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The Present State of Canada

ISSUE:  Spring 1996

The night of Oct. 30, 1995, was one of high drama across Canada. The referendum on Quebec secession that day attracted an enormous voter turnout in the province. Ninety-three per cent of eligible Quebec voters cast their ballots. The question which was put to them laid stress on a new political and economic association with the other nine provinces of Canada, which, it was assumed, would continue to be bound by the Canadian Constitution; outright secession would result only if no new agreement could be reached. The wording was not the first choice of Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau. The likelihood of Quebec ever reaching a satisfactory new agreement with the rest of Canada was slight, and Parizeau knew it. Even if some agreement were patched together, it would be unlikely to last long. But the polls had shown that Parizeau’s hardline was not winning over undecided voters, and on Saturday, October 7, Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Québécois in the federal Parliament, took over the leadership of the “Yes” campaign. The separatist strategy shifted; now the vote was to be for a new economic and political partnership which the rest of Canada would be forced to accept under pressure from international financiers.

After the referendum was over, a news story in the Toronto Globe and Mail revealed that the Parti Québécois government of Quebec was ready for action after a victory by even the slightest margin. The Quebec National Assembly would reconvene within the week to acknowledge the referendum result formally and request immediate negotiations with the federal government. The provincial Minister of International Affairs, Bernard Landry, had already sent letters to foreign embassies in Ottawa asking for swift recognition by their countries, and a press release on Bouchard’s letterhead invited Quebeckers serving in the Canadian army to join a new armed force which Quebec would set up directly after a “Yes” victory. France was expected to adopt a resolution congratulating Quebeckers on their decision and to include an offer of support. The French move should, in turn, arouse anxiety in Washington which would press Ottawa to begin negotiations leading to secession. According to this scenario, the United States would be among the first to recognize an independent Quebec.

As for the federalists, it was abundantly clear that they had no strategy in case they failed to win. The prime minister of Canada, Jean Chretien, was a Quebecker; in fact, since 1968, the federal government has been dominated by Quebeckers, first Pierre Trudeau, then Brian Mulroney, and now Chretien. There was no one in Ottawa who could speak for what used to be called English Canada, but might better now be labelled “multicultural Canada.” The premiers of the other nine provinces remained on the sidelines, except to growl now and then that they would never agree to the “sovereignty-association” which the separatists were peddling. Initially, the federalists were confident. The polls showed that Parizeau was not winning over a majority of Quebec voters. Then, about the time Lucien Bouchard took over the “Yes” campaign, separatist support began to grow until the polls showed the two sides neck-and-neck. The federalists showed signs of panic. There was high anxiety in Ottawa on the night of October 30.

The first returns showed the separatists well in the lead. The results coming in from the areas where the population was almost entirely French-speaking showed substantial majorities for the “Yes” side. These were the “pure wool” French, the pure laine, most of them descendants of the 60 thousand or so French who were in Quebec in 1760, when the Marquis de Vaudreuil agreed to the Capitulations of Montreal with Lord Jeffery Amherst, and surrendered New France. The separatists were jubilant. An elated Parizeau gave an interview to the French-language TVA network, in which he revealed that after a victory, he intended to resign and allow someone else, who would not necessarily be Lucien Bouchard, take over the task of building an independent Quebec. A woman, perhaps? Then the results began to come in from the Montreal area where the English and ethnic vote was concentrated. The “No” side edged upward, over 50 per cent. The final margin of victory was 53,498 votes. The television cameras picked up the disappointment and anger of the separatists. A bitter Jacques Parizeau went before the microphones and burst out that his side had been defeated by money and the ethnic vote.

