As the grand finale of a huge nationalistic parade here, organizers had planned to unfurl a 90-foot Quebec flag from the heights of the city’s Olympic Stadium. But just as one edge of the great blue and white fleur de lis began to drop, the wind caught it, tangling it in a bank of lights.
Far below, 200,000 celebrants watched, dismayed, on Monday as the minutes ticked by and the flag stayed stubbornly trapped. So, after a patriotic song or two, they scattered for anticlimactic subway rides or quiet walks home.
The mishap seemed in keeping with the confused and tentative political climate across Canada today. After months of debate and negotiation over whether Quebec should or shouldn’t be constitutionally unified with English-speaking Canada, and after the failure of a package of amendments that would have clarified Quebec’s powers, Canadians are more uncertain about the future now than they have been in years.
Will Quebec remain a province of Canada? If it doesn’t, what new form will it take? If it opts for full independence, what will the consequences be for the other nine provinces? Could they splinter into regional bodies--or even join the United States?
Outlandish as that last idea may sound south of the 49th Parallel, in Canada today it is considered a live and frightening possibility.
And what about Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the English-speaking Quebecer who has tried since his election in 1984 to unify French and English Canada? Now that his constitutional vision has failed, will his Progressive Conservative government be able to rule with any effectiveness?
These questions are foremost in the minds of Canadians today, but there are no easy or quick answers. This summer is likely to be a much quieter political season in Canada than the spring: Parliament and the provincial legislatures will adjourn, and politicians will go home to rest and mingle with their constituents. A number of leading political commentators have called for making the legislative recess a time of reflection and healing.
About the only thing certain for now is that Quebec is not going to declare independence tomorrow or for months--if ever--thanks to the cautious personality of its premier, Robert Bourassa.
“He is very, very sensitive to polls,” said Charles Doran, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “I think the polls are telling him that this isn’t the time to be precipitate.”
Indeed, Bourassa gave a major address over the weekend that managed to be both tough and moderate at the same time. He warned English Canadians that Quebec is capable of forging its own destiny--but he added that he will not make any decision on province’s sovereignty until he has consulted widely with activists in his Liberal Party.
Bourassa had already begun those consultations in February when he set up a Liberal Party constitutional committee to travel around his huge, French-speaking province and gather opinions about sovereignty.
When Bourassa set up the party study group, analysts called the move a shrewd time-buying tactic. And sure enough, the committee’s deliberations now are permitting Bourassa to wait out an extremely delicate time in his province without locking himself into any position. Not only are his own Liberals leaning toward sovereignty but polls also show that more than half of the man-in-the-street Quebecers are in favor of it, too, and so is the leading opposition party, the Parti Quebecois.
Bourassa himself has long been a federalist, committed to the idea that Quebec belongs in Canada. He will use this summer to come up with concepts that satisfy Quebec nationalists without betraying his own leanings.
Federal officials, meanwhile, have already begun helping out Bourassa by offering Quebec, on a piecemeal basis, some of the powers it would have had if the constitutional amendments, known as the Meech Lake Accord, had been ratified by Saturday’s deadline.
On Monday, Mulroney said that he and Bourassa had already made “important progress” on a bilateral accord that would give Quebec more power over foreign immigration to the province. Immigration powers for Quebec were a component of the Meech Lake Accord.
Immigration is a hot political issue in Quebec, where French-speaking nationalists believe they can perpetuate the power of their language and culture only by encouraging--or even requiring--newcomers to speak French. But it is doubtful that the sort of non-constitutional powers that Mulroney can now offer Quebec will satisfy Quebecers.
“The main problem with this type of arrangement is that there is no (constitutional) guarantee that it won’t be canceled by a future government,” said Paul-Andre Comeau, editor of Le Devoir, an intellectual daily in Montreal.
Even as he awarded consolation prizes to Quebec, Mulroney was busy meting out punishment to Newfoundland, the province where the Liberal-controlled legislature killed the Meech Lake Accord on Friday by adjourning without voting on ratification. The federal government on Tuesday delayed a parliamentary reading of a bill to fund a large oil development project off the coast of Newfoundland.
Mulroney, who appeared in the House to defend the action against the bitter protestations of Newfoundland representatives, looked healthier and more relaxed than he had Friday, when the accord was officially pronounced dead. Then he seemed a haggard, beaten man, but he retreated to his home district for a long holiday weekend, and the rest seems to have readied him to take on the two main challenges that now await him.
The first of these is to keep his Progressive Conservative Party caucus intact in the wake of the devastating personal defeat that the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord represented. The other will be to outrun his new rival, Liberal Party leader Jean Chretien, elected Saturday.
On the first score, Mulroney still enjoys a comfortable majority in the Canadian Parliament. Even as his standing in public-opinion polls here has plummeted, the loyal support of his caucus members has permitted him to govern effectively. But a number of Mulroney’s caucus members come from Quebec, and analysts had been predicting for months that if the constitutional pact died, the Quebec Conservatives would abandon him and sit as independents in Parliament, working for Quebec sovereignty.
So far, that hasn’t happened. On Tuesday, when the Conservative caucus met for the first time since the pact was killed, only three Quebec Conservatives announced their resignations.
“The big surprise was that only three left,” said Comeau. “It could have been much worse.”
Comeau believes that it is Mulroney’s new rival, Chretien, who unwittingly saved the day for the prime minister.
Chretien is a French-speaking Quebecer, but unlike many of his fellows he is a staunch federalist who pooh-poohs the feelings of nationalism in his home province. English Canadians applaud Chretien’s approach, but not Quebecers.
Most of Mulroney’s Quebec caucus members evidently concluded that if the prime minister’s position were weakened too much and an election were called, Chretien would win it. And for all of Mulroney’s difficulties, Quebecers know they can negotiate a far better deal for Quebec with him in power than with Chretien. So, for the moment, they are sticking with Mulroney.