A retired senior American diplomat, the author held the position of minister-counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa for four years during the mid-1990s and has followed the Canadian scene closely since then. In this detailed analysis of the Québec separatist controversy, he proffers an answer to the question: Is the issue a dead dog, or is it only sleeping? ~ Ed.always another sovereignty referendum from crisis. This continuing circumstance requires U.S. policy makers regularly to look over their shoulders to the north, regardless of other crises de jour.
“Québec is akin not to an abused, but a ‘disrespected’ wife of Canada. The relationship is not working and the wife would like to leave, but believes that the ‘judge’ will not let her depart. Having tried twice to leave, the wife is now apathetic. . . .”
UEBEC REMAINS the flashpoint for Canada. This volatile status does not necessarily forecast a sanguinary interlude in the manner of Kosovo or Chechnya, but it clearly complicates matters in assessing the current balance of the “two solitudes” from which Canada is constructed and has endured since its creation in 1867. Thus “Whither Québec/Canada?” is a constant question made more poignant when the 1995 referendum in Québec, which would have led to substantial reordering of the Canadian federation if not necessarily to Québec independence, failed by less than one percent. Today Canada appears tranquil, but balanced on a knife edge; it is always another sovereignty referendum from crisis. This continuing circumstance requires U.S. policy makers regularly to look over their shoulders to the north, regardless of other crises de jour.
In June 1999, little more than six months after the Parti Québecois (PQ) electoral victory, Canada was abuzz over what would happen next in Québec. Would there be another referendum? If so, when? What were the “winning conditions” necessary to hold a referendum? Conversely, had the PQ government in its second mandate “gotten old very fast”? Was the government so beset with the actuality of strikes (by nurses) and the prospects of more union action (“a hot autumn”) that it had lost its way? Was Québec Premier Lucien Bouchard so dispirited with losing the popular vote in the November election that he was contemplating retirement — sooner rather than later?
A year later, in June 2000, circumstances were significantly different. In Ottawa, despite the then ongoing Senate debate over the Clarity Bill, the dominant clatter-chatter concerned the political plans of PM Jean Chretien and the evolution of the leadership race in the Canadian Alliance (CA). One had to probe and question directly to generate comment on Québec issues. While obviously the circumstances were different in Montréal and Québec City, political intensity was muted.
As it takes its first steps into the 21st century, Québec appears more at peace than at any time in the past decade. It is not that Québec sovereignists have given up or that faith in their cause has atrophied, but all have realized that the times are not timely. Not being fools, they have determined to wait: some grimly, some resignedly, some hopefully. Politically, the PQ dominates the scene; its preeminence is a function of good fortune and weak opposition, but it is real. Pollsters and pundits predict it will win an unprecedented third mandate when next it goes to the electorate. The only puzzle remains Mario Dumont and his supporters: Are they real and what do they want?
The Province: All politics are local . . .
Good governance. It appears clear that the PQ has settled in to deliver its most essential “winning condition”: good government. Such is a winning condition not just for any sovereignty referendum, but for reelection. And this is a party that appears to have decided it must be reelected before holding a referendum.
Fortunately for the PQ, the myriad problems that beset any administration in power have been eased by money. Our complex societies at this point in history have generated complex problems; financial resources may not solve them, but throwing money at least gives the impression that an administration is doing something. Québec — as well as Canada, the United States, and much of the Western world — is enjoying very substantial prosperity. Year by year, inflation, unemployment, and budget deficits have been down. Budget surpluses mean that taxes can be lowered and some careful new spending initiated. Good times are rolling, so the appreciation is that while there are significant problems in education and health care, they appear resolvable concerns rather than society rending catastrophes.
Bouchard at rest. In his career there have been a kaleidoscope of Lucien Bouchards. He has spun at frenetic speed through many of the Québec and federal political parties before coming to rest as leader of the PQ and Québec premier. In contrast to 1999 reports of a stressed, distraught, even tormented Bouchard, torn between remaining with his separatist dream and becoming a full time father piling up his fortune for retirement years, we have a significantly more mellow Bouchard in vintage 2000.