There had always been racist undertones to the separatist cause. Quebec independence was a dream which only a “pure wool” Quebecker could fully understand. An immigrant from Haiti, Greece, or Lebanon, or even the United Kingdom, might be not unsympathetic, but the Heavenly City of the Quebecois de souche— the “Old Stock”—relegated them to the sidelines. Quebec separatism had more in common with the racial nationalisms of Serbia or Croatia than with the ethnicities of a modern multicultural state. The subtext of the platform of the Parti Quebecois, or pequistes, as the French-language media dubbed them, was not only fear of assimilation by Anglo-American culture; it was apprehension about the tidal wave of new immigrants to Canada. The “Old-Stock” Quebeckers had protected themselves in the past with one of the highest birth-rates in the world. But in the last two decades, the French-Canadian birth-rate sank to one of the lowest in the world. At one point in the referendum campaign, Lucien Bouchard mused aloud about the low birthrate of the “white race,” and the “No” side tried without much success, to paint him as a racist. Bouchard was merely voicing an apprehension felt by most of the “pure wool” Quebeckers. There is a demographic time-bomb ticking for the Quebecois de souche, and it could sink the dream of a French state within, or without union of some sort with the rest of Canada.

The separatists were prepared for a large ethnic “No” vote. The Parti Quebecois appointed scrutineers at all the polling stations, and in ridings where there was a large ethnic population, they were particularly vigilant. Ballots which were improperly marked were rejected even when the intention of the voter was clear. The number of spoiled ballots which were rejected overall was 1.8 per cent, but in three Montreal-area ridings it was much higher: in one, an incredible 11.7 per cent were rejected. The vast majority of the rejected ballots were “No” votes: after the referendum, the Quebec Liberal party collected more than 20 affidavits stating that far more would have been rejected if the polling clerks had not put up a fight. The margin of victory for federalism might have been higher by at least one percentile if the spoiled ballots had been counted. But that is cold comfort for the federalists.

The day after the referendum, Parizeau announced his resignation as provincial premier and leader of the Parti Québécois and also admitted that his outburst against ethnics might have been better phrased. But that was as far as he went. The separatists, by and large, agreed with him. Before the referendum campaign began, a Bloc Québécois member of the federal parliament, Philippe Pare had suggested that the “other” voters in Quebec should refrain from voting and let the real Quebeckers decide the future of the province by themselves. To multicultural Canada, which takes in about a quarter million immigrants a year, his remark appeared racist, but it expressed the fortress mentality of Quebec, formed by two centuries of slights, real or imagined, and the sense of being a conquered people. It is not an outlook one can understand without delving back into the history of North America before the American Revolution bisected it into a northern and southern half, and gave birth to two separate nations.


Before the Conquest, in 1750, a Swedish professor of botany, Peter Kalm, visited Quebec after a tour of the British colonies to the south. A scientist himself, he noted with approval that the Quebeckers had a greater taste for scientific pursuits than their English counterparts, whose chief interest was acquiring wealth. Status, however, did matter a great deal. New France had its own aristocracy, the seigneurs, whose seigneuries recreated a New World version of the manorial system of medieval France, and though most seigneurs had a hard time making ends meet, they had the right to add the coveted particle ‘de to their names, and the appetite for seigneuries was such that the British found almost 250 of them, and another 200 sub-seigneuries when they took over the colony. Moreover, New France had one advantage which the British colonies to the south did not. Perched on the St. Lawrence, it commanded the river routes of North America, and while the British remained huddled between the Appalachians and the Atlantic, French explorers moved easily into the interior, following the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.

There was one historical moment when Quebec might have won North America for France. In Queen Anne’s War, or the War of the Spanish Succession as it was known in England, the Canadiens of New France swept everything before them, and hemmed the British colonists into a strip along the eastern seaboard. But while the Canadiens were victorious in North America, Queen Anne’s armies led by the Duke of Marlborough were winning a string of victories in Europe, and when the war ended with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the French conquests had to be returned. The historical moment passed, and the die was cast for New France.

