BY ROGER ANNIS
MONTREAL - Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien has raised to a new level the stakes in the drive by Canada's rulers to deny the Quebecois nation the right to self- determination and eventual independence. Speaking in Vancouver on January 29, Chrétien confirmed that his government would no longer consider the borders of Quebec inviolate should a majority vote for independence at some future date.
"If Canada is divisible, then Quebec is divisible," he told reporters who asked him to explain a similar statement by his newly-appointed Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Stéphane Dion, four days earlier. Government officials were in Vancouver for a strategy session on how to defeat the Quebec sovereignty movement. Canadian immigration minister Lucienne Robillard added, "I think that if one day Quebec is an independent country, [Quebec premier Lucien] Bouchard must understand that perhaps he will have a separatist movement in his country."
On January 25, Chrétien had presented a newly reorganized cabinet in which most ministers who had responsibility in Quebec for the referendum campaign were replaced. "Make no mistake, this is a war cabinet... for the life and death struggle against Quebec separatism," commented Montreal Gazette columnist William Johnson.
The threat of partition of Quebec, unprecedented in modern Canadian history, is part of a series of measures that Ottawa and the biggest Canadian corporations have launched to try and retake the political initiative following their near defeat in the Oct. 30, 1995, referendum.
At a press conference on January 22, Justice Minister Alan Rock said the government would be introducing new laws to challenge the legalily of a future sovereignty vote. CBC Radio reported on January 30 that one such measure will be to require a vote higher than 50 per cent plus, perhaps as high as two-thirds, in order to be considered legal.
Welcoming that news, Montreal member of parliament Warren Allmand said, "You don't let a country go down the drain.... on a 51.5 per cent vote or on an ambiguous question."
Launching a salvo on behalf of Canada's banks, Matthew Barrett, president of the Bank of Montreal, the country's third largest, told the bank's annual meeting in Calgary, Alberta, on January 15 there would be "economic chaos" in Quebec should an independence vote pass. He warned that his bank would move its head office to Toronto and many other companies would pull their operations out of the province.
The Quebecois are a nation within Canada who are oppressed and discriminated on the basis of their language, French. They make up 6 million of Quebec's population of 7 million.
Chrétien and Dion's statements came on the heels of an unprecedented right-wing rally of more than 1,000 people at McGill University in Montreal on January 21. The audience there cheered one speaker after another calling for partition of Quebec along language lines.
"The time for equivocation and appeasement is over," McGill University professor Stephen Scott told the crowd. He called partition the "Quebec nationalists' ultimate nightmare."
Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne told the crowd the federal government should boycott any future Quebec referendum in order to better challenge its legality. Another speaker was Quebec lawyer Guy Bertrand who won a court injunction to block the 1995 referendum (the judge then declared he had no power to enforce it).
The rally was organized by the Equality Party, a right- wing "English rights" group formed in 1988. The organization has been in sharp decline for several years.
Like-minded capitalist politicians in Pontiac County, along the Quebec-Ontario border west of Ottawa, have already won votes in 14 of the 20 municipalities in the region in favor of resolutions "affirming and guaranteeing" their status as part of an "indivisible Canada." The campaign has deeply divided the population there, 54 per cent of whom are Quebecois. Many residents work for the federal government and 87 percent voted no to sovereignty in the 1995 referendum.
Partition is among the measures promoted by the rightist Reform Party, the third largest party in the Canadian parliament. Reform's platform on the issue, released in mid- January and entitled "Twenty Realities of Secession," proposes that the government redraw borders to accommodate any region in Quebec where a majority petition to remain in Canada. The government, it says, should use police and military force as needed to enforce partition or any other "Canadian" interests.
If such rightist options are now merging into the mainstream of Canadian politics, it is because the federal government has given the lead. Ottawa denies the existence of a Quebecois nationality, still less its second-class status.
Partition is also promoted by most officials of Native Indian organizations in Quebec and Canada. They present the breaking away of Native territories from Quebec in order to remain in Canada as acts of self-determination. Natives are the most deeply oppressed of all the minority nationalities in Canada.
The English-speaking and Native Indian population voted overwhelmingly against Quebec sovereignty on October 30. A large majority of most immigrant communities voted likewise.
But extremist options like partition have far less support. "If it comes to a choice between living in a sovereign Quebec or in a loyalist enclave... taking one's chances with the sovereignists starts to look pretty good," wrote Montreal Gazette columnist Don MacPherson on January 23. He called partitionists "would-be Ian Paisleys who would express their love of Canada by giving it a Northern Ireland of its own." Many other newspaper articles, letters to the editor, and radio reports reflected similar sentiments in the days after January 21.
Pro-Quebec sovereignty spokespeople were largely silent on the escalation of attacks until new Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard spoke out on January 27. Responding to Stéphane Dion's statement the previous day, Bouchard said, "In Quebec we are a people, we are a nation, and as a nation we have a fundamental right to keep, maintain and protect our territory."
Bouchard was sworn in as Quebec's 27th premier on January 29. He replaced Jacques Parizeau who resigned after a referendum night comment blaming the narrow loss of sovereignty backers on "money and the ethnic vote." Bouchard disavowed the remark.
"Canada is divisible," Bouchard said, "because it is not a real country. There are two people, two nations, and two territories, and this one is ours."
Bouchard claimed that all three main political parties in Quebec - his own Parti Quebecois, the sovereignist Democratic Action, and the anti-independence Liberal Party - were united in upholding the territorial integrity of the province. But Liberal Party leader Daniel Johnson replied the following day that his support for territorial integrity applied only insofar as Quebec remained within Canada. "Once there is a vote for secession," he said, "no one can guarantee anything as to borders, citizenship, or currency. It would be a complete adventure."
Bouchard recently resigned as leader of the prosovereignty Bloc Quebecois delegation in the Canadian parliament to become leader of the governing Parti Quebecois. He has declared that in his new capacity as Quebec's prime minister he will prioritize government spending cuts by as much as Can$1 billion (Can$1= US$0.72) through austerity measures that will affect social programs, as has been the case in other Canadian provinces. Bouchard said he will not call another vote on sovereignty until he can carry through some of his economic program.
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