Closeup/The Unity Debate

A nation most divided

Consciousness is being raised. Hopes are not

Angela Ferrante December 12 1977
Closeup/The Unity Debate

A nation most divided

Consciousness is being raised. Hopes are not

Angela Ferrante December 12 1977

A nation most divided

Closeup/The Unity Debate

Consciousness is being raised. Hopes are not

Angela Ferrante

Among politicians and bureaucrats, JeanLuc Pépin is usually recognizable as the cherub wearing the moustache. He’s sometimes dubbed “Smiley” in Quebec’s separatist circles. But this particular morning the co-chairman of the Task Force on Canadian Unity is visibly grumpy. He starts off by apologizing for the luxury of his suite in Quebec City’s Auberge des Gouverneurs. He didn’t choose it, he says. Then he doesn’t even mention that the previous night a largely federalist crowd of Quebeckers ended the task force’s first public meeting in the province with a strong O Canada. (The separatists, having nothing to prove, simply stayed home.) Instead, he regrets the buffoonery of a couple of “not exactly witted people” who had monopolized the microphones.

The task force, which has become, almost by default, a definitive key in the search for Canadian unity, is now halfway

through its five-month trek across Canada listening to the same old gripes, to find that elusive “new federalism.” But already Pépin, the eternal optimist who takes on causes with the indiscriminate zeal of a Don Quixote, is anything but optimistic. The day spent in Quebec City listening to federalist academics and inconclusively trading definitions with Premier René Lévesque just seems to have brought home the “ridiculous contrasts,” as Pépin puts it. So this morning he is impatient, because— as always—the image of anglo and francophone Canada is out of sync. The francophones, as usual, well ahead in knowing what they want. The anglos, well behind,

still hoping the problem will go away. “They [the anglos] keep saying if only the francophones would have common sense like us, then we would all get along,” grumbles Pépin. “There are always those great contradictions. It makes me sad.”

Pépin (co-chairman along with former Ontario premier John Robarts) would like this to be the Year of Definition, or perhaps the Year of Decision. Instead, as the commissioners harvest complaints of isolation in Newfoundland, unemployment in Halifax, lack of Western political clout, it becomes increasingly clear that this has been little more than a year of massive national consciousness-raising. Even worse, they are faced with the same basic prejudices that so shocked the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism on a similar expedition 13 years ago. And the task force itself is the best example of the diversity of opinions and the blind groping for consensus that they are finding throughout the land.

Drawn from across the country, the eight commissioners* are trying to find the “third option”—an undefined “something” between the status quo and Lé-

* The task force members also include: Richard Cashin, head of the Newfoundland Fishermen’s Union; John Evans, president of the University of Toronto; Muriel Kovitz, chancellor of the University of Calgary; Ross Marks, mayor of Hundred Mile House, BC; Gerald Beaudoin, Dean of Civil Law, University of Ottawa; Solange Chaput - Rolland, journalist, broadcaster. Montreal.

vesque’s alluring notion of sovereignty-association. Not surprisingly, they openly disagree on its meaning. For Western members such as Muriel Kovitz, chancellor of the University of Calgary, daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, it’s a step forward just to get people to accept the existence of “two founding nations.” For French-Canadian members, such as Quebec journalist and broadcaster Solange Chaput-Rolland, that is not even in question anymore. There can be nothing short of total equality—“one body and two arms.” Said Lévesque after meeting with them: “Their act is a little confused.” And even Pépin readily admits: “We’ll agree on the recommendations but not on the specifics ... I don’t know.” A task force worker put it more succinctly: “I can see a lot of blood on the floor at the end of this. But as long as the message gets through, who cares?”

