Chrétien Discusses National Unity

As he prepared to deal with mounting criticism of his government's handling of national unity issues and last week's cabinet shuffle, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien spoke to Ottawa Editor Anthony Wilson-Smith.

Chrétien Discusses National Unity

As he prepared to deal with mounting criticism of his government's handling of national unity issues and last week's cabinet shuffle, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien spoke to Ottawa Editor Anthony Wilson-Smith.

Excerpts:

Maclean's: What do you do now about the Quebec and constitutional issues in the wake of such people as Keith Spicer, Joe Clark and Gordon Gibson calling for action?

Chrétien: Those who want to restart the industry of constitutional experts, I don't think that it will work like that. Because we're making some changes already. It's always like that, they're never enough. And we have thought about harmonization and simplification, and the two-way street of changing the federation. And some devolution, but [there are] some things that we can do better than the provinces. I don't think that all that needs to create changes in the Constitution. And Mr. Bouchard is out there telling us that he doesn't want to discuss the Constitution. And I'm still convinced that we have to prove to Quebecers that the future is in Canada.

Maclean's: What, for you, is the lesson of the referendum?

Chrétien: There is the lesson that we have to tell Quebecers what Canada is all about. It's striking, the lack of presence of the federal government in Quebec for the past 10 years. That's a big problem, and now, the misinformation is unbelievable. And we started to inform them, and we did, on transfer payments, for example, take pages in the Quebec papers to say that cuts coming in Quebec were not the fault of the federal government, because while some transfer payments have been reduced, others have been increased. And for the poorer provinces, of which Quebec is one, unfortunately, we have reduced transfer payments and in turn increased equalization payments. And we had pages in the newspapers in December spelling this out. And I am very happy that we are doing this.

Maclean's: And do you still think you have Nervous Nellies in your caucus?

Chrétien: I don't have any problem with my caucus. We have discussions in caucus. And not everyone agrees. I would be very disappointed if I were to go to my caucus just to receive praise as was known to be [the case] in other caucuses. For me, I let people speak, I let people disagree and after that, I discuss with my cabinet and we decide, and that's democracy.

Maclean's: The referendum was an emotional period and in November you had to face an intruder at 24 Sussex. Have such events changed your resolve to run again?

Chrétien: I am the leader of my party. I always had and still have the intention of leading my party into the next election.

Maclean's: What has been the toughest period for you since taking office? Was it the week before the referendum, when polls showed the No side trailing?

Chrétien: It was not an easy situation. You know, people forget that the strategy we had was praised by everybody until Bouchard pushed Parizeau [aside]. No one could predict that. It was almost an act of God. In fact, until then, we had almost done too well. If we had done a little bit less well, maybe Bouchard would not have been in a position to push Parizeau out. And that gave the wind to them. And we had to come in in the last week, and we had to turn it around, and we did, and we won. Next time, those who say it's already lost, it's not true. To the contrary, now we know some elements that had to be corrected, and one is the lack of knowledge of the real situation by a lot of people in Quebec. And you have to understand that people under the Conservatives, many of them were more separatist than federalist, they were not promoting Canada in their ridings. And [now] we have 53 ridings that are Bloc Québécois. And they never say anything good about Canada. So the communications has to be an important element.

Maclean's: Is the Quebec Liberal party doing a proper job of promoting federalism? André Ouellet doesn't seem to think so.

Chrétien: For me, I do not criticize anybody who is for Canada. Everybody who believes in Canada has to talk more about Canada in Quebec. It's a good product to sell, but if you don't put it in the window, it won't sell.

Maclean's: If you could do anything differently in retrospect, what would it be?

Chrétien: Oh, no, no, no. I don't want to debate about what should have been done. I explained that something happened in the middle of the referendum that nobody could predict. People don't write much about it, but it was decided between Mr. Johnson and I that we had to come stronger in the last week, [and] we did come, and we managed to stop the momentum and perhaps create a new momentum for us. The problem was that on the Monday, we were six points behind. This was confirmed by internal polls, and we finished with more than one point more than a majority. So we turned things seven points in the last week. Collectively, all the people on the No side have to take credit. We were all surprised by the force of Bouchard, but we can't let that be repeated.

Maclean's: And the media was wrong about the referendum result as well?

Chrétien: No, you were not wrong. Something happened, that's all, and nobody predicted it. And things like that happen. And there's no blame to spread around on that; it's just a reality.

Maclean's February 5, 1996