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Legion Magazine – March/April 2000 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – March/April 2000

This column does not deal with our wars or any particular veterans’ matter. It is about politics and the most basic problem for our politicians, the one that Lord Durham described in the aftermath of the 1837 rebellions as “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.”

The basic problem suddenly assumed significance of a tall order last December when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien chose literally and figuratively to legislate clarity into it, including a definitive process that has been designed to come into play if the problem reaches its extreme—and that would be a chosen determination by a province to secede from Canada.

Those of us who served in the Canadian Forces in the two great wars have a keen awareness of our country’s core dilemma. It has concerned me more than any other political matter since I came to Parliament Hill in 1957. It has also baffled me more with regard to what should be the soundest, wisest way to master the dilemma.

In this age of the Internet, we often encounter the phrase “knowledge is power.” Whenever I hear or read this phrase, the thought intrudes that knowledge may precede wisdom—perhaps it must do so—but much knowledge and experience does not always make one wise. The prime case in point is our “two nations” dilemma. Because despite our great knowledge on this fundamental since its beginnings, where is the wise and plain resolution? Is it in Chrétien’s so-called clarity act which is much gingering our millennium?

Our oldest dilemma began to shape 240 years ago when Britain decided to keep this huge French colony and its nucleus of 60,000 or so Canadiens mostly living along the upper St. Lawrence River. In the lifetimes of most of my readers it took on a “when-will-it-end” aspect by the mid-1960s when Lester Pearson was the prime minister.
Electorally in 1962 and 1963, Pearson—as Liberal party leader—had promised an inquiry in depth into dissatisfactions in Quebec with Confederation.

The autonomy minded Union Nationale governments, long in office under Maurice Duplessis, scorning Ottawa but not openly secessionist in policy, had been followed in 1960 by a government led by Liberal Jean Lesage, a former ministerial colleague of Pearson. Lesage, pushed by a strong cast of ministers, raised high the banner of “masters in our own house.”

The Lesage government pushed aggressively an academic-like thesis developed by one of Duplessis’ commissions that Confederation had been an agreement between “two founding nations” or peoples, and that subsequent developments had been unfair to the French-Canadians as a nation.

In this same period of time the mammoth Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism—which Pearson had appointed—was under way. Perhaps more important, he had also said he could not declare Canada indivisible, as Abraham Lincoln did about the United States a hundred years before. After all, Canada had accepted the United Nations Charter of Rights and Freedoms which posited the right of a distinctive, self-regarding people to their own independent government.

Moved by the case of a federal scientist named Marcel Chaput, Pearson had also decided that it was neither a treasonable offence nor grounds for dismissal for a private citizen to advocate the secession of Quebec from Canada.

If Canada was to be vulnerable to division it was obvious from past and present discontents that it would come from French-Canadians living in Quebec and in control of its National Assembly, not from the far west or the Maritimes where there has been much unhappiness with Confederation.

Chaput has disappeared as a totem of Quebec nationalism. However, I recall the derisive reactions that I and many others had in 1961 when he asserted four axioms: French-Canadians form a nation; the French-Canadian nation is a nation like any other; Quebec is the rightful state of the French-Canadians; to progress, French-Canadians must be masters of their own house.

By Canada’s Centennial Year most French-Canadian politicians, tacitly in federal politics, openly in provincial politics, had accepted Chaput’s axioms. The first question had become whether they could be realized within a reformed Canadian Constitution.
Confederation itself came about largely as a means to ameliorate the tensions between those who spoke French and English.

Before the Diefenbaker regime the basic tension was always there in our politics, but it was muffled by the extreme caution of leaders like Mackenzie King and Louis Saint-Laurent. With the advent to office of “the Chief”—a politician often damned by his detractors as chilly towards French-Canadian aspirations, the issues, incidents and personalities of the Quebec issue exploded and have dominated public affairs ever since.
It seems certain today that this issue will continue to dominate public affairs until either one of two points is reached: Quebec goes or an agreement is embedded in the Constitution that Canada is indivisible.

What befell in the years between Lesage’s first government in 1963 and René Lévesque’s first government in 1976 has been called—not very aptly—the Quiet Revolution of Quebec. It was noisy, mercurial, controversial, pitting Quebec against Ottawa. The sharp-edged politics became vivid with memorable persons like Lévesque, Daniel Johnson, Robert Bourassa, Jacques Parizeau, and Lucien Bouchard on the one hand and others like Joseph Caouette, Pierre Trudeau, Jean Marchand, Brian Mulroney and Chrétien working as federalist Quebecers in Ottawa.

We had the dramas of official bilingualism, followed by official multiculturalism. There was the shock of the October Crisis of 1970 over terrorism of separatists; and a plethora of federal-provincial conferences, papers, and draft constitutional proposals in abundance through the 1970s and into the early ‘90s.

