Élections 2003

Landry slips fast one by the party

Élections 2003


The devil, they say, is in the details. And in the Parti Québécois election platform, they were cleverly hidden behind a mirage. Unknown to most party members who were not given the time to read through the platform, let alone debate it, they voted unanimously to adopt a major new virage they hadn't seen, buried near the end of the 100-page document.
Sovereignty-partnership, the centrepiece of the party's doctrine since 1995, was replaced by a proposal for a confederal union with Canada. Bernard Landry, who had promoted the idea for years before he became premier, avoided mentioning the words "confederal union" in his morning speech. And that's how the PQ's most fundamental objective was changed without making a sound.
While Lucien Bouchard's own partnership virage had been amply debated in 1995 by the PQ, the Bloc Québécois and the Action démocratique du Québec before all three parties adopted it, Landry's confederal union appeared without any discussion - either among PQ or Bloc members. It was imposed in the middle of what has become the most controlled election campaign in the history of the PQ, both in terms of the leader's image and the campaign's content.
This also occurred while Jacques Parizeau was conveniently away in Europe. As victory nears, the party hierarchy was convinced that the members and candidates, along with the former PQ premier who still commands a strong following, would have no choice but to abstain from criticizing Landry's idea. Chances are they were right, at least until election day. The morning after, however, could be another story.
But what exactly is a confederal union? According to Landry: "a European-style confederal union doesn't exactly mean Europe, and it doesn't exactly mean a confederation." If that sounds ambiguous, it might have to do with the premier's increasingly hesitant position on sovereignty.
No sooner had he imposed the idea of a confederal union, than he invited federalists to vote for the PQ. He acknowledged for the first time that there could be a third PQ mandate without a referendum and stated that he "abhors" the word separatist. Then came the icing on the cake. While saying that Jacques Parizeau advises him on sovereignty, he invoked Robert Bourassa - the prince of ambiguity whom a former adviser to Bouchard and Parizeau dubbed a "trickster" and a "shipwrecker" - as his true inspiration.
So the prevailing spin is that all these statements are nothing but a brilliant ploy to lure unsuspecting soft federalists over to the PQ to hand Landry a huge electoral victory. Once the lobsters are gently boiling in the pot - nudge, nudge, wink, wink - the premier will ditch his confederal union. The spin comforts sovereignists, believing that their leader can play those gullible soft federalists like a violin.
Sorry. The premier really does believe in a confederal union, a sort of quiet sovereignty without completely leaving Canada. Two weeks ago, in an interview with Le Devoir - without saying he would ever include it in the PQ platform - he referred to it as a union "within" Canada, which he called the "Canadian union." Hardly a Freudian slip. He sees the model of the European Union as the way of the future. The hitch is that Canada is not Europe. It's a country where a vast majority of citizens strongly believe in its unity. It's also not a continent that is made up of many long-time independent states that willingly delegate some of their sovereignty to a larger union.
After four decades of failed attempts at remodelling Canada to meet Quebecers' aspirations, the concept of a confederal union is a major step backward. It fosters confusion with those Quebecers who grew up referring to Canada as "la Confédération." And it hinders the strengthening of a sovereignist political culture that must define itself outside of Canada. Besides, it's likely that very few Canadians in the rest of Canada would see the need to support it.
Landry responds that the 1998 Supreme Court reference on secession imposes on the rest of Canada an obligation to negotiate. But that only refers to the terms of secession or to a new arrangement within the current constitution. When questioned further, he shot back that Quebec has to be part of a confederation because New Brunswick can't be separated from Ontario by another country. With that logic, Canada should also be part of a confederation with the U.S. so as not to separate it from Alaska.
Yet, Landry truly believes that such a confederation is possible. Just as he's honestly convinced that he can't hold a referendum if there is what he calls the "slightest risk of losing it," an observation that most people consider to be sensible and prudent.
But reality tells us there is no such guarantee of victory. If there were, that would mean any campaign would have very little, if any, effect on the voters. But the 1995 campaign showed that it can, and quite a bit. Who says the next time, the Yes side couldn't start the campaign with more than 50 per cent in support and still end up with less than 50 per cent after five weeks of campaigning, or vice-versa?
There is no certainty of winning, only the will to try. So why not go straight for sovereignty and leave the mirage of a confederal union to the history books, where it already lies?


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