Quebec Liberals Embarrass Party

It was a short-lived fiasco that federal Liberals prefer to look upon as a petit faux pas.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 29, 1996

Quebec Liberals Embarrass Party

It was a short-lived fiasco that federal Liberals prefer to look upon as a petit faux pas. In a blatant attempt to appease Canadians outside Quebec, and presumably convinced they were on to something big, the Quebec wing of the Liberal Party of Canada used its April 13 to 14 annual convention to ditch the loaded phrase "distinct society." Instead, Quebec Liberals proclaimed that their province should be recognized as the "foyer principal" of French language, culture and justice in North America. That term can mean "principal home," "main core," or - as wryly noted in the Quebec media - "fireplace." By any definition, Montreal Liberal MP Clifford Lincoln says he knew from long experience as a former Liberal member of the national assembly that the phrase would offend Quebec separatists and federalists alike. Indeed it did, as Lincoln learned while reading a Canadian newspaper during a flight home last Tuesday after a three-week honeymoon in Africa. "I thought, 'Oh my God. This really puts the cat among the pigeons,' " he told Maclean's. "Obviously, the phrase does not represent what Quebecers want."

Judging from the fallout last week, that much was obvious. In a rare display of unanimity, provincial Liberals supported Premier Lucien Bouchard's separatist Parti Québécois government in a unanimous rejection of the national unity proposal. Taunted in Ottawa by Bloc Québécois Leader Michel Gauthier for "the biggest piece of meaningless nonsense concocted by a federal government in the past 30 years," rookie Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion told reporters that he knew nothing about the resolution, prepared by, among others, delegates from his own riding of Saint-Laurent/Cartierville, until the day before the vote, when he read about it in Le Devoir. And while he voted in favor of the resolution's 24 clauses - which also included a tepid, last-minute endorsement of Quebec's distinctiveness - Dion on Wednesday declared "this foyer principal" dead. In fact, the proposal had spun into Ottawa's joke of the week. "If Quebec is the fireplace of Canada," went one version, "does that mean British Columbia is the Jacuzzi?"

The convention gaffe was more of an embarrassment to federal Liberals than a laughing matter. It added evidence to the perception among critics that the federal Liberal party in Quebec is now an obviously aging apparatus, increasingly out of step with francophones. Only a handful of its 25 seats are outside of Montreal. Even the Liberals' own depiction of the 400 convention delegates as a wing that spanned the province was misleading: delegates from only eight of the 75 Quebec ridings attended, mostly from the Ottawa and Montreal areas.

In Ottawa, meanwhile, Liberals who participated in the conference scrambled to distance themselves from the resolution. But the botched initiative underlined a more pressing problem - the inability of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien or Dion to find a way around the impasse that has bedeviled previous constitutional negotiations. Chrétien told Quebec federal Liberals last week that a lack of provincial support for distinct society recognition made changes to the Constitution impossible. Nowhere is that more obvious than in British Columbia, where Premier Glen Clark has rejected any attempts to recognize Quebec as a distinct society, and in Alberta, where Tory Premier Ralph Klein has backed away from earlier support of Chrétien's pre-referendum pledge last October to recognize Quebec's distinctiveness. Now, in advance of the First Ministers' conference in June, Dion has discovered that the national unity file has once again become a hard sell. And with the collapse of a well-meaning but clumsy attempt to offer something new, his government appeared to be losing, rather than gaining, ground.

Maclean's April 29, 1996