Ottawa Endorses Québec Partition

Gary Shapiro describes the idea as a "poison pill," a kind of desperate last resort to avert a looming national tragedy. Anthony Housefather considers it a "safety blanket to guarantee that we are all going to remain Canadian." For Roopnarine Singh, it is "an insurance policy against Quebec separatism." And Mark Kotler looks on it as simply inevitable, the logical outcome of last year's close referendum vote. "Quebec nationalists will never be appeased until they get their own land, where they can march and raise their own flag," complains Kotler, a Montreal businessman. "So what the rest of us, the loyal Canadians, have to do now is form a new province, a New Quebec that will remain inside Canada - forever."

That view is incendiary, given the rising temperature in the national unity debate. For what Kotler and his fellow Montrealers are advocating is nothing less than the possible partition of Quebec. While they may differ over both details and strategy, all agree that there is nothing sacred about the province's existing boundaries. Indeed, each is more than willing to cheerfully carve Quebec into separatist and federalist enclaves in the event of a Yes vote in a future referendum on sovereignty. What is more, they are all busily engaged in efforts to raise funds and marshal grassroots support for their cause. "It's time for some tough love," argues Brent Tyler, another activist. "It's time for us to say to our separatist citizens, 'We want you to stay but, if you go, it will have to be negotiated. You have to stop threatening to leave.' "

A Montreal lawyer, Tyler speaks for an organization called the Special Committee for Canadian Unity, one of the most vocal of the new groups. There are at least 10 others in Montreal alone, and perhaps as many as a dozen more elsewhere in the province - mostly advocating that heavily federalist parts of Quebec such as the Ottawa Valley, Montreal and much of the Eastern Townships should remain with Canada after a Yes vote. Only last week, another new Montreal organization suddenly appeared, announcing its birth with full-page ads in both English- and French-language newspapers. The ads, paid for by the Quebec Committee for Canada, call on the federal government to promptly find a process - perhaps by referendum - to determine what parts of Quebec would want to remain in Canada after a pro-separatist vote, and then establish an "altered" new province. "It's a tactic to force the separatists to negotiate," says Gary Shapiro, co-founder of the new committee along with Allen Nutik, owner of a local power equipment supply company. "We want to stop the uncertainty by allowing people to know now that no matter what happens in the future, some of Quebec will remain in Canada."

Not long ago, such opinions would have been quickly dismissed or at least quietly ignored among senior federalists. But that was before Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his new intergovernmental affairs minister, Stéphane Dion, endorsed the concept of partition early last week. On Monday, Chrétien, breaking an unspoken taboo, acknowledged for the first time that he believes that a Quebec that votes for independence could be divided. "If Canada is divisible, Quebec is divisible," the Prime Minister told a news conference in Vancouver, where his entire Liberal caucus was meeting. "It's the same logic, the logic of secession." Chrétien's remarks followed a similar comment three days earlier by Dion, who ignited a firestorm of protest from Quebec nationalists by claiming that independence could lead at least some of the province's natives - and perhaps others who support federalism - to decide to stay in Canada.

Among the first to react was Lucien Bouchard, newly sworn in as Quebec's premier and fresh from announcing his cabinet. The premier accused Ottawa of mounting a campaign of "intimidation and fear" that would surely backfire. Bouchard's comments were quickly echoed by several of his new ministers. Sylvain Simard, the province's international affairs minister, even went so far as to warn the rest of the country to contemplate the grim prospect of violence. "If you take a decision that goes against the will of the majority of Quebec's population, it will have to be militarily imposed by force," Simard cautioned as he emerged from a two-day meeting of the Parti Québécois caucus on the outskirts of Quebec City. "For how many years are you ready to occupy Quebec to impose this partition that the majority does not want?"

Despite the ominous words, federal officials betrayed few signs of backing away from what is clearly a new hardline strategy for dealing with Quebec's separatists. "The basic rule is that if Canada is divisible, Quebec is divisible too," Dion reiterated on his way out of a two-day-long federal cabinet retreat in Ottawa. Senior Liberal strategists, in fact, privately confided to Maclean's that they considered last week's hard tack on Quebec as a perilous but necessary gamble. The timing of Ottawa's aggressive stance was an ironic turning of the tables: while Bouchard was preoccupied with the problems of choosing a cabinet to tackle the disastrous state of Quebec's finances, Chrétien built a cabinet that was in effect a domestic war team to combat separatism. Disgruntled western Liberal MPs, meeting with the federal caucus in Vancouver, noted that six of Chrétien's 24-member cabinet are from Quebec, including newcomers Dion and International Co-operation Minister Pierre Pettigrew. By the end of the special cabinet meeting in Ottawa on Friday, Chrétien - with Dion as the point man - had all but convinced his jittery party that tough talk about territorial partitioning and setting the rules of secession, known in Ottawa as Plan B, was a necessary introduction to the Liberals' so-called Plan A: a national unity strategy of job creation and economic growth, deficit reduction and social reform. As one senior party official told Maclean's: "We cannot allow ourselves to be drawn into discussions of all these various scenarios as though somehow they are exclusive of one another."

At the centre of Plan B is Dion. Low-key and disarmingly nonpolitical, Dion nevertheless proved last week that he packs a powerful punch. Advisers in Chrétien's office persuaded him to ditch his ubiquitous blue knapsack in favor of a more sedate briefcase, but they have yet to curb the former University of Montreal professor's bluntness. Asked by a Quebec reporter for his definition of Plan A at the end of the first session of cabinet on Thursday, Dion replied simply: "Plan A, it's the plan of reconciliation." Then asked about Plan B, Dion said: "The rules of secession." Such candor rattled many senior cabinet members and backbench MPs alike. Cautioned Treasury Board President Marcel Massé, chief architect of the national unity package discussed at cabinet last week: "There is only one way to convince Quebecers who may be hesitant: it is to show them that federalism is a system that will give them a better life for themselves and their children. It is the positive reform of federalism that we must focus our energies on."

