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1996
The problem with Pierre
Trudeau

by Lucien Bouchard


Montreal Gazette, Feb 10, 1996

The open letter by Pierre Elliott Trudeau is a rehash of dusty old arguments. Now in 1996, it does, however, shed light on the dangerous paths his successors are attempting to take.

There will never be a single, definitive reading of the history of relations between Quebec and Canada over the past 30 years. The debate between the players and between the historians will always rage. That is normal.

It is interesting to note, however, that one of the principal players in that drama, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, considers there is only one acceptable reading of that much debated history: his own. In his open letter to me, Mr. Trudeau does not limit himself to reiterating for the umpteenth time his version of the facts. From the heights of his certitude, he decrees that there is inevitably something demagogic about the sovereignists' reading

Which puts me in rather good company. Indeed, for years Mr. Trudeau has been hounding all of Quebec's premiers with his denunciations, and his "I accuse" has a strong scent of déja vu. As well, it is seriously out of step with the current Quebec context, stirring up old quarrels just when Quebecers and their government have agreed upon quite different priorities: jobs, education and public finances.

It would be pointless then to debate the past with Mr. Trudeau if the opportunity did not also make it possible to shed light on the present and the future. Inasmuch as Mr. Trudeau's successors seem willing to follow paths marked out by him, it struck me as useful to take up some of his themes and draw some lessons from them.

Mr. Trudeau reproaches me for "preaching contempt for those Canadians who do not share my opinions."

None of the quotations he attributes to me in his article supports that accusation. I believe that the legitimate interests of the two peoples who make up Canada are contradictory and cannot be reconciled within the federal framework, as our recent history amply attests. The will of the sovereignist movement to establish a partnership between our two peoples once sovereignty has been achieved demonstrates, moreover, our desire for a politics of neighborliness and mutual respect.

Within democratic debate there is a line between the difference of opinion and contempt. A line Mr. Trudeau unfortunately crosses rather blithely in his writing, especially when dealing with those whom he calls French Canadians and who do not share his opinions.

Thus he does not hesitate to repeat, in the introduction to a text published four years ago, a phrase from his very first article for Cité Libre, in 1950, where he maintained: "As a people we are on our way to becoming a nauseating bunch of blackmailers." Updating this verdict, he added in 1992: "Things have indeed changed since that time, but for the worse."

 

On the failure of 'Meech'

It is rather rare for a politician to express, repeatedly and after a life-long experience, such disdain for all his fellow citizens.

In his text last Saturday, he accuses Jean Lesage, René Lévesque, and Robert Bourassa of every evil. He is particularly inventive when he tries to make Mr. Bourassa partly responsible for the death of the Meech Accord.

Mr. Trudeau, who omits to mention his own role and that of Jean Chrétien in the failure of Meech, did not hesitate at the time to declare: "Meech terrifies me. ... We have examples in history of a government becoming totalitarian because it acts in the name of one race and sends the others to concentration camps." He uses the terms "eunuchs" and "craven" to characterize the first ministers of Canada and the provinces who had signed the accord. In his eyes they were guilty of having modified "his"1982 constitution, which in his words, borrowing an authentic reference to a sinister ideology of the 1930s, was "to last a thousand years."

As for Mr. Chrétien's role in torpedoing the accord, there is no better witness than his present minister of finance, Paul Martin, who trailed him in the race for the Liberal leadership. At the time, he accused his opponent of having "campaigned for a year on the back of Quebec by telling English Canada there would be no problems in Quebec if the Meech Lake Accord should fail." Mr. Martin found particularly "unacceptable the fact that Jean Chrétien refuses to speak well of Quebec."

There is no doubt that in the debates of these past years, Quebec's representatives have from time to time made errors in judgment, in strategy, or in tactics. We will leave it to the historians to sort them out. They did have the courage, however, and I am thinking here of Brian Mulroney in particular, to attempt to forge a Canadian compromise that would include, rather than exclude, Quebecers. Mr. Mulroney paid a high price for his attempt to take Canada out of the "mess," as he correctly put it, inherited from his predecessor. We would note, however, that Mr. Trudeau considers he has personally committed no errors in his own Canadian action, despite the traumas into which he plunged his country.

Similarly, today Mr. Chrétien and several leading federalists are showing enormous contempt for the intelligence of Quebecers. They who put the word "separation" on every telephone pole in Quebec now claim that the voters did not understand the question and did not know that by saying Yes, Quebec would become sovereign.

There is no doubt that a proportion of the voters, knowing they were voting for sovereignty, were hoping that the process set off by a Yes vote would suddenly change the mindset of Canada, thereby changing the outcome. The sovereignist leaders do not share their analysis, but voters have the right to their own views - just as a good proportion of those who voted No in 1980 and 1995 had the right to gamble that their vote would bring about greater autonomy for Quebec, in spite of Mr. Trudeau's and Mr. Chrétien's fierce opposition.<

 

On the subject of 'treason'

It is disturbing, though, that some federalist leaders are likening that hope - that wager - to ignorance or stupidity. Their attitude, like that of Mr. Trudeau during the 1970s, opens the way to a blindness that can only lead to renewed disillusion.

Three times in last Saturday's text, Mr. Trudeau accuses René Lévesque of having "betrayed" his Canadian allies in 1981. He uses the same term with respect to me.

Even though it has been rather widely used to describe the events surrounding Mr. Trudeau's 1980 referendum promise and the attitude of English Canada during the 1981 negotiations, the word "treason" does not figure in my vocabulary and, contrary to what certain federalist leaders, including Mr. Daniel Johnson, maintain, I did not use it.

