The Thwack of the Beaver’s Tail

Pauline Marois, in the thick of an election fight, has been unable to resist her fondness for talking complete nonsense. I especially liked her declaration that an election was no time to be talking about the future of Quebec, almost coincident with an assurance that it would soon be ‘sovereign, but without borders, exchanging tourists with British Columbia, and looking for a seat at the Bank of Canada. An enraged Bob Rae has commented that anyone claiming a Quebec departure from Canada would not cause ‘extraordinary pain’ was ‘simply lying’.

Both the Marois fog and Rae’s attempt to penetrate it reminded me of the days when I was a Quebec MNA in 1989-1994, the years of uproar that unfolded after the 1990 failure of the Meech Lake Accord, culminating in the 1994 election of the Jacques-Parizeau-led PQ, with the second Referendum following a year later. The most instructive part of this experience came to me as a voting member of the committee formed to hear evidence from various learned authorities on ‘the implications of Quebec sovereignty’, from January 1991 to January 1992. I read depositions from, and debated with, a long series of jurists, geographers, economists, and bond traders. I also wrote a lengthy minority report, called Imagining Sovereignty/Souveraineté d’Esprit, which I sent to all Members of the Quebec Legislature and all federal Members of Parliament.

We deliberated in a time in which Ontario was still dominant in the overall Canadian economy, and when Quebec was accustomed to many years of heavy Liberal or Progressive Conservative representation in the federal House of Commons. These conditions no longer apply, but even so, almost everything discussed has scarcely changed in twenty years. Since the PQ has found itself another colourful egomaniac in Pierre-Karl Péladeau, the Canadian mass media have been full of the same topics and speculations to which I diligently applied myself for a year.

Much detailed debate, past and present, has been composed of superfluous verbiage wrapped around two enduring confusions. The first is a hazily undefined difference between ‘sovereignty’ (widely assumed to be desirable) and ‘independence’ (not so much). The second is that whether somewhat deviously ‘sovereign’ or somewhat terrifyingly ‘independent’, an entirely new legal and constitutional definition of Quebec could be established by ‘self-determination’ alone, without regard to the response of the rest of Canada, or ‘ROCland’.

On our very first day, Bernard Landry, then not an MNA, but President of the PQ, actually argued that nothing very new was being contemplated, since both Ontario and Quebec had signed the 1988 Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the U. S. I did not treat this claim with much respect, but also heard it countered by the other main witness of the first day, Gordon Ritchie, a senior Ottawa bureaucrat who had himself been one of the main negotiators of that very FTA. He startled both the Liberals and Péquistes on the committee with a comment worth reproducing at length:

We are talking about a political crisis of extraordinary proportions… a situation in which the rest of Canada will be obliged to reconstitute itself, It would have no national government, it would have no national institutions, it would have nine provincial governments… operating from entirely different points of view… And just in terms of the uncertainty of that, the economic and financial impact upon the creditworthiness of Canada and Quebec, upon the attractiveness of this region of the continent as a place to invest, the impact of this would be truly, truly, horrendous to even contemplate… it would be a very serious mistake to consider that somehow, we can take for granted, here in Quebec… that there will exist some wise and knowledgeable rest of Canada, which will see it as being in its interest to quickly and expeditiously reach agreement, to put in place almost exactly what we have just dismantled.  – Deposition before the Committee on the Implications of Quebec Sovereignty, July 28, 1992.

Ritchie let the cat out of the bag, or rather, a furious assaulted beaver, making a loud thwack of its tail. For the entirety of the ‘sovereignist’ movement, from the days of René Lévesque’s original proposal of ‘Sovereignty-Association’ through to Pierre-Karl Péladeau’s announcement that he intended to create a ‘republic of Quebec’ for his grandchildren, we have been told by political nationalists that they can demolish the existing province of Quebec and the existing Canadian state, without ceasing, in some strange attenuated way, to leave either an existing Canada or a future new ‘Sovereign ROCland’ rolling on much as usual.

That was surely the reason that, from 1970 to 1995, both the ‘associationist’ Lévesque and the ‘sovereignty straight’ Jacques Parizeau kept hoping that they could win over at least a substantial minority of non-francophone leading citizens, and a substantial, even if minority, proportion of non-francophone voters. Rare anglo PQ supporters have been welcomed with open arms, and anyone from the old anglo elite making friendly noises produced giddy exaltation. At a 1970s press conference in which Lévesque proudly displayed his acquisition of upper-crust Westmount anglo Kevin Drummond, almost a foot taller than he was, Lévesque gazed fondly upward at his prize, looking for all the world like a racehorse owner who had just acquired a handsome breeding stallion. But Drummond remained a freakish exception, as, two decades later, Guy Bertrand, Péquiste-turned-federalist-later-turned-Péquiste-again, was briefly for the opposing side.

Jacques Parizeau’s public reputation has never entirely recovered from his woeful ‘money and the ethnics’ explanation of the 1995 Referendum defeat. English-speaking Canada readily took this as evidence of unpardonable ‘racism’, not really one of Parizeau’s previous or subsequent faults. But Parizeau’s moment of bitterness was less an outburst of xenophobia than the mournful wail of a rejected suitor. “I will never give up on my anglos,” he had once declared in the early 1990s, but had finally been forced to do so.

All past PQ leaders had good reason for stressing the notion of an ‘inclusive’ political project, whatever private resentments some might have retained from the old order in Quebec. It was not only because of surviving, although weakening, sentimental francophone attachment to Canada. Even Parizeau, and certainly Lucien Bouchard, understood a more fundamental difficulty. A Quebec that entered into some kind of new and more remote constitutional arrangement with the rest of Canada needed internal English-speaking support, even if demographic changes might produce a future majority ‘Oui’ vote without it.

A ‘Sovereign Quebec’, however defined, that remained at least partially successful in maintaining a grumbling but more or less quiescent and productive anglo population, just might still keep its existing borders and still regard itself as remaining a sort of historical and geographic component of an enduring ‘Canada.’ But a Quebec in which a decisive referendum majority were to be won almost exclusively with francophone votes would not then enter a polite divorce, but inaugurate the horrendous kind of coast-to-coast upheaval warned of by Ritchie. That would not just mean a ‘difficult five years’, as Pauline Marois has put it. The Canada that has now existed for a century and a half would endure a mortal blow, with ‘Sovereign Quebec’ universally recognized as the parricide. What the most intelligent and tolerant nationalists realized a long time ago remains true now, whether or not a narrow ‘Yes’ referendum majority could some day be obtained. Canadian society, outside the fantasies of college lecture halls, is not much involved in ‘movement’; it has permanent concerns, like making a living, raising families, taking for granted geography and history, and avoiding dangerous and unnecessary leaps into the unknown. That is why most Canadians of whatever mother tongue mostly prefer the steady industry of the beaver to the stirring cry of the loon.

PAH Fourth 2014 Article