National perspective: Chretien rolls the constitutional dice
By Michael D. Behiels
The first week of December 1997 will be looked back upon as Prime Minister lean Chretien's "virage" in the war against the Quebec secessionists. Until then, Stephane Dion, his professorial constitu-tional side-quick, sowed paranoia in the ranks of the secessionists by smiting them with his brilliant articles denouncing the illegality of a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) while promoting the sound principle of the divisibility of Quebec. The separatists were on the defensive for the first time in years.
Demonstrating, yet again, his shallow political judgement, Chretien granted the secessionists an enormous gift. He and Dion unceremoniously pulled the rug from under Canadian "loyalists" determined to remain in Canada by seceding from Quebec. Dion stated, "A Quebec citizen who wants to remain Canadian that in the case of secession negotiations he will be able to stay in Canada!' The PM announced that Ottawa was ready to negotiate the breakup of Canada once a majority of Quebecers indicated they no longer wanted to be part of the country. Canada's territorial integrity is negotiable but not that of Quebec, since dividing the latter, according to Dion's double standard, would not be "workable" or "desirable."
Clearly, Ottawa does not want a Northern Ireland situation on its hands. Dion gave notice that Canadian citizens choosing to remain in Quebec would have to abandon their Canadian citizenship. A form of preordained "ethnic cleansing" is being condoned so as to avoid "the use of force" in any eventual secession that both Chretien and Lucien Bouchard now agree must entail a velvet revolution.
The hapless Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson now must defeat Bouchard in the next election. The PM is convinced that the Supreme Court will rule a UDI illegal, thus depriving the Bouchard government of its "knife-to-the-throat" blackmail threat. Yet this has a downside. Polls show Dion's statements favouring partition combined with the threat of the Supreme Court ruling are driving Quebecois nationalists into the secessionist camp. In a clumsy attempt at appeasement, Chretien abandoned support for Canadian "loyalists" in Quebec and the principle that Quebec, like Canada, is divisible.
There are serious flaws in Chretien's gamble to get Johnson's party elected. Even with a massive intervention of federal Liberals in the provincial election – which would incite a tremendous backlash -all recent polls indicate that the pedestrian Johnson will not defeat the charismatic Bouchard. Indeed, Ottawa's decision to abandon the Canadian "loyalists" will cost Johnson several seats. Once Bouchard is back in the saddle, Chretien's "unconstitutional" promise to negotiate the breakup of Canada will entice thousands of Quebecois nationalistes to vote "YES" in the next referendum. A disingenuous and fool-hardy Chretien fails to tell Quebecers that negotiating the breakup of Canada requires the participation of Parliament, all nine of the other provincial legislatures, and the Canadian people in a referendum. His unilateral promise is unconstitutional and politically dangerous.
The Chretien government's constitutional agenda is baffling. He cajoled Parliament into passing a resolution recognizing Quebec as a distinct society and a bill stating Canada's Constitution would only be amended using a formula based on five regions. The Calgary Declaration made them.
Apart from Bouchard, the only other political leader dancing for joy is Preston Manning. With the Calgary Dedaration and its latest "virage," the Chretien government has adopted the central principles of the Reform Party's constitutional reform package. Indeed, Canadians may well prefer to have Manning negotiate the breakup of Canada on their behalf.