sufficient, French power in our federal system.