The secret weapon of the British was population. They had no hesitation about peopling their colonies with their outcasts: religious non-conformists, convicts, debtors, persons whom Britain was glad to be rid of, and who, once in the colonies, often harbored feelings of rejection. Not satisfied with only their own outcasts, the British collected them from other countries: Huguenots from France, Palatinate Germans, and Anabaptists from Switzerland who became Pennsylvania Dutch in the New World. By contrast, the immigrants to New France were Catholic and French, most of them from Normandy, and their number was few, not more than 10 thousand. The French habitants had large families, but New France could not keep up with the disorganized growth of the English colonies. When New France fell, Voltaire is supposed to have dismissed the event as the loss of a “few acres of snow”. Voltaire’s opinion was not typical, but France’s interest in Quebec was founded on national pride, not economic considerations, and in the end, economics won.

The French regime capitulated in 1760, the French colonial officials departed and the British were left with a colony that had lost its governing elite. They were uncertain what to do next. All the English colonies had been royal charter foundations. Britain had never had to administer a colony before. Eventually, on the eve of the American Revolution, the British Parliament passed the Quebec Act, the first act it had ever passed regulating the internal affairs of a colony. In the century that followed, it was to pass a series of acts regulating Canadian government, the last of which was the British North American Act of 1867, which Canada regards as its birth date.

As for English Canada, it was a byproduct of the American Revolution. The influx of Loyalist refugees from the Thirteen Colonies gave Canada an instant English-speaking population. The society they established was American. After the Napoleonic Wars were over, Canada received new waves of immigrants from Europe, but three decades were enough for the Loyalist Americans to establish the characteristics of English Canada. They shared accents and traditions with the United States, even the American Thanksgiving: the descendants of the Mayflower captain were among the Loyalists. The difference was the monarchy. Loyalty to the descendants of King George III was to remain an important component of self-identity in English Canada. As late as 1992, a Gallup Poll showed that 54 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec still considered themselves loyal subjects of Queen Elizabeth II. In Quebec, however, 66 percent opted for a republic.

The Quebec Act of 1774 had restored the government and society of New France as far as possible. English criminal law along with trial by jury replaced French criminal law, but the civil law remained French. The great difference, however, was that there were no more royal officials sent out from France; the new elite of Quebec society were now born in Quebec. Quebec began to produce its own leaders. In 1791, after the influx of the Loyalist Americans, another act of the British parliament introduced representative government and divided Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada, including Montreal in Lower Canada against the wishes of its residents, the majority of whom were at that time English-speaking. The Quebecois adapted swiftly to parliamentary institutions and used them skillfully to assert their identity.

French Quebeckers in their kindlier moments will admit that their British conquerors did not treat them badly. But the humiliating factor was that they were conquered at all. The Conquest blighted a great future that grew all the more splendid in imagination because it had been lost. When Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau tabled the 1995 referendum question in the Quebec National Assembly, he accompanied it with a “Declaration of Sovereignty” which went to the heart of the matter. Now is the time, it declared, to reap the fields of history, to achieve the promise of those 17th-century pioneers who rooted themselves in the soil of Quebec. It hailed a land whose heart beats in French, and a language which celebrates “our loves, our beliefs and our dreams.” English Canada heard this trumpet call with a mixture of astonishment and amusement. The soil of modern English Canada may grow wheat or timber, but it does not provide potting soil for pioneer myths. Unlike Quebec, English Canada has never developed a home-grown intelligentsia, and it finds its history dull. The United States can look back on a true Heroic Age, complete with revolution, civil war, Indian Wars and the taming of the frontier. Canada has only the dry bones of constitutional development.

Canada, nonetheless, is a product of the accidents of North American history. The American Revolution ensured that it, and not the United States, was heir to the British possessions in America. Anxious to reduce her commitments and withdraw her troops, the British smoothed the path for the federation of her North American colonies. The British North America Act of 1867 created the Dominion of Canada out of Ontario, Quebec and two maritime provinces. The west coast colony of British Columbia joined three years later and in the same year, Canada got the vast territory of Rupert’s Land which covered the prairie provinces and the whole northern part of the continent. Ten years later, without the benefit of legislation, Britain handed over to Canada her claims to the Arctic islands. Newfoundland held aloof until after World War II when, following two referendums and some prodding from Britain, she became the tenth province. Then the British Empire faded away, and Canada, which had been self-governing for more than a hundred years, not only became independent; she felt independent.