The seesaw of rhetoric was clearly a deliberate tactic on the part of Chrétien and his more vocal senior ministers to unnerve Bouchard's fledgling government. But it also highlighted the deep divisions within the Liberal caucus and cabinet over how far to push the separatists. One key discussion centres on whether to present a comprehensive national unity strategy as one complete, interwoven package, or to divide it into distinct compartments. Some senior Liberals, like Human Resources Minister Doug Young, an outspoken advocate of laying down the law to Quebec, have clearly given up on the separatists. "I don't think that if Bernard Landry [Quebec's deputy premier] was walking on Ste-Catherine Street in Montreal in 120-degree temperatures after three days in the desert that I could sell him a glass of water," Young told reporters on Thursday. "It would be as difficult to convince me that Canada is divisible and Quebec isn't as it would be for me to convince Monsieur Landry that maybe Canada is a good place to live." In turn, Dion softened his initial hardline stance on the partition issue by downplaying the likelihood of force in a standoff between Quebec and Ottawa. Said Dion: "If unfortunately we have to negotiate a secession, we must be very, very sure that things will be done peacefully, quietly, with justice and dignity for everybody."

After brandishing the fist, the federal Liberals will now try wrapping it in velvet. The passage of the controversial veto legislation, Bill C-110, through the Senate on Friday enabled Chrétien to end the current session of the House of Commons and start afresh on Feb. 26 with a throne speech to unveil the broad strokes of the Liberals' national unity agenda. But senior Liberals say the focus of the speech will be on the theme of building a better Canada, a return to the nonconstitutional and nonconfrontational agenda that the party promised during the 1993 election campaign. A federal budget, expected during the first week of March, will further spell out how Ottawa plans to rebalance fragile provincial and federal ties.

Nowhere is that task more delicate than in dealing with the relationship between Ottawa and Quebec City. In naming his new 22-member cabinet last week, Bouchard signalled his determination to keep a tight personal rein on whatever discussions take place between the two capitals by appointing Jacques Brassard to the post of intergovernmental affairs minister. Not only is Brassard a blunt, committed separatist who has rarely, if ever, ventured west of the Quebec border, he also speaks scarcely a word of English.

If that was not a clear enough signpost of what lies down the road, another occurred late last week when Bouchard doused a conciliatory gesture that had been floated by deputy premier Landry. Urging English-speaking Canada to set aside all its tough talk about partitioning Quebec, Landry suggested that the PQ government was quietly at work on what he termed a new Canadian Union. Said Landry: "It's not going to be a hardline approach." But Bouchard quickly quashed any indications of negotiations between Quebec and Ottawa before another independence referendum. In the current overheated climate, Bouchard said it would be "idealistic and hypothetical" to contemplate a negotiated deal. "When they threaten to carve up the Quebec territory, I think we're a long way from examining reasonable, modern solutions," huffed the premier. In Ottawa, the federal intergovernmental affairs minister was equally dismissive about Landry's proposed Canadian Union. "Try again, Bernard," sniffed Dion. "Next time, you will call it Canada."

Clearly, the prevailing atmosphere does not seem to be easing the already prickly relationship between Quebec's separatists and opinion in the rest of the country. Even francophone federalists in Quebec oppose the idea of partitioning the province, according to a poll commissioned by Montreal's La Presse newspaper, Le Soleil of Quebec City and the Radio-Quebec television network, which found opinion polarized along language lines. While 59 per cent of non-francophone respondents believed Quebec could be divided, only 33 per cent of francophones accepted the possibility.

Certainly, newly installed Premier Bouchard did nothing to help matters with his now-notorious assertion about Canada's artificial and disposable nature. "Canada is divisible because it is not a real country," the premier declared. "There are two peoples, two nations and two territories. And as a nation we have a fundamental right to keep and maintain our territory." Adding fuel to the fire was former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who, in his strongest remarks to date, accused Bouchard of lying and borrowing from Nazi history in last fall's referendum campaign. In full-page articles published in Saturday's editions of La Presse and The Gazette, Trudeau said Bouchard used "fallacies and untruths" to advance the cause of "hateful demagoguery" and added that, as a result, the Quebec premier has forfeited public trust. Even some of the more sober voices in English Canada began to make bellicose remarks. New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, for one, confessed to a certain satisfaction at the new harder line emanating from Ottawa. "What we're seeing now and we haven't seen in a long time is the separatists being on the defensive," McKenna remarked last week in Fredericton. "A lot of us have bitten our tongues in the past because we were in a pre-referendum period where a mistake could have had catastrophic consequences. Now, it's time we started defining the agenda rather than having others define it for us."

That is what many of those behind the new grassroots organizations have in mind. And it helps to explain, in part at least, why those groups are growing with such wildfire speed. Mark Kotler, owner of a Montreal printing firm, helped to found the Committee for a New Quebec in Canada late last year. He now claims that his group has a membership of more than 4,000, 10 per cent of them francophones. In the past two months, the group has sent out a questionnaire asking people if they want to remain part of Canada even if Quebec separates. According to Kotler, of the 2,000 who replied, every one wanted to remain a Canadian citizen and 94 per cent were in favor of partition in the event of separation. If he is worried about the possibility of violence down the road, he betrays no signs. "Canadians have a different mentality about war," argues the Montreal printer. "We're peacemakers, peacekeepers, negotiators." Given the current climate, there are many in Canada who hope more than ever that Kotler is right.

Maclean's February 12, 1996