There have also been several significant judgements by the Supreme Court of Canada, notably the one in the early 1980s that forced some compromise on constitutional changes that the National Assembly of Quebec has never approved.

Chrétien’s clarity act declares that negotiations by Ottawa and the other provinces with Quebec after a successful Quebec referendum have to address “the divisions of assets and liabilities, any changes in borders of the province, the rights, interests and territorial claims of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada, and the protection of minority rights.”

My “wrap” on our core dilemma since the Pearson-Lesage days of the 1960s is this: Our politicians, whether sagacious, run of the mill or stupid, whether in provincial or federal spheres, have neither been able to ignore nor to master the antipathies, suspicions and mutual doubts between two peoples of different languages and traditions within what became one country, organized as a federation of provinces, not as a unitary state.

The constitutional changes attained under Trudeau, such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, have not eased the fundamental split that became openly dangerous in the 1960s.
However, Chrétien decided late last year—for what was probably a battery of reasons, including concern over his place in Canadian history—to end the tentativeness towards separatists and secession.

Parliament would legislate that there had to be a clear question on any referendum ballot about secession or sovereignty as the Québécois like to call it. If a clear majority then approved the question, there would be a process to be followed, including an agenda list of the negotiation of the separation.

A bill presented for passage to Parliament usually has the assumption within it that it is for perpetuity unless otherwise stated. Certainly, the clarity bill has no mention of what, if anything, happens to the authority of a federal ministry that is in office when a majority in a province chooses to secede. To put this directly, if Bouchard and the Parti Québécois succeed with a referendum on secession and then must negotiate major matters about secession with the federal government and the provincial governments, what authority would a federal government have that is led by Chrétien, an MP from Quebec whose majority rests on other MPs from Quebec and whose party had been active in the referendum campaign on behalf of an intact Canada?

This would represent an obvious, massive conflict of interest. Would Bouchard sit down at a negotiating table with Chrétien? Would the premiers of the other provinces stand together with Chrétien in such vital negotiations? How would Chrétien deal with the chilly political reality that would follow such a defeat in their home base? It seems clear that Chrétien has either not contemplated such a defeat or has decided its consequences could be blocked and made inane by tough negotiations over a long period of time.

The first reactions to the Chrétien initiative from most of those in electoral politics were mostly apprehensive. This was too blunt, too brutal, a challenge to Québécois pride. This would revive what seemed a dwindling cause in Quebec, led there by a tired premier with a government burdened with serious problems. On the other hand, out among the people of “the rest of Canada” there was a surge of approval for Chrétien’s tough love.
I would admit that 30 to 35 years ago I would have welcomed a prime minister with the bravery or guts to challenge the Quebec separatists, particularly on negotiating such rage-raising, mind-numbing matters as boundaries, land mass, splits of debt and assets, and a full respect of the wishes of another people.

After the Quebec referendum of 1980, which drew a turnout of 85 per cent of voters and split 59.56 per cent against the PQ bid, 40.44 per cent for it, buoyant federalists anticipated decades of constitutional peace, but it soon became apparent there was no finality out of the 1980 result. It would be tried again because an independent Quebec continued to be the raison d’être of the PQ.

The next try came in 1995. This time the slight margin of the PQ’s defeat—hardly one per cent—shocked the country.

Fears of Quebec’s secession have loomed in the rest of Canada because Quebec’s push to separate has been symbolized by its premier. Bouchard is a magnetic, passionate politician and he has kept promising that the PQ will try again for a Yes vote.

Most members and friends of the Legion know well what I am discussing and have been mulling it over as long or longer than I have. And perhaps—as with me—they first welcomed Chrétien’s sudden initiative last December because it represented a shift to an active offence from decades being on the defensive.

My enthusiasm for this brave block to PQ intentions has not died, but as I have reviewed my knowledge of our core dilemma, my apprehensions about its merits have grown. I cannot see wisdom in hostility after a majority of Quebec chooses to leave Canada. Such a vote has to predicate enormous initiatives in the rest of Canada to re-frame the powers and institutions of a one-nation Canada.

I cannot see finality to the threat of Québécois secession in the clarity act. Finality, it seems to me, will only come in some distant years when separatists are no longer elected, not just to the National Assembly, but also to the House of Commons. The resolution sponsored by Chrétien raises hurdles that will be unacceptable to millions of Québécois.
Common sense crossed with political experience keeps prompting me to the thought that believers in federalism have to move beyond making separation difficult and complex to the ways and means to achieve it with the least rancour and costs for a new Canada and a new Quebec. And I grant this is just one man’s informed response, not an assertion of wisdom.