The message that does come through in the endless briefs and occasional spontaneous outbursts is that Canadians probably are more ready for change than the politicians who represent them. It is slowly sinking in that while there are no readymade solutions, an evolution of awareness is taking place. What was considered inconceivable when the Parti Québécois won power is now becoming a possible option. Two nations? Five regions? Decentralized federation? Representative Senate? All proposals have their followers. The one option that gets little support is leaving things just as they are. And the task force itself, initially accused of being an arm of = the federal government, or worse a second S rate rerun of the B and B commission, is * stumbling toward credibility. Still, the img possibility of taking what Canadians say they want and converting the words into workable suggestions—a task comparable to passing Noah’s Ark through the eye of a needle—was underscored at the recent hearings in Toronto. There, where the task force might have expected to find the strongest “centrist” feeling, or at least a greater readiness to compromise to save the country, an impossible schedule of briefs was crammed into two days of hearings. The Committee for a New Constitution simply walked out saying it was ludicrous to expect a serious discussion of the future of Canada in the 15 minutes allotted to them.

As predictable as it might seem, one of the task force’s main contributions will be to keep rediscovering for Canadians the remarkable regional differences that make conventional unity impossible. On recent trips to Calgary and Quebec City, task force hearings were like stereotypical scenes from a tale of two solitudes. They adopted each other as “sister cities” in 1956. At Stampede time, Bonhomme makes a visit. White Stetsons appear at Carnaval. But that’s where the links are cut off and the contrasts begin. It was only every now and then that amid the cacophony of voices, the pearls of wisdom

clinked as they found each other.

Calgary: it gobbles up foothills for breakfast. It grows by 1,500 new people each month (a lot of them recently from Quebec). It looks every day more and more like Manhattan on oil. Only 20% of the people who live here were born here. There is still the whiff of pioneer, of having fought the elements, of huddling under a multicultural quilt against the cold, an impatience with anybody who doesn’t work hard enough. (Said Mrs. Jane Ferguson, a farmer’s wife, after a trembling speech to the task force: “We’ve been a hardworking part of Canada. We’re not a lot of complainers. It doesn’t mean we don’t love our country. In Quebec, there is just this continual bitchiness.”)

Here, the task force could expect to find the richest, most self-assured part of Canada. But there were few red necks showing at the hearing. The resentment against central Canada was quietly packaged, “deliberately muted” as one participant put it. But at home, away from the scrutiny of the Pépin-Robarts team, the anglo reserve gives way to anger.

The family of Chris Mills is typical. A quiet, bespectacled Englishman who came to the West 10 years ago, he is now head of the Western Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. He told the commission cattlemen weren’t prepared to make “major concessions” to keep Quebec in Confederation. “The onus is almost entirely on Quebec to take us as we are or leave us.” At home, in a brown bungalow south of Calgary where a picture window frames an expanse of snowy hills, Mills was even more blunt. His family had left England to get away from the rigidities of class, nationalism and culture. It still boggles Mills that even though he doesn’t wear Stetsons or cowboy boots the cattlemen chose him as their representative. “It’s the only country in the world where that could happen.” As a new Canadian (25% of Albertans are), he would feel just as Canadian with or without Quebec. He and his wife learned to speak French at school in England. Their daughter is taking French correspondence courses. But neither of them wants to pay the price for bilingual road signs. A unilingual French Quebec would be perfectly acceptable in return for a unilingual English Canada. Lévesque has given Quebec a challenge. “He asked them what they were prepared to give up to be Québécois. Nobody has ever challenged Canada in quite the same way.” The price for Anglo-Canadian unity, he says, may be Quebec separation. “Then anglophones could say, this is what we consider ourselves to be. This is what we are willing to give up.”

Thirty-year-old Gérard Bissonnette has given each of his three small children a French name. It’s one small way of remaining French Canadian in a brand new Calgary suburb. A teacher in one of the 11 Calgary schools offering bilingual courses, Bissonnette grew up in a small French community in Saskatchewan where Eng-

lish was merely the second language. He didn’t even speak English until he started school. Now the area is so assimilated that his seven-year-old brother (the youngest in a family of 10) has trouble with French. A bilingual course has been started in the local school to help stop the process. But there is no rancor, no expectation, no demands for language rights. Married to an Anglo, Bissonnette speaks English at home, and says readily it would be “presumptuous” to expect government service in French locally. Quite simply, he says, “I don’t know what a French Canadian is. Probably it’s different from what a Québécois thinks. I’m third generation. Maybe I no longer have the characteristics of the Québécois. Maybe I’ve been around Anglos and I’ve lost it.”