In Quebec at mid-century, a revolution got under way. It was called a “Quiet Revolution” but quiet or not, it was far-reaching. The Quebecois revolted against both the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the English managerial class which used to dominate commerce in Quebec. They were determined to be masters in their own house, and make their own language paramount in the province. The tone of Quebec culture changed sharply, and the federal government attempted to accommodate it.


In 1965, a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism produced a report. It was to be followed by many others, but this one is worth rereading. Several features stand out. One is the degree to which both French and English were ignorant of each other. Not a great deal has changed; the English media now report Quebec affairs regularly, but their French counterparts are as insular as ever. Another was the fact that separatist sentiment was already present in all its degrees, from a moderate reform movement to a push for complete independence. But the events of the last three decades give an ominous meaning to one of the report’s paragraphs: “Finally it should be emphasized that (French) society is not only distinct, but also that its individual members, sometimes to a surprising degree, lead a life quite separate from that of English-speaking Canada. We are speaking here of separation in fact, created by the barrier of language, and not of doctrinaire separatism.”

Events were to move quickly. In 1967, the Canadian centennial year, Charles de Gaulle came to visit and shouted “Vive le Quebec libre!” from the balcony of the Montreal City Hall. There was splendid irony to De Gaulle’s intervention, for French Canada had been a tepid supporter of Free France during World War II, and the newspaper of the Quebec chattering classes, Le Devoir, had been markedly hostile. Three years later came the October crisis. A terrorist group called the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) had been setting bombs and committing hold-ups for seven years, and already had claimed four victims, but in October, 1970, it captured headlines by kidnapping the British trade commissioner, James Cross, and murdering a Quebec cabinet minister, Pierre Laporte. The Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, called in the army. His approval rating in the polls shot up immediately to 59 per cent, and terrorism was stopped dead, though one FLQ terrorist, Paul Rose, has since become a minor pequiste saint.

In 1980, Quebec held its first referendum. The question which the Parti Québécois put to the voters was long and confusing: not independence exactly, but sovereignty-association, a quasi-independence which the Parti Québécois founder, the charismatic René Lévesque, had outlined in a book titled An Option for Quebec. A fraction more than 40 per cent of the Quebec electorate voted for it. But at a rally four days before the vote was taken, prime minister Pierre Trudeau promised constitutional reform following a victory for federalism. What direction the reform would take he did not say, but with a little wishful thinking, it could seem to be a promise of a moderate form of sovereignty-association. And so a myth was born. Trudeau, the myth had it, had promised Quebec special powers, and instead protected federal prerogatives in a new constitutional framework.

Canada’s Constitution in 1980 was still an act of the British Parliament, which could be amended only by the British Parliament. What Trudeau’s constitutional reform turned out to be was not to revamp the constitution, but to make it a Canadian statute, and attach to it a Bill of Rights. The result was a furious struggle between the provinces and the federal government and Trudeau got a “Charter of Rights and Freedoms” only with an escape clause which allows a provision in the Charter to be suspended at the will of any government, federal or provincial. The Quebec government was to make good use of this clause: it had banned the use of English on signs, and when the Supreme Court found the ban in violation of the Charter, it invoked the escape clause and suspended the right of its English-speaking minority to use English. But Trudeau won a qualified victory, and Queen Elizabeth II came to Canada to proclaim the Constitution Act on April 17, 1982. The signature of the Quebec premier was not on the document. A new grievance for Quebec was born.

