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Canada Premier Struggles to Tie Up Loose Ends : Politics: Tension builds after narrow loss by separatists. Chretien under pressure to mollify Quebec.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The government of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien struggled furiously amid mounting criticism Wednesday to improvise a solution to the national unity crisis triggered by Quebec’s near-plunge into secession.

In this normally placid capital, high tension has accompanied fears that the vote Monday in the French-speaking province--in which separation was rejected by only 50.6% to 49.4%--will turn out to be a dress rehearsal for another, successful attempt by Quebec’s separatists.

The crisis is testing Canada’s well-known civility. Exchanges on the floor of Parliament on Wednesday were among the most vitriolic in recent memory, with considerable name-calling, finger-pointing, desk-pounding and heckling.

Chretien is lobbying provincial premiers, meeting with advisers and brainstorming with his Cabinet in search of a policy that will quell Quebec’s separatist tendencies but not alienate the rest of the country.

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The prime minister is under pressure to offer something to mollify those Quebeckers who are not hard-core separatists but voted in favor of secession out of frustration with the status quo. Some pollsters estimate that these voters accounted for as much as 30% of the pro-separatist total.

Moreover, he would like to move quickly, trying to head off any renewed efforts by the separatists and taking advantage of the open-mindedness toward Quebec inspired in the rest of the country by the nation’s near-death experience.

But the obstacles facing Chretien are formidable, and include the fact that he was politically damaged by what is seen as his less-than-astute performance in the Quebec campaign. One telling fact is that Chretien’s home district of Shawinigan, which he has represented in Parliament for most of 33 years, where he was born and raised and where his father was a Liberal Party stalwart, voted Monday in favor of secession.

Speaking at a Liberal Party fund-raiser in Toronto on Wednesday night, Chretien reminded listeners of who had won Monday and hinted he might not countenance another referendum on Quebec independence.

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“We cannot play the game that there will be a referendum every six months or year or two years,” he said. “This country has the right to political stability, and as the prime minister of Canada, I will make sure we have political stability in the land. . . .

“I will do what is needed to keep this country together.”

Resolving the Quebec conundrum is a task Chretien neither anticipated nor wanted, and increasingly there are voices suggesting he may not be up to it.

Chretien was elected in October, 1993, on a platform of building economic growth, not healing Canada’s age-old linguistic divisions. He stuck to that agenda until a few days before the Quebec vote, when polls showed the separatists might win. Then, a panicked Chretien made belated promises to try to meet Quebec’s historic demands for special recognition and protection of its language and culture.

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A sample of the criticism he is encountering was visible on the editorial pages Wednesday of the Globe and Mail, the country’s most influential newspaper.

“Mr. Chretien is, in truth, something of an anachronism just when we need a potent agent of change,” the paper said.

Jeffrey Simpson, the paper’s leading political columnist, concluded that Chretien has “lost touch with his own province.” Michael Valpy, a left-leaning columnist, wrote that Chretien “heads a do-nothing government . . . a government without an agenda, without psychic energy, without advisers who have any advice.”

The issue facing Chretien in the wake of Monday’s vote is balancing the desire of Quebeckers for special status against concerns of the rest of the country that one province would be elevated above the other nine.

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One proposal being floated by a variety of political analysts is a radical shift of power, spending and programs from the central government to the provinces. This devolution has the seeming potential of winning common backing from conservative Westerners as well as alienated Quebeckers.

But in fact, they may be less compatible than they appear. Conservatives favor decentralization because they are hostile to big government and want to reduce public spending. Most Quebeckers are quite comfortable with extensive government programs, but they want them run out of Quebec City rather than Ottawa. They would oppose decentralization that came with massive funding cuts.


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