A tiny basement apartment in a senior citizens’ home is the headquarters of one of Calgary’s 175 ethnic associations—La Société Franco-Canadienne de Calgary. It has the only French bookstore and library in town. In the last census, out of 5,305 Calgarians whose mother tongue was French, only 1,605 actually used the language. In the past few years, more and more Quebeckers have been arriving. You can hear them in the taverns. They come, sometimes knowing not a word of English, sometimes without a penny, looking for jobs the way Albertans once went to Quebec. If Quebec separated, these francophones wouldn’t expect Canada to continue supporting bilingualism. “They will strangle us quietly,” said Françoise Brigliadori, a 32-year-old mother of two, “without a drop of blood.”

Though they are outnumbered, they retain a strong sense of identity. Maxine Jean-Fouis, 24, a transplanted black from Haiti, speaking French in the heart of Anglo Canada, captured the contrast in words: “If you had two people with a good idea of who they are, then you could have a discussion. But if one has a good idea and the other is searching everywhere for anything to define himself, then it’s just frustrating. Quebec has a collective essence. Anglo Canada doesn’t.”

The day after the task force left Calgary, its new mayor, Ross Alger, could say with all the cultural assurance of a member of the majority: “Separatism is very remote. We are very busy doing our thing. We go south to Disneyland. We go north to Alaska. We never run out of English.”

Quebec City Canada’s oldest city, despite the new hotels that ring its walls, still stands like an ancient sentinel on the cliffs overlooking the St. Fawrence River. Here, the task force visits the most politically conscious part of Canada, a people forced to become aware because of the need to protect themselves in the federal system. The city has flourished in the past 20 years along with an expanding provincial government. The number of government employees has doubled. Its unemployment rate is 9.0% compared to Calgary’s 5.6%, but that’s not bad by Quebec standards. Government growth, after all, is probably a more predictable foundation for expansion than oil. Its new mayor, Jean Pelletier,

knows that the average citizen with a car in the garage doesn’t like to have to lose it—a penalty that separation could exact. But he also knows that Quebeckers have held on to their culture only by “jealously guarding it. It cannot be the same Canada today,” he said on the eve of the hearings. “This mouvement is irreversible. There is an evolution. The more time passes, the more things find their place.”

Thirty-five-year-old Fionel Belanger, a worker with the Caisse Populaire de Québec, is the kind of person whom both sides in the referendum fight will be courting. So far he has not made up his mind how he will vote. But he is “reflecting.” He has a lifetime to reflect on.

As a boy, he was never really proud of being Canadian. He was envious of U.S. national pride. In the 1960s, he was a community worker and watched all the strings being pulled in Ottawa. The 1970 October Crisis showed him Quebec politicians were weak and the federal government didn’t trust Quebec institutions. He has twice voted for the PQ, not for their stance on independence but because he wanted another kind of government. For the past four or five years, he has felt progressively more “Québécois.” He doesn’t know for sure how this can be expressed in institutional terms. He only knows “Quebec has something special, and something has to be done to recognize all that is different in k.” He isn’t sure what sacrifice he and his family, now living in a new bungalow in Quebec’s South Shore, are willing to make. But they talk with friends all the time. “I want to follow the situation because I have to make a decision,” he says. But his wife, Carmelle, says so many things are changing at once—the church, the schools, the rural life. “Are the people ready for it?” Belanger asks. “That’s what I always ask myself.”

The night the task force held its televised, much-advertised public meeting in the working-class district of Fimoilou, Belanger went. The hall was packed with Quebec-Canada Movement supporters, a pro-federalist group that claims a membership of 100,000. He had a few good laughs. At the old man who described Canada’s options in terms of beds. A double bed. Twin beds in one room, in two separate rooms, in two separate houses. He laughed at the man who stubbornly kept reading his text long after his microphone had been shut off. He felt nothing in common with all the protestations of love of country from the federalists.

When one task force member after another spoke of the warmth and understanding they were bringing from one part of the country to the other, he decided to leave. He had come to add to the unity debate, but suddenly found the event irrelevant. “I couldn’t believe that the people on the task force could just sit there and not see," he said as he left. “There were people who had things to say. But they were not there.”