December 5, 1997


Jacques Parizeau continues Quebec's march towards independence

Students challenge former premier about his reasons for breaking up the country

Folio Staff

"What I have to say is difficult and controversial. But it's better said than left unsaid." That's how former Quebec premier and leader of the Parti Quebecois, Jacques Parizeau, began his speech at the Myer Horowitz theatre November 25.

Looking like the consummate professor, with his dark grey suit, and glasses perched on his nose, Parizeau launched into a long history of French-Canadian grievances and Quebec's "march towards sovereignty," an allusion to warfare he makes throughout his speech. It was not a sold-out audience but it was a captive one, one which greeted him with respectful applause, and later, passionate discussion from all hyphenated Canadians: English, French and everything else.

Parizeau took us back in history to the roots of Quebec nationalism, to the days when Montreal was the booming metropolis of a newly-confederated Canada, run by English-Canadian families. French-Canada had no part in the decision making. The good years continued until the Depression of the 30s. With an unemployment rate of about 30 per cent in Montreal, French-Canadians did not revolt, said Parizeau. Instead, the tough times bred insecurity, fear and submission, which were not cast off until the days of the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s.

This was a time all provinces were pressing Ottawa for additional powers, powers the government was reluctant to give up, said Parizeau. At the same time, rumblings of sovereignty association, equality or independence began to arise. "Federalists began to take notice. The trench war was starting."

Parizeau says the federalist strategy has been to add fear of the unknown to economic uncertainty in a sovereign Quebec. He proceeds to knock off their arguments: An end to all transfer payments? Ottawa has been cutting payments anyway. Abolition of the milk quotas Quebec farmers need so desperately? They're already disappearing. Capital fleeing out of the province? Well, it's been happening for 30 years. NAFTA will not apply to a sovereign Quebec? We'll renegotiate with the trading partners. "Independence does not make one intelligent but it does not make one stupid either," said Parizeau. "Commercial integration leads to political integration in some cases, or political disintegration in the old order." As a result, English-Canadians should not be surprised Quebec francophones feel confident enough to go it alone with fully entrenched borders and use of Canadian currency. "And why not?" asked Parizeau. Quebec is a co-owner of the Canadian dollar. As a sovereign country, the Canadian constitution no longer applies, only international law, argued Parizeau, which fully protects Quebec's borders.

Thus, the issue of Quebec sovereignty is a matter of when, not if. And the Calgary declaration, which refers to Quebec society as "unique" as opposed to distinct, isn't going to change anything after the failure of Meech Lake. "English-Canada's refusal to accept the Meech Lake accord was most bizarre," said Parizeau, "despite assurances from constitutional lawyers it did not have any legal repercussions. It's enough to make one speechless, but for a politician that's not an option," said Parizeau to laughter.

Then came the question-and-answer period, the most animated part of the evening. A fifth-generation francophone demanded, in French and to applause, why she has no say in trying to keep her country together. Unruffled, Parizeau replied the Quebecois have always been a people, despite lack of recognition in the 1982 Constitution. As a result, it is for the Quebecois to decide their future.

But why should Canadians consider Quebecois special, when there are so many other large ethnic groups who have contributed to the growth of this country, asked another student. "You're quite right," said Parizeau. But this argument in no way diminishes the Quebecois quest for sovereignty. "We're not saying we're the best. Just different, that's all."

Different, certainly from Quebecois Jews, Italians and Greeks who worked within their respective congresses for the federalist side in Quebec. In a media conference prior to his lecture, Parizeau stood by his remarks referendum night, that sovereigntists lost to "money and the ethnic vote." In response to a reporter's question, Parizeau fingered these three groups. Parizeau argued his comments are based on "statistical facts."

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