Clinton Defends Canadian Federalism

It doesn't take much to put the spring back into a Quebec separatist's step these days. Their grand project - a march towards independence from Canada, or at least a new partnership of equals with the rest of the country - has bogged down. Polls show most Quebecers want no part of another divisive referendum, so separatists are forced to celebrate tiny victories wherever and whenever they occur. For a moment, one such gift appeared to drop into their laps last week in the swish Laurentian resort town of Mont-Tremblant, where 600 academics, bureaucrats and politicians from around the world, including U.S. President Bill Clinton, gathered at Ottawa's behest for the first International Conference on Federalism. Despite the wonkish nature of a conference - with such workshop topics as "Regional Economic Development: Building Partnerships or New Dependencies?" - the separatists thought they had what they wanted: a spitting match over national unity.

Led by Quebec Premier Lucien BOUCHARD, who delivered a blistering attack on Canada during a pre-dinner introduction on opening night, separatist politicians used every open microphone for a guerrilla attack on the Canadian version of federalism. The Quebec Question overwhelmed the conference. It amused some foreign delegates, confused or bored others. But it clearly irritated Ottawa officials who watched what was supposed to be a showcase for federalism around the globe get hijacked by intra-Canadian gamesmanship. Joseph Facal, the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS's intergovernmental affairs minister, used a panel discussion to tell Ottawa to butt out of the rules on any future referendums. Bouchard demanded and received a private audience with Clinton, a 20-minute chat that the Americans deemed a courtesy call and the premier described as a "historic moment for Quebec." Getting national unity back into the spotlight for however brief a flurry seemed to give the separatists heart. "We showed our strength here," crowed Bloc Québécois MP Daniel Turp, glorying in the rare barrage of microphones and cameras thrust his way.

Most media commentators agreed. Ottawa's decision to give the PQ a platform to attack Canadian federalism was derided as a strategic error equivalent to invading Russia in winter - an opinion that reflects the media obsession with symbols over substance. No one, for example, bothered to press the PQ or Bloc members on how an independent Quebec would answer the pointed remark by Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka that "the great violations of human rights are occurring in unitary states." Instead, the Canadian media worked themselves into a minor tizzy when George Reid, a member of the independence-minded Scottish National Party (which is not even in power in Scotland), speculated that 50 per cent plus one in a referendum was enough of a mandate for Scotland to separate from Great Britain. Reid's concurrence with PQ orthodoxy got him a day of headlines. Much-maligned federalists, on the other hand, had to rely on arguments from the U.S. President.

Clinton did not disappoint. In a sparkling, free-flowing dissertation on the history and promise of federalism, he warned that "when a people thinks it should be independent in order to have a meaningful political existence, serious questions should be asked." Clinton's litmus test was high. "Is there an abuse of human rights?" he asked. "Are minority rights as well as majority rights respected? How are we going to co-operate with our neighbours?" After a century littered with the bloody fallout from the cry for national self-determination around the globe, Clinton said federalism offered "the best of all worlds" to peoples seeking recognition of their identity, without having to isolate themselves. Bouchard later conceded parts of Clinton's address were "not very helpful" to the PQ cause.

The premier's own speech to the conference will probably make the PQ's year-end highlight reel for its audacious pummelling of Ottawa in front of an international audience. But its content was nothing more than Bouchard's patented references to historical slights against Quebec and his usual rhetorical arrows. "The Canadian federal regime is now engaged in a concerted strategy of trivializing Quebec," he declared. His speech contained glaring gaps in logic - offering no explanation as to how Quebec was flourishing "as a modern society, pluralist in its culture, open to immigration, the world's 16th economic power," while simultaneously being knee-capped by "federal intransigence and intrusions." And there were huge historical oversights, such as his praise for the "remarkable success" of the U.S. experience with federalism, kindly omitting its four-year Civil War (which killed more Americans than the First and Second World wars combined). Yet the premier accused Ottawa of behaving "brutally" in cutting social transfers to the provinces, and warned that Jean CHRÉTIEN's Liberal government has "chosen to push its offensive further."

The premier's referendum-style stump speech may have been old hat, but his government did make a significant policy pirouette last week. On the eve of the conference, Facal called the National Post to let it be known the Quebec government no longer felt bound to follow the Supreme Court interpretation of the legality of secession. The court said last year that Ottawa and the other nine provinces were obliged to negotiate new constitutional terms with Quebec, provided the provincial government had won a referendum with a clear majority on a clear question. The PQ originally embraced the ruling, seeing the requirement to negotiate as balm for the fears of Quebecers worried that a vote for independence would sever ties to Canada.

But the challenge of coming up with an unambiguous question that could carry a majority was problematic for the PQ. With Chrétien preparing to set out Ottawa's own version of clarity, Facal declared Quebec would not be bound by the finding of a court whose judges were appointed by Ottawa. "All rules governing the next referendum will be determined by the national assembly of Quebec," he said, while also insisting Quebec could declare independence anytime after a Yes vote in a referendum. And he suggested the next question may not be any more straightforward than the last one in 1995, when nearly one-third of Yes voters later revealed to pollsters they thought Quebec would still be a province of Canada even if the Yes side won.

Despite the PQ's bark last week, the party is not positioned to drag the country into another unity debate just yet. A closed-door meeting with a U.S president is hardly enough to awaken the PQ's slumbering cause. What deserves to be remembered most from last week's conference was the presence of delegates from far more troubled lands than Canada, addressing the belief that federalism offers hope to a world that cannot afford to divide itself into ever smaller ethnic, religious and linguistic enclaves. As Clinton put it in his folksy conclusion: "If we keep in mind what is the arrangement of government most likely to give us the self-government we need, the self-advancement we need, without pretending we can cut all the cords that bind us to the rest of humanity, I think more and more and more people will say, you know, this federalism, it's not such a bad idea."

Maclean's October 18, 1999