This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 13, 1995
At first in the House of Commons last week, it seemed that all the major players in the Quebec referendum had decided to go back to the future and behave as though one of the most divisive campaigns in Canada's history never happened. On the day after Monday's vote, the three major parties tried, for the most part, not to mention the R-word. Instead, they adopted familiar poses: the Bloc Québécois accused the Liberals of sabotaging social programs and ignoring Quebec, the Liberals heckled back, and the Reform party complained of being ignored by the other two parties. But near week's end, the polite masks dropped and the anger and tension on all sides became evident: Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps accused Bloc Leader Lucien Bouchard of supporting racist policies, two Bloc MPs who called her a "liar" were expelled from the Commons, and Reform Leader Preston Manning, in a speech outside Parliament, likened Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who sought to appease the Nazis.
Such was life in the neither-brave-nor-polite new post-referendum world, in which the clearest thing in an otherwise murky time is that sovereigntists have a new slogan: if at first you don't secede, try, try again. In the wake of an agonizingly close federalist victory that saw the Yes and No sides divided by a single percentage point, sovereigntists, after their initial sense of disappointment, appear both buoyed and renewed by the campaign. Within Quebec, the only questions remaining are how, and how quickly, the Parti Québécois will try again, and who will lead the fight. Some of the possibilities that sovereigntist strategists were discussing last week included either another referendum or a so-called election-referendum, and the timetable for either could range from a minimum of six months from now, to a maximum of two years.
In the wake of Premier Jacques Parizeau's resignation, most strategists in both federalist and sovereigntist circles expected Bouchard to succeed him. That belief - born of fear in Ottawa and hope on the sovereigntist side - runs deep despite Bouchard's insistence that he has not yet made up his mind whether to stay in politics. "It is impossible for him to quit now," said a senior Bloc adviser. "It would kill our last great chance." The sense of theatre, such as it is, will continue until Nov. 20, when Bouchard is to announce his decision after he returns from a holiday in the United States with his wife, Audrey Best, and their two young sons. In Ottawa, he acknowledged that he faces a difficult decision between his commitment to politics and his attachment to his young family. "I am before a personal crossroad in my life," he said in a revealing news conference.
Outside the province, the depressing reality is that the rest of Canada appears even more divided on the issue of how to deal with Quebec than it was before the referendum. The response from premiers was twofold, and for the most part, entirely predictable: most said the need to accommodate Quebec constitutionally should be accompanied by giving all the provinces widespread new powers. "This is not solely about what Quebec desires in a constitutional sense, [but] what all Canadians want," said Alberta's Ralph Klein at the end of a three-day meeting of western premiers in Yorkton, Sask. Similarly, Ontario Premier Mike Harris said that he does not regard new constitutional talks as a priority despite the closeness of the Quebec vote (50.6 per cent No; 49.4 per cent Yes). And Ovide Mercredi, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said native peoples oppose decentralization, and promised to fight any attempt to recognize Quebec as a distinct society unless it is accompanied by similar recognition for aboriginals. Any meeting to discuss decentralization that took place without input from natives, Mercredi told Maclean's, "would exclude us again - and be like Meech all over" - a reference to the constitutional accord that failed in 1990.
Those and other similar hesitations concerning Quebec's traditional constitutional demands run counter to the anguished gestures of solidarity that many Canadians expressed towards the province in the late days of the campaign - and underline the complexity of the task that lies ahead for Chrétien. For one thing, it is not even clear what would be the best format for achieving consensus among other Canadians on what, if anything, to offer Quebec. Some transfers of federal powers to the provinces can be made through administrative agreements. But others would require a full-blown constitutional meeting, and the consent of the federal government and all 10 premiers. "We do not," said a Chrétien adviser, "think there is any desire at all in the country for that kind of event in the near future." And even in the unlikely event that such a meeting was held and an agreement was achieved, some premiers, such as Manitoba's Gary Filmon, suggested they might then feel obliged to hold a referendum to win popular approval for the result. And some other leaders, such as Newfoundland's Clyde Wells, have suggested that, instead of a meeting of first ministers, it might be preferable to have a constituent assembly, which would bring together both elected and unelected Canadians to discuss change. Chrétien told the Commons that he has "no intention" of doing that, or of reviving the terms of the failed Meech Lake or Charlottetown accords for further discussion.
All that is only the beginning - and comes precisely when Chrétien was hoping to convince Canadians of the need for a new round of government spending cuts. Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy, for one, has been intending to table a plan reforming and reducing the size of some government social programs, such as unemployment insurance, in late November. But the narrowness of the federalist side's referendum win may either cause Axworthy to postpone introducing the plan - which is already behind schedule - or bow to pressure from within the Liberal caucus to reduce the size of projected cuts. But reductions in social-program spending are key to Finance Minister Paul Martin's efforts to cut about $4 billion in his February budget - and Martin insisted last week that those plans remain unchanged.
Against that backdrop, Chrétien must now also devote his efforts and diminished popularity to selling the country on a new constitutional strategy. But first, he must convince members of his own caucus. Even before the referendum campaign, some of the more left-leaning Liberal MPs were upset by plans to reduce the size of the unemployment insurance program, and by any discussion of transferring responsibility for social programs to the provinces. Shortly before the campaign began, some senior Liberals urged the government to transfer full responsibility for manpower training - a traditional Quebec demand - to the provinces. But it foundered because of opposition from a group within caucus that included Atlantic MPs, as well as Axworthy. Now, the idea has again been revived: some Liberal strategists suggest that doing so would show a concrete gesture of goodwill - and constitute an offer that the PQ government could not refuse.
