Quebec will fight to lose

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The Independent Online
TORONTO - How long will there be a Canada? The question is a chronic one. It has been around for at least 30 years and is now in something resembling an acute phase. The Parti Quebecois, now in power in Quebec, is understood to stand for the independence of Quebec and is committed to a referendum next year. In a speech here on Wednesday, Lucien Bouchard, leader of the official Opposition in the Federal Parliament (which now consists of the Bloc Quebecois), said: 'In the near future there will be a referendum in Quebec, the third in 15 years. Quebecois will be asked a simple question, on the following lines: 'Do you want Quebec to become a sovereign country? Yes or No'.'

If that is the question, it might well carry. Some polls show most Quebecois in favour of 'sovereignty' but not 'independence'. I covered the last referendum in Quebec for the Observer, in 1980, when Quebecois opted to remain part of Canada. I formed the general opinion then that they wanted to regard themselves as a sovereign nation, provided they did not lose any of the benefits derived from being part of the Canadian Federation.

Those benefits include a healthy share in jobs provided by the Federal Civil Service, the basis of the livelihood of a great many Quebecois families.

That factor has not changed. I think most Quebecois, in the coming referendum, will wish to vote Yes, provided they can be sure of continuing to possess all the advantages inherent in a No. This is also what the Parti Quebecois wants, so the framing of what Mr Bouchard calls 'a simple question on the following lines' will in fact call for a good deal of subtle deliberation.

Much will depend on whether the PQ wants to win the referendum; not a simple question, either. If it wants to win, 'sovereignty' looks like being the ticket. If the idea is to strike a defiant posture, in order to lose, then something as stark as possible, with 'independence' in it, ought to do the trick.

I am sure that the wily and well-informed leaders of the PQ are familiar with certain instructions issued by Count Sforza, then Italian Foreign Minister, to his plenipotentiary negotiators in 1945. The subject was the future of Italy's African colonies. Italy was committed, in principle, to holding on to the colonies and Sforza did not think this a good idea. His instruction to his plenipotentiary was: Luttez jusqu'au bout, mais perdez ('Fight to the end, but lose'). Many of the rank and file of the PQ may not be thinking along those lines, but I'm quite sure some of their leaders are.

Supposing Quebec does vote 'Yes' to something or other with 'sovereignty' in it, what that means in practice will have to be worked out with the Rest of Canada (ROC), which, as a whole, is resigned to letting Quebec go, and some parts are quite enthusiastic about the prospect.

But 'letting Quebec go' is not so simple, either. The province covers a huge territory, stretching far to the north. The population, reckoned by the PQ as 84 per cent Francophone, is concentrated mainly in or around Montreal.

Some Anglophones have already left for ROC; more would leave under 'sovereignty'; some would 'stay on' and probably do quite well, as docile bilinguals.

So the Anglophones are not really a problem. The main problem would be 'the natives', the Indians and the Inuit: a very small minority, in terms of population, but almost the sole inhabitants of vast territories. Some of these inhabitants are proving awkward. Montreal and its suburbs may leave the Canadian Federation if they please, but they have no right to take the Northern territories, of which they know nothing - and whose people know nothing of them - along with them. So say the awkward ones.

This is, of course, a classic problem of secession. A minority within the large and populous state of 'X' decides to secede and set up its homeland of 'Y', within certain hallowed frontiers known to all proper 'Y' people.

Unfortunately, within the hallowed frontiers, and disrespectful of them, there is a perverse group known as 'Z' which poses the inadmissible question: 'If it's all right for you 'Y' people to secede from 'X' and set up on your own, why should it be wrong for us 'Z' people to secede from 'Y' and set up on our own?'

A man called David Cliche was grappling with this question this week in an interview with the Globe and Mail of Toronto. He is described as 'the special Parti Quebecois ambassador to Quebec's native people'. In his interview with the Globe and Mail ('Canada's national newspaper'), Mr Cliche's object was to deter ROC from interesting itself in Quebec's minorities. He spoke in particular of the Cree Indians, who appear to be especially awkward right now: 'If the Crees in Quebec go their own way the next will be natives in British Columbia, and then the Ojibwa in northern Ontario, and eventually every native nation in three continents . . . So what I suspect is that Canada and the United States are most likely not to support the Crees very long in this kind of argument because the argument will quickly backfire and question their own territorial integrity.'

As Mr Cliche and his friends are, right now, 'questioning the territorial integrity of Canada itself', ROC is probably not all that worried about the territorial integrity of Quebec. If 'Quebec' decides to go it alone, its frontiers are likely to be left to international arbitration. This is a matter that Ottawa can cheerfully leave to the United Nations. It is the new political entity - Quebec - that will be seeking recognition from the international community and approval of the frontiers which it claims.

Canada, fortunately for itself, will not be asking the United Nations for anything.

I WOULD not envy Mr Cliche and his PQ friends their task of convincing a UN ad hoc committee on 'Quebec Frontiers' of the right of the Francophones of Montreal and environs to govern territories inhabited by Indians and Inuit.

The Quebecois regard themselves as a people rightly struggling to be free.

But at the UN, they would be seen simply as a bunch of white imperialists.

No matter that most African and Asian states have their own minorities, with which they are often quite tough. That is regarded as quite a different matter; and one which Mr Cliche and his friends would be most unwise to raise.

The common ground at the United Nations is rejection of white rule over non-white people. If 'Quebec Frontiers' ever comes before the UN, the Quebecois would be lucky to be allowed to hold on to Quebec City and Riviere du Loup. To the lands of the Indians and Inuits they would say goodbye.

Those territories would stay with Canada, de facto.

I find most of the people in Toronto are less interested in the fate of Quebec and its possible frontiers than in the possible impact of the secession of Quebec on ROC itself. There is some talk in the prairie provinces of applying for admission to the United States. British Columbia might go the same way and so, possibly, might the maritimes. Ontario, the most populous and richest of the Provinces, might opt for sovereign independence.

I don't think Quebec will either secede or become integrated with ROC. I think the peculiar relationship will continue: the relationship of what some Canadians call 'the two solitudes'. In one sense, the two peoples are divided by language; in another, and perhaps a more profound sense, they are insulated against one another by the lack of a common language.

Where two peoples suffer from an inherited historical antagonism, the antagonism is more raw when - as in Northern Ireland - it has to endure the daily friction of a common language. Mutual incomprehension can be relative bliss. And this may be the saving of the Canadian Federation.

(Photograph omitted)