Emergency Exit – How to avert Quebec’s decline

(Sortie de Secours)

How to avert Quebec’s decline

tels que publés dans The Gazette en février 2000

Jean-François Lisée



The end is near:
It is right behind us

Where exactly are we? Stuck, from all appearances. We’re at the end of the road, in more ways than one. And before we start to plan the future, to desire or fear what is to come, we have to mourn what is no longer, to admit that several of Quebec’s drawn-out political dramas of the past decades are over. The last reel has been shown, the last frame, too; the words ‘The End’ have flashed across the screen. At the same time as the century drew to a close, several major historical cycles in Quebec also came to a conclusion. And that changes everything.

The cycle that started in 1960 with the Quiet Revolution ended. Over 40 years, it imprinted its energy on Quebec, on its economy, its cultural activity, its political institutions, on its openness to the world, an energy which has transformed modern Québec into a society that compares favourably with the most productive Western countries.

The cycle which started in 1966 with the splitting apart of a political generation also came to an end. Until 1966, that generation had been united as anti-Duplessis and pro-modernity. But from that point it was a generation divided over which was the better way to defend and promote the interests of the « French-Canadian nation. » Some, from Jean Lesage to Lucien Bouchard, wanted to bolster the autonomy of the only American state controlled by a majority of francophones – up to giving that state partial or complete sovereignty. Others, around Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, wanted to modernize and strengthen the Canadian state, with the goal of establishing French Power so that it could then exert its influence and power beyond the confines of Quebec.

Thirty-three years later, the Ottawa francophones have largely defeated the Quebec francophones, having succeeded in concentrating within the federal state judicial, constitutional, legislative, administrative, and now budgetary, power that makes the federal government the predominant actor in the country’s political life. Quebec’s autonomy has already started to wither: a state condemned to be ever more defensive and gradually more accustomed to powerlessness. The proponents of French Power have won a Phyrric victory, however, because the new Canadian super-state, outside the confines of official bilingualism, presides over a Canada that is less French than at the time of the arrival of Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Chrétien. Less than yesterday, but more than tomorrow. The rate of assimilation of francophones outside Quebec and their demographic and linguistic decline inside Quebec presage a country that in 2050 will be 85 per cent anglophone. Quebeckers, controlling fewer levers of power in their own province and watching as their demographic weight falls in the central state, are quickly losing power.

The third cycle now closed is a sovereignty cycle. The chain of events leading to the possibility of sovereignty was opened by the 1980 referendum, that lead to the patriation of the constitution against Quebec’s wishes in 1982, which itself lead to the attempt of reconciliation of Meech. The failure of Meech, in 1990, created a surge of separatist sentiment that, for almost a decade, made sovereignty a real possibility, and almost made it happen in the 1995 referendum. But the Meech tide has now completely receded. Quebeckers’ fear of failing a new attempt at sovereignty obliterates the impact of each and every « winning condition ». In Ottawa, a new law undemocratically blocks the only theoretically possible point of passage toward a Quebec independent state. ( . . .)


From the chapter: The other French power

I have a predilection for the benefit of the doubt. I don’t view good intentions as suspect. I nonetheless am convinced that the roads to some hells are particularly well paved with them. That is why I have always found too simplistic the thesis which holds that Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien were motivated by a desire to harm Quebec and, by extension, Quebeckers. It’s a case of taking effect for cause. The Quebec drama, like a good Tennessee Williams play, centres on a family quarrel that builds up over the course of the drama until finally it collapses in a surfeit of emotion.

It’s a well-known story: Quebec’s progressive francophones, united in their hatred of Quebec’s autocratic premier Maurice Duplessis and sharing the same thirst for openness, modernization and democratization, took two divergent paths at the beginning of the 1960s. The liberals of Quebec and the Péquistes directed their energy toward Quebec and the Quebec state, wanting to give the one place on the continent where French-speakers were in the majority the means for its economic, cultural and social flowering and for its linguistic survival.

Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, if one takes their declarations and respective autobiographies at face value, were inspired by the same desire to remedy the inequality from which francophones suffer. In one sense, they took a larger view than their Quebecois counterparts. Not satisfied with giving power to Quebec’s francophones, they also intend to help them conquer the whole of Canada, both for themselves and for francophones outside Quebec. There is in this quest the desire to retake possession and control of Canada. « It was French Canadians, » writes for example Chrétien, « people from my own area, such as Radisson, des Groseilliers and La Vérendrye who discovered and explored the west. So the whole country belongs as much to us as to any other Canadian. »

Trudeau writes in his political memoir that « it was an emergency situation in the domain of language and the idea of rectifying it played an important role in our decision to enter politics. » At the time, he added, « the federal authorities showed complete contempt for the language spoken by a third of the Canadian people. » He himself had experienced that contempt as a civil servant with the Privy Council in 1949. And when he talked about a francophone civil servant having to write memos in English that were going to be sent to francophone colleagues, one felt he was speaking from experience.

« If I came to the conclusion that we could not manage to create a bilingual country, in one form or another, » said Trudeau in an interview with the Toronto Star in 1969, « I would have no reason to work in Ottawa (. . .) What binds me to this country is the conviction that the French language can be protected by certain rights. »

That is why from the moment he came to power, he added, « I intended to assert the Quebec fact and the French fact at the heart of the central government. » In fact, the speed with which Trudeau, elected prime minister in 1968, wrote and tabled the Official Languages Act, which would open federal institutions to francophones, was proof of the high priority he gave this « emergency. »

The Official Languages Act was in a way the fundamental battle of the Trudeauites. When Trudeau introduced the legislation in 1968, it sparked a concert of recriminations in English Canada which bordered on racism. It is hard to imagine in the Quebec of 2000 the difficulty involved in introducing such a piece of legislation. Because if the federal authorities felt contempt towards francophones, it was simply a reflection of what the electorate felt. Trudeau admitted he was surprised at the depth of the resentment he stirred up. In the 1972 election, which followed the enactment of the Official Languages Act, Trudeau and his party nearly lost power. They were reduced to a minority government. The Liberal Party’s loss of influence in the West was largely attributed to the hostility stirred up by the Official Languages Act, which was viewed as a Trojan horse that would force French on the whole country.

Despite the rebuke the near-defeat represented, Trudeau did not give up. He and Jean Chrétien kept battling to enshrine linguistic rights in the Canadian constitution, in 1982, so that no future government could ever undo their achievement.

(. . .)

With the perspective of time, the Toronto historian Michael Bliss weighed in October, 1999, the impact of Trudeau’s presence in Ottawa: « Would another prime minister have given Canada the Official Languages Act of 1969? Unlikely. Would another prime minister have been as forceful in crushing terrorism in the 1970 October Crisis? Very doubtful. Would another prime minister have fought through constitutional patriation with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1981-82? Almost inconceivable. Pierre Trudeau was the father of entrenched bilingualism, a hard line on Quebec separatism and rights-based constitutional reform. »

(. . .)

As the last chapter of the century comes to a close, what Trudeau and Chrétien and all the others who followed them to Ottawa accomplished in terms of language protection has to be admired. Never, before them, in the 20th Century, had francophones throughout Canada seen their rights so openly acknowledged and so well defended. Never had they seen so many francophones occupy so many positions of power; never had they see the merits of French praised so vigorously. This state of affairs should provoke wild applause if it were not accompanied – as we shall see it was – by side effects which would prove to be disastrous for francophones, the very people it was meant to help.

(. . .)

From the chapter: A State of Apprehended Implosion

Was it a warning sign? In November, 1999, the columnist Michel Vastel noticed that after several high-ranking francophones left the federal public sector and resigned as the heads of several Crown corporations, that there were at the turn of the 21st Century in Canada no more than two deputy ministers out of 30 who were francophone and no francophones in key positions. Pierre Trudeau first, and then Brian Mulroney, had pushed hard to promote francophone civil servants into key positions. For more than a decade, francophones had occupied a disproportionate number of critical positions within the state apparatus.

Today, the anglophone majority is reasserting its rights and taking back the controls of power. The anglophone majority is not a fixed quantity. It is expanding. As of now, 85 per cent of Canada’s francophones live in Quebec, as do 90 per cent of Canadians who speak French. More importantly, we are seeing a decrease in the demographic weight of Quebec within Canada. A decrease in demographic weight leads to a decrease in electoral weight which in turn leads to a decrease in power. Accounting for one in every three Canadians at the beginning of Confederation in 1871, Quebecers up more than a quarter of the population in the last decade of the 20th Century.