Although support among Liberals for that idea is by no means unanimous, it still poses less of a problem for Chrétien than the thorny issue of how to deal with two specific promises he made to Quebecers in the final week of the referendum. On several occasions before the vote, he repeated his support for the notion of formally recognizing Quebec as a distinct society, and vowed that, as Prime minister, he will never allow any constitutional changes that would affect the province without its consent. But Quebec federalists, such as provincial Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson, want those measures strengthened in a manner that is unlikely to be acceptable to other provinces. He and other members of his party, for example, want a recognition of "distinct society" - or a similar expression referring to the "people of Quebec" - included in the Constitution. Chrétien has suggested that such recognition might come in the form of a resolution in the House of Commons - which would not, in the long term, be enough to satisfy Quebec Liberals. Similarly, they want the province to be granted a formal veto over all future constitutional changes, which is also something that would require a formal meeting with leaders of all provinces. That measure, which is also unpopular in other provinces, will likely not be discussed until 1997, when the federal government and provinces are required to meet to discuss the amending formula under the terms of the Constitution.
On the sovereigntist side, that same meeting provides one of the main arguments among strategists for delaying another referendum. A poll conducted among Quebecers in the wake of the referendum vote by the SOM company for the newspaper Le Soleil and Radio-Québec found that 49 per cent of respondents think that the Quebec government should conduct another referendum during its mandate if constitutional talks with the rest of Canada fail. Thirty-six per cent opposed the idea, while the rest were undecided. Perhaps more significantly, the same poll found that 73 per cent of respondents - including 74 per cent of those who voted Yes - want the PQ government to participate in any talks aimed at "renewing the Canadian federation."
Those results highlight the planning dilemma facing sovereigntist strategists. Those who are pushing for a delay argue that, given the indecision in the rest of the country, any attempt at serious offers will self-destruct and convince Quebecers that renewed federalism is impossible. "All we have to do," said a Yes organizer, "is wait." As well, those favoring a delay argue that they risk a backlash if they ask Quebecers - who have faced two Constitution-related referendums, a federal election and a provincial election in the past three years - to go back to the polls once again. And the terms of Quebec's Referendum Act prevent a government from holding more than one plebiscite on the same issue during the same mandate - so the PQ would have to take the controversial step of changing the act or winning a new mandate before doing so.
But other sovereigntists argue that there are compelling reasons to move soon, including the need to capitalize on the momentum they have generated. That pressure would certainly increase if Bouchard takes over the leadership. Until now, Bloc sources acknowledge, his extraordinary popularity has been helped by the fact that, as an opposition politician, he has not had to make the tough decisions that will be required of the next Quebec premier. Sovereigntists concede that the next Quebec budget, due in April, 1996, will have to contain tough spending cuts in order to reduce the province's deficit, which totalled $5.7 billion last year. Those measures will be unpopular in themselves - and will diminish the effectiveness of the Yes side's referendum argument that a sovereign Quebec could safeguard social programs better than the rest of Canada, where governments have cut back sharply.
If Bouchard takes over the leadership, sovereigntist sources say, some immediate steps are clear. About half a dozen longtime national assembly stalwarts who stayed on only to fight the referendum - such as former cabinet ministers Camille Laurin and Denis Lazure - would resign and clear the way for new blood. Similarly, about half a dozen members of Johnson's caucus may also leave. That would allow for Bouchard to call up to 15 byelections simultaneously - and likely win most of them. He would use the occasion to bring some of the Bloc's best members to Quebec City with him, such as party whip Gilles Duceppe, and also try to widen the PQ's popularity by attracting businesspeople and other personalities not previously associated with the party. As well, he would likely try to convert Mario Dumont, leader of the soft-sovereigntist Parti action démocratique, to the PQ.
But those plans hinge on Bouchard's making a decision that, he said last week, will be "terribly painful" - whichever way it goes. At a news conference in Ottawa, he talked movingly of the strains that political life puts on his family, and said that his two sons, Alexandre, 5, and Simon, 4, hate the word "referendum" because they associate it with his frequent absences. "They've learned the word 'referendum,' " he said. "They hate it. They spit when they pronounce it." Similarly, during the campaign, he talked sadly about how one of his sons, when asked what his father does for a living, said "he argues."
Bouchard, 56, also spoke openly about the pressures on him from his 35-year-old second wife, Audrey, who was born in California and has never been comfortable with her husband's life in politics. "It's well known that my wife is not crazy about politics," he said. "We had an agreement that everything would be over after the referendum, because it was the end of a cycle. Now it's different, of course. It's a never-ending fight in politics." Bouchard met his wife in 1987, when he was Canada's ambassador to France, and married her two years later. But in recent years, there have been frequent rumors that their marriage has been strained - rumors that Bouchard has emphatically denied.
How much of a difference would Bouchard's absence from the political scene make for Canada's future? Even the suggestion that he might retire was enough last week to cause the Canadian dollar to jump by a third of a cent to 74.4 cents (U.S.). But with or without him, some sovereigntists are supremely confident because, they say, of a not-so-secret weapon they are sure they can rely on. "The rest of Canada will never make a proposal good enough to satisfy Quebec," said a Bloc adviser. "Not in a million years." The clock is ticking.
Maclean's November 13, 1995