But by now, everybody else nursed grievances as well. The Western provinces were deeply resentful. Trudeau and his team from Quebec which had dominated Ottawa for some 15 years had a vision of Canada which extended no further west than the Great Lakes. His economic policies left the country mired in debt. Quebec had absorbed all his creative juices. But Trudeau in retirement still commanded respect and continues to do so yet, at the age of 75, though more among English-speaking Canadians than in Quebec itself. A poll taken in June 1993 showed that 62 per cent of Canadians overall judged Trudeau a better prime minister than his successor, Brian Mulroney. But then, 43 per cent judged Mulroney the worst prime minister in Canadian history.

The judgment was less than fair. Mulroney’s worst failure was the budget deficit which defeated him, and he left Canada in the unhappy position where some 35 percent of national revenues go to service the debt. He increased Canada’s immigration intake to a quarter million annually, thus subtly changing the old French-English constitutional duel: by 1995, the quarrel was between French Quebec and the new multicultural state that Canada had become. Yet twice Mulroney came within an ace of finding a formula that would have persuaded Quebec to put its signature on the Constitution. Power would be decentralized; Quebec would be recognized as a “distinct society.” The 1965 Report on Bilingualism and Biculturalism had said as much, and yet English Canada was deeply suspicious. To many Canadians, what was distinct about Quebec was that it fined people who put up signs in languages other than French. But Mulroney’s greatest error was that he inadvertently created a new high priest of the separatist cause, Lucien Bouchard.


After the defeat of sovereignty-association in the 1980 referendum, the Parti Québécois retreated from quasi-independence to quasi-federalism. But the die-hard core remained intact, chief among them Jacques Parizeau, who had served as minister of finance in the Parti Québécois government. A scion of one of Quebec’s leading families and a graduate of the London School of Economics, Parizeau is a combination of hard-headed economist and romantic, a closet monarchist and hard-core separatist. If he had had his way, the question that was asked in the 1995 referendum would have been a simple choice between independence and continued federalism. But the verdict of the pollsters was that a “Yes” vote could not win with that question, and Parizeau wanted badly to win. The referendum was to damage his political career and destroy his reputation. It transformed him from a statesman into a snake-oil salesman peddling a brand of sovereignty-association which he himself believed would not work, and it uncovered racist undertones in his mindset which only his enemies had previously suspected.

Lucien Bouchard was one of five children born to a deeply religious family on a farm 400 miles north of Quebec City. He grew up to become a small town lawyer and a supporter of Pierre Trudeau. But at the Universite Laval law school in Quebec City, he had met Brian Mulroney and the two students became close friends. When Mulroney became prime minister, he made Bouchard Canadian ambassador to France. He worked hard at mastering the intricacies of government, learned to speak English, and acquitted himself well as a diplomat. In 1987, Mulroney, who never forgot a friend and expected his loyalty to be returned, recalled Bouchard to serve in his cabinet. He won a by-election thanks more to Mulroney’s electioneering skills than his own. He also got married for the second time, to a Californian named Audrey Best, and became a father of two sons.

His resignation from the Mulroney cabinet was carefully timed. Mulroney came closest to a constitutional formula that Quebec would accept with the so-called “Meech Lake Accord” of 1987, which was put together by the first ministers of the federal and provincial governments meeting at a retreat on Meech Lake east of Ottawa. The polls gave it an approval rating of 59 per cent in Quebec. Western Canada disapproved by an even higher rating, but it was not that which killed “Meech Lake.” A lone native Indian member of the Manitoba legislature refused to make the province’s approval unanimous, and Newfoundland took that as a signal to withdraw support. “Meech Lake” died within a hair’s breadth of success. It was a sharp reminder that Canada’s native peoples had grievances that were far more justified than Quebec’s. But Bouchard had already resigned before “Meech Lake” perished. He founded his own separatist party to contest the next federal election, the Bloc Quebecois. In the next federal election, it won enough seats in Quebec to form “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” in the Parliament of Canada. The Conservatives whom Mulroney had led to victory twice were reduced to two seats, though one of them was won by an attractive young Quebec politician who had also learned what it was to trust Bouchard as a friend, Jean Charest. In the referendum of Oct. 30, 1995, he was the one politician to emerge with an enhanced reputation.