There is no question that he has been buoyed by his recent ninety-one percent party congress approval rating. The previous congress which ranked him in the mid-1970’s was deemed an insult; a repeat of such semirejection could have seen him flounce out of politics. Consequently, his stratospheric approval, which was not widely predicted in advance, can be interpreted as vindication for Bouchard both personally and politically. To be sure, Bouchard campaigned harder for party support than in the past, but for its part the PQ realizes that there simply is no alternative to Bouchard. He is the horse they must ride if they are going to achieve a new relationship with Ottawa. Of course, it helps when the opposition is ineffectual.
Charest doesn’t take command. Québec Liberal Party leader Jean Charest — “Captain Canada” — has become “Captain Kangaroo.” Yes, this appraisal is unfair, but it reflects a profound level of disillusion among Quebeckers. Little more than a year after winning the Québec provincial popular vote, Charest found himself ranked behind both Bouchard and Mario Dumont in public approval and esteem. There are multiple dimensions to Charest’s problems:
There are some positives. One retired Liberal member of the National Assembly, previously critical of Charest, believes that he is doing better. Other observers suggest that he has improved his ability to reach beyond his inner circle of federal Tory colleagues and is learning how to be both a provincial and a Liberal politician. Indeed, he has campaigned hard for a strong Liberal party endorsement at their party congress in October. He also has the strength of perceived weakness. There is no obvious alternative to Charest or that individual would have been made party leader in 1998. Moreover, deposing him would likely be politically messy and simultaneously deprive federalists of their strongest, most passionate proponent for Canadian unity.
Nevertheless, there is an old saying that you have only one chance to make a first impression. It is complemented by the more hopeful observation that overcoming a bad first impression is possible, but takes time. Unfortunately, Charest not only seems to have made a bad first impression, but subsequent experience seems to have reinforced that judgment with the audience he most needs to convert: nationalistic Francophones.
The mystery of Mario
Mario Dumont is the oldest thirty year old in Canada. Or so goes the observation about the leader of the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ). He seems to have been prominent in Québec politics since birth. In two elections, Dumont has moved from political oddity to political institution without creating a defining impression. Nevertheless, the ADQ continues to generate the sense that it is a parking lot rather than a party. Certainly, Dumont is not an aparatnik. He is not spending day and night at the grassroots in the classic party-building role: organize, organize, organize. And when you have finished that objective, organize some more. So while some predict that Dumont will be joined by other ADQ members of the National Assembly following the next election, it remains impossible to envision him in the role of prime minister or even opposition leader.
That said, Dumont is hardly irrelevant in Québec politics. Indeed, the vested wisdom contends that as long as his support remains over ten percent, he will attract sufficient Francophone votes to prevent Charest/Liberals from winning an election. Thus the wry contending observations: (a) Bouchard should do anything necessary to keep Dumont happy in his role as gadfly third echelon opposition, e.g., bigger office, more visibility in Question Period; while (b) the Liberals should do anything necessary to get Dumont out of politics, e.g., a lucrative bank directorship. The third possibility, that the PQ could co-opt Dumont with an offer of a ministerial portfolio seems less likely, both because Dumont’s supporters do not appear transferable to the PQ and his “fit” with the PQ does not appear good on any level.
Nevertheless, the question remains about what motivates ADQ supporters. And for the moment, it must remain unresolved. Polls suggest ADQ’ers would split roughly fifty-fifty between sovereignists and federalists in another referendum. There are indications that young professionals find the ADQ’s more conservative economic platform attractive (some suggest that the ADQ is the provincial “Tory” party ideologically). Others find the ADQ a convenient “parking” place for those tired of the “same old, same old” themes from PQ and Liberals, wanting neither to encourage Bouchard to hold another referendum nor to reward Charest with an unearned mandate.
. . . but some local politics are national.
Federal politics impinge on the Québec scene. Political chronology and Prime Minister Chretien’s statements indicate a national federal election either in fall 2000 or spring 2001. The recent leadership dances in the CA and the Liberals also generate some interesting scenarios and judgments.