In other words, when at the beginning of the federation a decision had to be made among Canadians, in theory at least, of three people making the decision, one of them was a Quebecer. Today, Quebecers account for fewer than one in four Canadians. In 1999, several organizations studied the question of Quebec and Canadian demographic trends: Statistics Canada, the Institut de la statistique du Québec and the head actuary of the Canadian pension board all confirmed that the tendency towards Quebec’s demographic decline within Canada was not only going to be maintained but would accelerate. The drop in Quebec’s birth rate and the small number of Canadian or foreign immigrants who come to live in Quebec mean that soon Quebec will no longer have the demographic weight to hold its own within Canada. In February, 1999, the Institut de la statistique du Québec revised its predictions for its intermediate demographic scenario, the scenario which is considered neither optimistic or pessimistic. According to the new calculations, Quebec’s population will stop growing in 2031 and then begin to drop in absolute figures.

Compare this estimate with the one made by the pension boards’ chief actuary on what will happen to the population of Canada over the same period and the future of Quebec looks even bleaker. Within 50 years, when Canadians go to the polls, only one voter in five will be a francophone. Beyond the 50-year time frame, predictions become less reliable. However, since federal and provincial demographic services produce them, they are shown here to demonstrate a trend: Given that we are talking about the political power of francophones within Canada, we have to take into account both the francophone minority outside Quebec and the non-francophone minority inside Quebec.

This would not be a problem for francophones if in Manitoba or Saskatchewan the French fact had blossomed, throwing down a second political base at the same time that francophones in Quebec were starting to lose theirs. But the opposite happened. Let’s put forward two highly optimistic scenarios: (1) the francophone minority outside Quebec suffers no decline in its numbers from 1996; and (2) the proportion of non-francophones within Quebec does not increase. If those assumptions prove to be accurate, the electoral weight of francophones within Canada will be in the order of 15 per cent within 50 years.

Thanks to Trudeau’s followers and to Jean Chrétien, power is now concentrated in a single place, the federal government, a place where francophones have less and less influence. The worst has happened.

From the chapter: The Sail and the Keel

Francophones of all origins should prepare themselves for disappointment. Increasingly, they are told to go to Ottawa. And often enough, they go. The federal government grants them the time and energy that their demographic and political weight entitles them to – which means less and less time and energy.

At the National Assembly, a culture of frustration has developed. What was Quebec supposed to have done when Ottawa decided in 1999 to rescind an agreement which had made Communication-Québec the sole point of entry for all requests for information on government services, both federal and provincial, and instead created a new point of entry « O Canada, » separate, more expensive, but unmistakably Canadian? What could it do? Whine, and then let the matter pass. What will Quebec be able to do, tomorrow and the day after, when Ottawa uses its surplus billions to finance directly towns and community organizations, when it imposes new priorities in cultural, economic and social spending? Whine some more, and let the matter pass.

Caught in a financial vice that has tightened over the past few years, the Quebec government scrapes by from budget to budget, while Ottawa comes in through the side door, handing out cheques. What will happen when new cross-Canada programs are introduced, such as the new federal bills on water or young offenders or personal privacy? Quebec cabinet ministers, supported by Quebeckers, will denounce the rest of Canada for its refusal to take into account Quebec’s difference, its experience in the field, its approach and style. They will protest and most of the time, it will be in vain. And what of the judicial adventure to which the French Language Charter has been subjected since it became law? What is in store for us there? A political analyst has suggested the following theory:

« One could assume that because the Supreme Court has already made a ruling that current Quebec policies are protected. But, in fact, nothing could be less settled. Decisions made by one group of judges can be reversed by their successors. The Supreme Court could decide one day that the prohibition [under the French Language Charter] against new immigrants and francophones enrolling in an English school when anglophones have the right to an English education contravenes the Charter of Rights. The court could decide to invoke article 15 of the Charter which requires that all citizens be treated equally. Such a judgment may seem unlikely today, but who knows what awaits the next generation? When a reduced francophone presence outside Quebec is coupled with Quebec’s diminished demographic weight within Canada, what then? »

Who is this pessimistic author? Professor Stéphane Dion, writing in 1992. If ever the Supreme Court ruled that English schools should be open to all – which it could decide to – the National Assembly could invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights, thereby nullifying the court’s judgment. This means Quebec would be in the position of having to suspend the equality rights of its citizens, as defined by the federal court. It becomes instantly clear what enormous pressures weigh, both from within and without, on the poor souls who serve as Quebec’s parliamentarians.

We will therefore have a government and a people summoned to plead, on an increasing number of subjects, that their differences, including their linguistic difference, be taken into account. A government and a people who are forced to justify, over and over, their distinctiveness. A people on the defensive.