Bouchard was not the only reason for the collapse of the Conservatives. Out of the West emerged a new party with populist, evangelical roots, led by Preston Manning, the son of a former Alberta premier. One politician whose vocal chords are attached weakly to a light-weight brain, compared him to Darryl Duke, who was running for governor of Louisiana at the time. After Duke faded out, the media pundits decided that he was Canada’s Newt Gingrich. Manning himself was interested in the comparison until he took a closer look at Gingrich’s platform, after which he carefully distanced himself. The American statesman with whom Manning likes most to compare himself is Abraham Lincoln, and he draws analogies between the political scene in the United States before the Civil War and Canada’s present situation. He is the one English-Canadian federal politician who is quite willing to contemplate a Canada without Quebec, and to take a hard-headed look at the advantages and disadvantages. Quebec at present receives from the federal government more than 3.5 billion dollars more than it contributes in taxes. Ontario loses more than 4.5 billion dollars, and the province of Alberta not a great deal less. Manning is a native of Alberta. In the Quebec referendum of Oct. 30, 1995, the position of Manning’s Reform Party was that a “No” majority was preferable, but that a “Yes” victory should be accepted, and the rest of Canada should plan for its own future.

But for the ruling Liberal Party in Ottawa, there was no choice but to fight for a “No” victory and win. If Quebec became independent, its leading members, including prime minister Jean Chrétien himself, would become citizens of a foreign country. Its problem was that the separatists were chameleons; they managed to be for independance and against it at the same time. “Sovereignty” is a slippery word. A large number of voters who cast their ballots for the “Yes” side thought that after Quebec independence, Quebeckers could continue to send members of parliament to Ottawa, use Canadian dollars, and carry Canadian passports. Bouchard himself expected that, after Quebec became independent, the government in Ottawa would still pay him the generous pension to which Canadian Members of Parliament are entitled. The “No” side, led by the leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, Daniel Johnson, grew panicky in the last days before the vote, and prevailed on Chretien to promise another round of constitutional reform, which would include recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society.” “Yes” lost by a whisker and Chrétien is left with a promise he will find it hard to keep.

In Canada’s constitutional game, democracy has taken on a peculiar complexion. For the separatists, a majority vote for independence, however narrow the margin, should be respected by the rest of Canada as a genuine expression of democracy. But a vote for federalism is only an invitation for another referendum. So another referendum will take place and a poll taken early this year showed that separatist support had grown. The charismatic Lucien Bouchard as separatist as ever, has succeeded Parizeau as premier of Quebec, but the Quebec economy, which is in deep recession, needs his attention first. The prime minister of Canada, Jean Chrétien, is mortally wounded. The referendum revealed him as the first prime minister from Quebec who could not command widespread support in his home province. In Ontario, Canada’s richest and most populous province, the business elite is taking a serious look at Preston Manning of the Reform Party, for he is the only political leader with a coherent strategy for the rest of Canada in case secession takes place. Moreover, without being another Newt Gingrich, Manning does promise to tackle Canada’s budget deficit.

Meanwhile the resentment among the “Other” groups in Quebec is bitter. The péquistes have emerged as the faction of the “Pure Wool” Quebeckers, determined to exact revenge for the defeat on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. The “Others”: English, Jews, Greeks, and the varied mix of other immigrant groups, feel marginalized and persecuted. The referendum has left them alienated and angry, and the Québécols de souche, insular and insensitive to the feelings of those outside their own ethnos, remain unaware or indifferent. For them, what is important is to reverse the verdict of a capitulation 236 years ago, no matter how many referendums it takes.


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