Chrétien Plans Referendum Legislation | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Chrétien Plans Referendum Legislation

No one doubts the sincerity of Jean Chrétien's unabashed, if sometimes hokey, expressions of love for Canada. His years as prime minister may best be remembered for ending the spiral of deficit spending by federal governments, but Chrétien has always envisaged leaving a less actuarial legacy.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on December 6, 1999

Chrétien Plans Referendum Legislation

No one doubts the sincerity of Jean Chrétien's unabashed, if sometimes hokey, expressions of love for Canada. His years as prime minister may best be remembered for ending the spiral of deficit spending by federal governments, but Chrétien has always envisaged leaving a less actuarial legacy. The current policy debate in Ottawa - all that sober talk about high taxes and whether the brain drain is real or phony - requires the Prime Minister to mute much of his natural exuberance for politics. Only when the subject turns to national unity does the jump return to his step. Issues come and go, he has always told associates, but keeping the country together is the one task that hangs over everything a prime minister does. And nothing revs Chrétien up like a good brawl with those who would break up the country.

So Chrétien was back in his comfort zone last week, his fists pumping, his voice rising, as he explained why he is prepared to set out rules for a future Quebec independence referendum and thus raise the bar for those who would take Quebec out of Canada. "Canada is my business, sir, and this is the future of Canada," he said to a reporter who asked why he was re-engaging Quebec separatists at a time when their fortunes are in free fall. These rules, said Chrétien, would conform to last year's Supreme Court of Canada opinion, which said Quebec cannot separate unless it wins a clear majority in a referendum on a clear question. The Prime Minister said he would judge whether future questions were clear enough ("Do you want Quebec to become a country?" was one suggestion he offered). And he declared that a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one was not enough to start the process of negotiating Quebec's withdrawal from Confederation. The reaction from Chrétien's critics was as predictable as snow in winter: a chorus of indignation from Quebec separatists, and howls from opposition leaders who said Chrétien's intrusion into what is seen in Quebec as a family fight was a mistake, needlessly stirring resentment in the province.

With that, another chapter opened in the national unity battle that most Canadians assumed had been swept under the rug. And there was much screaming over very little substance. Since the near-miss of the 1995 Quebec referendum, Chrétien has been insisting he would never again allow the separatists to use ambiguity to take the country to the brink of breakup. And since the 1998 Supreme Court opinion spelling out the importance of clarity, he and his advisers have debated how to use that legal hurdle to their advantage (federalists believe that support for sovereignty is only as high as it is because many Quebecers believe they are voting for a new partnership with Canada, not a breakup).

Despite his vow to do something, Chrétien had no answers to the what, when and how - the "mechanics," as he described them - of his plan. He did not unveil what level of majority support would meet his own definition of clarity. He did not say whether Ottawa's definition of a clear question would be presented in the form of legislation, a motion in Parliament, a white paper or a simple prime ministerial statement. He did not even say when he would act, other than to hint that the rules could come at any time.

Other leaders did not need details to comment, of course. In Ottawa, Chrétien got a nasty ride from the opposition parties. Opposition leader Preston Manning suggested Chrétien was "being driven by his ego, not the interests of Canadians." And Tory MP André Bachand asked Chrétien: "Is it a declaration of war?" From Quebec City, Premier Lucien Bouchard characteristically reacted as if federal troops had mobilized on Quebec's borders. "Quebec will not accept such an infringement on its democratic life," he said. Bouchard warned that Chrétien was demonstrating Ottawa would never negotiate a new partnership in good faith - even if Quebec came to the table armed with the mandate of a referendum victory. And, said Bouchard, if Ottawa refused to negotiate after a Yes vote, "the doors will be wide open to a unilateral declaration of independence."

Bouchard's volcanic reaction was operatic to Chrétien. The Quebec premier seemed to be saying he could use any vague question of his choosing to win a referendum and, if Ottawa refused to recognize the vote's validity, take the province out of Canada. That is the very scenario that terrifies so many soft Quebec nationalists, who may like the idea of voting for changes to the federation but are horrified at the economic and political uncertainty that would likely accompany a cold-turkey split from Canada. A fired-up Chrétien told his weekly caucus meeting that Bouchard had made a huge blunder.

Liberal MPs were willing to give the Prime Minister his head last week, but all is not happy inside the Liberal family. Several Quebec ministers, notably Finance Minister Paul Martin, are twisting at having to defend a position they are not comfortable with. Martin and Chrétien's differences over Quebec go back to the 1990 Liberal leadership contest, which was fought in the pressure-cooker dying days of the Meech Lake accord. Chrétien opposed Meech Lake's recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, and in fact used the issue to foment insurrection in the party to try to push out John Turner. Like Turner, Martin supported the deal, and has always been more accommodating towards Quebec nationalists.

The result is a profound distrust between the two most powerful Liberals over Quebec strategy. Chrétien sees Martin as too soft; his supporters point to the finance minister's reluctance to risk any of his personal popularity in Quebec by taking on Bouchard directly. For his part, Martin does not want to be shackled to Chrétien's Quebec policies, and is always looking to keep some distance between them. Martin spent three days ducking questions on whether he supported Chrétien's position on the referendum last week, before finally offering a tepid endorsement. "The Prime Minister and I have worked very closely together for quite a number of years now and let there be no doubt: I support the Prime Minister," he said. But he also said the hows and whens of Chrétien's plans were still being debated in cabinet.

Chrétien showed no signs of doubt in the course he has set. He went to Liberal fund-raising dinners in Charlottetown and St. John's, Nfld., where he brought partisans to their feet - and won a declaration of support from Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin - with his emotional "fight for Canada" refrain. "The leaders of the other parties will say 50 per cent plus one vote is enough to break a country that has been built by our grandfathers," he thundered. "It started here in Charlottetown in 1867 and these guys can break it with one vote?" Chrétien was slightly off with his dates (the Charlottetown conference was in 1864), as he is wont to be, but he plowed ahead. "And I'm alone because they want to score political points?" said the Prime Minister. "I will not apologize to anybody to stand alone for Canada anywhere in my life." Chrétien is standing just where he wants to be, the fight still clearly in him.

Maclean's December 6, 1999