Today the first of a two part series on what's wrong with Canada and what we must do. Canada is in deep trouble and many of us saw it coming a long time ago. In 1980, I felt very uncomfortable about Pierre Trudeau entering the Quebec referendum on sovereignty-association, whatever that might have meant. I thought by fighting on the No side he was dignifying an unlawful process. I felt then and feel now that he should have referred the legality of the process to the Supreme Court of Canada, as he would later do with the new constitution, on the issue as to whether Quebec was bound by the new constitution - it was. Remember that was then before any referenda were held and it might fairly be assumed that the court would have ruled against any attempt to alter the constitution in such a dramatic way as Rene Levesque proposed. In the event, the referendum failed badly.
One of the several mistakes the rest of Canada made was to assume that this ended the debate and at the time I couldn't understand how we could be so stupid. The art of referenda is to keep having them until you get a yes vote.
Compounding Trudeau's error
In 1983, Brian Mulroney became leader of the Conservatives and immediately started recruiting separatists so that he could carry Quebec, as he needed to, in the next election. He accomplished this by offering separatists a deal - if they would support him he would see that Quebec got a special deal in Canada. Mulroney tried twice to fulfill this promise - the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord and he failed in both attempts. He had, however, whetted the appetite of separatists to have another go. (Some would say that if Charlottetown had passed, the separatist movement would have been dead for all time. This is nonsense. The new deal for Quebec proposed by Charlottetown would have alienated Western Canada so as to shift the problem from one part of the country to another. Worse, separatists would have seen Charlottetown as merely a stepping stone to independence and what the Monday morning quarterbacks like to forget is that Quebec voted against the deal.)
Three years after Charlottetown, Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau held another referendum, this time in more specific terms, and he damned near won. The answer of the Chretien government was to, in effect, give Quebec sovereignty-association. Then, afraid of asking the Supreme Court the proper question, namely, does any province have the right to secede, it sought the court's assistance as to what would happen if Quebec voted to secede indicating both the degree of support separation had to have in Quebec and what the obligations of the federal government might be if a proper vote supported separation.
The next major event was the sponsorship scandal which was seen by Quebec as a gigantic slap in their face not just because mostly Quebec Liberals were involved, but because the sponsorship program was itself a humiliating attempt to woo Quebeckers with balloons and lapel buttons.
Snooze, we lose
Canada has now reached a critical period in its history … and we are sleepwalking.
And what is this critical period?
In all likelihood the Parti Quebecois will become the Quebec government within the next couple of years and Gilles Duceppe will cross into Quebec politics to become the Premier. There will be another referendum with a strong likelihood that it will pass.
Why do I say that?
Because no one will be able to speak for Canada in any sort of credible way. The NDP and Tories are both without influence in Quebec and the Liberals will still be in disgrace.
Let's assume that the referendum fails. Separatists will just view that (as they have in the past) as a temporary setback in the inexorable march to independence.
But that's not the whole picture. Alberta and British Columbia are becoming less and less enchanted with their place in the country. This means that to the extent the Liberals offer goodies to Quebec, far western Canadians will see this as further evidence of the fact that they have always been and will always be short changed in the Ottawa power structure.
What Ottawa wins on the Quebec swings it will lose on the western roundabouts.
The country teeters on the chasm of national disintegration and the federal government and indeed opposition act as if nothing is happening for fear that simply by admitting that there's a problem will itself encourage a bad result.
Next week: What can we do?
Rafe Mair's column for The Tyee runs on Mondays. He can be heard every weekday morning from 8:30-10:30 on 600AM. His website is www.rafeonline.com