This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on December 20, 1999
They are a strange pair in many ways, these two Quebecers of different generations who share the conviction that their province belongs in Canada. Politics has never been a science for Jean Chrétien. He has forged his remarkable political career by following the call of his heart and his gut. Stéphane Dion, on the other hand, is a political scientist by profession, whose arguments are reached by methodical analysis and are conditioned by a life formed in academia, not politics. But ever since Chrétien decided after the near-death experience of the 1995 referendum to bring Dion into his cabinet, the two men have bonded into what one Chrétien friend calls "an almost father-son relationship." Dion operates in a manner unlike any other cabinet minister. Most of them rarely pick up the phone to call Chrétien and, when they do, usually keep the conversation precise. But Dion is on the phone with the PM all the time, arguing strategy and telling him what's on his mind, formulating his thoughts as he goes along.
Yet, for the moment at least, this unusual partnership has Quebec's separatists on the run. Just as they promised, Chrétien and Dion tabled a draft bill in the House of Commons last week, setting out conditions under which Ottawa would negotiate the breakup of the country following a referendum win by Yes forces. The bill is drawn directly from the language of the 1998 Supreme Court of Canada opinion, which said Ottawa must enter into such negotiations - but only if the Yes side wins a clear majority on a clear question asking Quebecers whether they wish to leave Canada. In doing so, the Chrétien Liberals took the risk of acknowledging Canada is indeed divisible. But they contend the federation cannot be broken by a Quebec government wrestling a Yes vote from Quebecers on an ambiguously worded question. "Never will the government of Canada negotiate without a clear question," an animated, combative Dion told a news conference in Ottawa after tabling the bill. "Never."
The draft bill spells out Ottawa's ground rules for secession in succinct terms, a hallmark of Chrétien's style. It declares that a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one is not enough to trigger separation, although it never spells out what percentage would be enough. "We'll know a clear majority when we see it," is essentially Ottawa's position. Although Chrétien preferred to specify a number - the PM personally liked the sound of 66 per cent, sources say - the idea was abandoned after legal advisers warned him he was moving further than the Supreme Court allowed. At any rate, Dion admitted, "you cannot hold people in a country against its will."
Just as well the specifics were dropped, said other advisers. They worried a political fight over the size of the majority would distract from the real value of the legislation: its insistence that any future referendum be unambiguous. The draft bill declares that, within 30 days of a provincial government officially releasing a referendum question on secession, the House of Commons would vote to decide whether the question was clear. Chrétien and Dion were careful to insist that Ottawa would not write the question itself. There is a fair consensus that the right to ask a referendum question resides exclusively with the province's national assembly. And Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard said on Dec. 10 he would introduce a bill reaffirming Quebec's exclusive right to set the rules, calling Ottawa's move "a stain on Canada's democratic reputation in the eyes of the international community."
None of that fazed Chrétien. "They have a referendum, they ask a crooked question - fine, so what? There will be no negotiations," was his characteristically blunt retort. In more legal form, Ottawa's bill says it would not consider a question to be clear if it asked for a "mandate to negotiate," or held out the promise of an economic partnership with the rest of Canada. A clear question, Chrétien and Dion said, would have to explicitly state Quebec's desire to leave Canada.
Surprisingly, there are some in Bouchard's Parti Québécois who agree. Quebec's deputy premier Bernard Landry leaned that way, suggesting the PQ hold the next vote on the question of "Quebec joining the concert of nations." But other separatists are still looking for a variation on that old 1970s chestnut "sovereignty association." "The objective should be achieving sovereignty," Bouchard said, trying to line up with Landry. But he added: "Contrary to what I wish, there are some people who would want to separate the notion of partnership from sovereignty. So yes, there are lively discussions within the party." And between separatist parties as well. The Bloc Québécois added to the confusion by signalling at one point that it believed the Commons does have a legitimate role in evaluating the clarity of the question and the result.
Separatists may have been dazed and confused by the federal pressure, but as usual they did not want for outrage. Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Joseph Facal complained that "Ottawa, inspired by a Soviet-style law, is trying to impose a real straitjacket on Quebec's political future." Landry noted that "Quebec forms a nation, as truly as Scotland forms a nation and Catalonia forms a nation," before biting off an equally colourful historical distortion by comparing Ottawa's treatment of Quebec to Madrid's denial of Catalan aspirations during the Fascist dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco. Landry's comments seemed particularly inappropriate in a week when both Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau were defending themselves in a Montreal libel trial against investment analyst Richard Lafferty. In a 1993 newsletter, Lafferty likened the two premiers' tactics to Adolf Hitler's.
But Dion and Chrétien had everyone scrambling to find their balance. Opposition leader Preston Manning completed his pirouette by declaring his Reform party would support the Liberal bill - although the Alberta populist contends 50 per cent plus one should be enough to win a referendum. That was also - sort of - the position of Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest, who continued to say 50 plus one is technically good enough to secede but thoroughly impractical. Charest, once a fierce critic of Chrétien's decision to go to the Supreme Court for legal guidance, gushed last week that the court opinion was "full of wisdom."
National unity politics can be slippery, of course, and Chrétien and Dion might not hold their advantage for long. But they may just have succeeded in reframing the debate. The term "clarity" has now entered the lexicon and will not be easily expunged. And after more than two years of preparing the groundwork for last week's strike, its success reinforced Chrétien's faith in his own instincts. He chose to handwrite a speech on the subject, which he delivered to the party's Quebec wing in Hull, Que., two weeks ago, the first time his advisers remember him doing so in his long political career. He is "pumped up," they say, the playmaking centreman happy to be carrying the puck again, with Dion on his wing, the intellectual enforcer creating space.
Maclean's December 20, 1999