Lisée’s In the Eye of the Eagle

Lisée’s In the Eye of the Eagle,

The opinions of historian Ramsay Cook and columnist Lise Bissonnette


Washington’s hawk’s-eye view of Quebec
By Ramsay Cook
The Toronto Star, Dec 15, 1990

Since the 1960s, when nationalism in Quebec began to challenge the stability of our once placid federation, foreigners have taken an increasing, and not always friendly, interest in Canadian affairs. Both France and the Soviet Union believed that the breakup of Canada would have an important impact on the United States : France thought the United States would be weakened; the Soviet Union concluded the opposite, since a fragmented Canada would eventually join its southern neighbor. One way or another, then, the United States obviously had an important stake in the future of Canada.

That is the subject of Jean-François Lisée’s engrossing study of the role of the U.S. government in the continuing debate over Quebec’s place in Canada. It is a first-class study based on this resourceful reporter’s persistent and intelligent use of the American Freedom of Information laws. During the ‘80s, as a Quebec correspondent in Washington for La Presse and L’actualité, he gained access to State Department, CIA, National Security and FBI files, among others. To these he has added some confidential materials found in Ottawa and Quebec City and a number of revealing interviews. And what discoveries did he make ?

His first revelation is not enormously surprising : Throughout these years the United States consistently preferred the preservation of the Canadian federal union. Some administrations – Jimmy Carter – supported this option more enthusiastically than others – Ronald Reagan – but all adopted the same line. Canadian nationalists will be surprised, perhaps even disappointed, to learn that no serious American policy-maker believed that annexation of the fragments of Canada was a desirable goal for the United States to pursue. During the critical years between the election of the PQ in 1976 and the 1980 referendum, the United States, led by ambassador Thomas Enders and president Carter, worked diligently to ensure that the federal government’s case obtained a more sympathetic hearing in the United States than the one advanced buy the Levesque government. (…)

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Lisées’s extremely valuable book is the story he tells about the efforts of both Ottawa and Quebec city, especially after 1976, to win the favor of Washington. Ottawa had all of the advantages – an established diplomatic channel and the natural tendency of the U.S. to favor stability. Quebec, on the other hand, had to work feverishly – and at great expense – to establish its own, unofficial, diplomatic channels, and to wind friends and influence people in the world of journalism and the universities. « Operation Amérique, » as it was somewhat grandiosely called, was a remarkable success. (…)

That brings me to the most striking feature of Lisée’s outstanding study. The intelligence gathering apparatus of the U.S. in Canada during these years was superb. And so was the ability of American officials to analyze the material collected. Foreign service officers like Rufus Smith, Thomas Enders and William Vine, to name only the most important, were men of exceptional ability. Most of them could speak French; they grasped issues quickly, analyzed problems realistically and produced policy papers of high calibre – one of which is reproduced in Lisée’s book. These diplomats and their superiors had a far more sophisticated understanding of the power struggle between Ottawa and Quebec than most Canadians including, one strongly suspects, politicians, public servants and journalists.

In the Eye of The Eagle is an extremely valuable book. It makes plain once and for all that the fault is in ourselves, not in our neighbors. It was originally written in stylish, readable French. The English version almost always equals the original – and its three translators should have been given a better billing than they have received.

Renowned Canadian historian Ramsay Cook is author, among others, of « Canada, Quebec and the uses of Nationalism » and editor of the « Dictionary of Canadian Biography ».


Washington only plays dumb about Canada
By Lise Bissonnette
The Globe and Mail, April 21, 1990

Much as it did during the referendum era, the U.S. press is glancing at Canada’s forever quarrels with Quebec. No sign, this time around, of the hysteria about « a Cuba of the North ».

Most pundits have taken their cue from financial analysts who recognize a capitalist when they see one. As long as entrepreneurs are leaders in the « distinct society », it is not predicted that the break-up of Canada, though undesirable, would create havoc. Little did they notice, but that has been the official thinking in Washington for 20 years and more.

That Washington has long thought an independent Quebec would be both viable and rather conservative is vastly documented in Dans l’oeil de l’aigle (In the Eye of the Eagle, published by Boréal), one of the best journalists’ books ever published in Quebec, where scribes rarely turn into authors.

Jean-François Lisée, a former corespondent in the U.S. capital, has opened up a gold mine on the Quebec-U.S. connection, one that will also delight students of Canada-U.S. relations.

His conclusion – almost boring if the book were not full of exciting political stories and excerpts of recently declassified documents – is that U.S. presidents and other dignitaries meant exactly what they said about Quebec separatism: they preferred « a strong and united Canada, » but would « leave it for the Canadians to decide. » And there was real calm under that apparent calmness.

Mr Lisée’s book will not feed the paranoia of the Canadian and Quebec left, suspecting Uncle Sam of dirty tricks. Almost a one-man commission of inquiry, he consulted hundreds of previously secret documents (The U.S. Freedom of Information Act has again proved a godsend). And no, he found no trace of Central Intelligence Agency engineering in the 1970 October crisis. Or of U.S. pushing of the independentist cause in order to swallow Canada in bits and pieces. Or of Washington-Ottawa collusion to spy on the Parti québécois, although Pierre Trudeau’s calculated coziness with the White House from 1976 to 1980 is nicely established. True, the National Security Agency listened in on Mr Lévesque and remained mute about it; but this is about the only piece of disturbing news (or is it news?) on the cloak-and-dagger front.

Central to Mr Lisée’s discoveries are the numerous well-informed analyses produced by a string of diplomats, State Department officials and other professionals who outdistanced most public comment with their clear and exact views on the issue. Absolutely striking is a 1977 State Department document on the « Quebec situation, » carefully outlining possible scenarios. All the sore points of the Meech Lake constitutional debates are there: the devolution of powers to all provinces, a special status for Quebec, the angry reactions in the rest of Canada that could in turn rekindle the sovereigntist fervor in Quebec.

From then on the U.S. position was firm: the status quo was vastly preferable to nay other option, but a settlement on the basis of a special status for Quebec would, in any case, be better than a devolution weakening the stable country to the north.

If Washington never card to give a helping hand to the No forces in 1980, it was because the need was never felt. Reports from its diplomats in Canada rarely, if ever, raised seriously the possibility of a victory for the Yes side. Official « neutrality » was thus easily achieved.

The péquistes liked to think, and they still do, that they were good at warding off U.S. intervention, and it is a minor flaw in his book that Mr Lisée fives them more credit thant they deserve. Quebec’s U.S. strategy was dismal, a megalomaniacal plan with no resources, and it was conducted by a handful of inexperienced people, while the only real « diplomats » available were posted in France. A decade later, rosy recollections were obviously more easy to come by in Quebec City than documentary evidence as provided by the United States.

Larger perspectives also come out of this book. True, Québec was only a footnote in the briefing books of the U.S. presidency. But there are footnotes of lasting interest. John Kennedy, for example, is portrayed here as a benign sympathizer of an independent Quebec. Charles de Gaulle might have played a card against the Americans in 1967, with his famous « Vive le Québec libre! »

And the most important lesson of all: Don’t think that Washington is stupid or ignorant about Canada. With the help of the U.S. press, it only pretends to be.

Lise Bissonnette became director of Montreal’s influential daily Le Devoir from 1990 to 1998. She now presides over the creation of the Grande bibliothèque du Québec, in downtown Montréal.