Canada: A Boring Country in Turmoil

by Howard Fienberg

the MacDougall, Nov. 15, 1995, Issue 22

What was witnessed on October 30, 1995 was the October Crisis of 1975 turned upside down. Then, the Front du Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) was kidnapping officials and running a general terrorist scheme. Twenty five years on, the Quebec separatist movement had taken a more moderate stand, and an all the more threatening horror arose. Now, rather than a terrorist group, and a fringe political movement, Canada was faced with a separatist mainstream, personified in the ruling Parti Quebecois at the provincial level, led by Jacques Parizeau, and the official opposition Bloc Quebecois at the national level, led by Lucien Bouchard. As promised, Parizeau held a referendum on Quebec separatism, and the result was an essential fifty-fifty split, with a large margin of spoiled ballots. That the Yes side nearly reached a numerical victory is important, not because it would have meant that separation would have ensued, but because it shows the divided nature of the Canadian polity, particularly in Quebec.

Tensions between Francophone and Anglophone have been tense since the French surrendered Quebec to Great Britain in the Seven Years War. In 1867, Canada was penned independent by the British North America Act, with Lower Canada (Quebec) as one of the founding provinces. Francophones were essentially oppressed for generations, and it wasn't really until the post-war era when things began to change. Canada began to transform itself into a true bilingual country, and francophones asserted their rights. But the backlash was inevitable. Anglos were angered by French insistence that they learn French, while the Francophones were busy eliminating English from their everyday lives with measures such as Quebec provincial Bill 101. Liberal leader Rene Levesque held a referendum in 1980, which was lost approximately sixty-forty. In the eighties and nineties, Quebecois became increasingly upset with the arrangement whereby PM Trudeau had repatriated the Canadian constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the 1982 Canada Act. A deal was worked out among all the provincial leaders to accommodate these and other changes to the constitution in the Meech Lake Accord, which failed to pass all the parliaments. In 1992, it was brought finally to the people rather than the elites, in a referendum on the Charlottetown Accord referendum. The answer was no. A multi-faceted agreement, it was a mess of different concessions, which everyone inevitably found some fault with. Denied their ``distinct society'' clause and veto over issues dealing with their province, Quebecois rallied to the separatist cause in the elections following.

Not only did the separatist movement scare the anglophones, but as well the natives. Quebec has a poor record with regards to its native communities, in particular the James Bay Cree, who just recently defeated an attempt to dam their water systems to boost Quebec Hydroelectric power and funds (a move which would have destroyed their hunting and fishing grounds). During that debate the Cree demonstrated that they acquired invaluable and effective lobbying capacities, most of which are being utilized in the present debate. Grand Chief Matthew Coon-Come held a referendum in the community on Tuesday Oct. 24, when the James Bay Cree voted not to separate from Canada if Quebec separated (96.3\%)

"The Canadian federalist system has never been as fragile as it is tonight," said Lucien Bouchard. ``We won't wait another fifteen years.'' As well they might not. There have been continuous threats of another referendum. However, Parizeau alienated many with his venomous concession speech where he blamed the loss on the ethnics and the anglophones, and Bouchard is at least resigning the leadership, if not retiring from politics altogether, something his family are pressuring him to do. Certainly, the debate will not go away, but hopefully it will not be so precipitous again, and the Canadian dollar will have breathing room to recover.

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