It is interesting to note, however, that the leader of the No camp in 1995, Mr. Daniel Johnson, and in 1980, Mr. Claude Ryan, in carefully weighed texts, have recently used that term to describe the consequences of Mr. Trudeau's actions.

Last July, in the journal Foreign Policy, Daniel Johnson wrote:

"The 1982 patriation of the constitution ended in exclusion and prevented Quebecers from participation in an important act of Canadian self-identification. It created among Quebecers a sense of betrayal and isolation that lingers today."

Last November, Mr. Ryan agreed in The Gazette:

"A great many Quebecers, among them several federalists, felt they had been betrayed."

No one should be surprised that Quebec sovereignists were opposed to the actions of the federal prime minister of the day. However, judgments passed by his Quebec federalist allies greatly undermine Mr. Trudeau's claims and enlighten us on federal post-referendum reflexes, both past and present.

In his book, Regards sur le Fédéralisme Canadien, published last spring, Claude Ryan sums up the events of 1980 as follows:

"When he committed himself a few days before the referendum, in a speech delivered at Montreal's Paul Sauvé arena, to reform of the Canadian federal system, several people, including the author of this book (i.e. Claude Ryan) had understood that what he had in mind was an operation that would be designed and carried out along with his referendum allies. ... But Trudeau had his own agenda, which was not that of the Quebec Liberal Party."

Thus, the leader of the No camp in 1980 was completely left out of Mr. Trudeau's post-referendum constitutional operations. Mr. Ryan has a nuanced vision of the contents of the 1982 reform, but he strongly challenges the method used, and he opposed it in the National Assembly. Last Saturday, as he had done in the past, Mr. Trudeau tampered with dates and votes. In his book, Mr. Ryan judges severely attempts to "give the impression that a majority of the parliamentarians sitting in Quebec City and Ottawa had approved of his plan." He concludes that Mr. Trudeau was giving in to "a distortion of history."

In the same way, the leader of the No camp in 1995, Daniel Johnson, is today so cut off from the current thinking in Ottawa that he has to point out to his allies of yesterday, through the media, that they are "off the track" and are setting off along roads that run counter to the fundamental orientations of the Quebec Liberal Party, particularly with respect to the territorial integrity of Quebec.

Is history repeating itself? In 1981, several Liberal voters felt, shall we say, "taken in" by Mr. Trudeau. They had not understood that the proposed changes would be carried out unilaterally, against the will of the Quebec Liberal Party and of the National Assembly. In 1995, Mr. Chrétien promised that a No would bring about the "essential changes." How will No voters react when they suddenly realize that the proposed changes aim at modifying unilaterally the rules of Quebec democracy and at carving up Quebec's territory?

 

On 'Quebec's demands'

The former prime minister of Canada is not content to denigrate the constitutional efforts of his Quebec counterparts and their successors. He maintains that he alone can define what "Quebec's traditional demands" consist of.

Thus he maintains that they "consisted essentially of one thing: respect for the French fact in Canada, mainly in the areas of language at the federal level and of education in the provinces where francophones were a minority."

These aims were certainly commendable and were supported by Quebecers. But any desire to reduce Quebec's demands to just these elements is so remote from the historical reality of the postwar period it would be tedious to refute it point by point.

Let us note simply that at the time when Mr. Trudeau was passing his very necessary Official Languages Act in 1969, there were three political parties in Quebec: the governing Union Nationale, which had been elected on a platform of "Equality or Independence" the Quebec Liberal Party, which had just adopted a platform proposing "special status" and the newly founded Parti Québécois, which advocated "sovereignty-association." By denying the existence of Quebec's historical demands, Mr. Trudeau is behaving like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt who, when they were dissatisfied with history, erased and caused to disappear from their kingdom any disagreeable inscription, mention or reminder.

There is, however, an important lesson here. In his crusade on behalf of official languages, Mr. Trudeau created a huge misunderstanding between our two peoples. He led Canada to believe that the adoption of institutional bilingualism was going to settle the Quebec problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. Millions of Canadians invested their political energy and good faith in that hope. The frustration Mr. Trudeau brought about in English Canada is one of the most disastrous factors in our recent history.

Today, Mr. Chrétien and his minister Stéphane Dion are striving to convince Canada that recognition of the distinct nature of Quebec, accompanied by some further assurances, could settle the Quebec situation. In Quebec, federalist and sovereignist opinion leaders, as well as the opinion polls, vigorously contradict these outdated and erroneous assertions. It would be tragic, for Canada and for Quebec, if a second misunderstanding of that scope were to prevent a more lucid reading of events and destroy for a generation what reciprocal good will still remains.

Mr. Trudeau maintains that through my referendum arguments, I have "tarnished Quebec's good reputation as a democratic society."

One could retort quite curtly that the Canadian prime minister who suspended civil liberties in 1970 - opening the way to imprisonment of 500 citizens, including some poets, without cause but for a mere crime of opinion, without any charges being laid, without recourse, and condoning 3,000 searches without warrant - is in no position to give lessons in democracy.

To return to constitutional questions, Mr. Trudeau has even acknowledged that his 1981 operation was designed as an offensive that would not have to respect the democratic rules.

Thus when his biographers, Stephen Clarkson and Christina McCall, asked him why he had not retained the services of the respected mandarin Gordon Robertson to advise him on the constitution in 1980-81, Mr. Trudeau gave this revealing reply:

"Let's just say that during that final stage I thought it would take almost a putsch, a coup de force, and Gordon (Robertson) was far too much a gentleman for that. Gordon was a mandarin devoted to the common good and who feared that irreparable damage would be done to the social fabric. And so I chose someone else."

Mr. Trudeau's disdain for democratic forms is also evident in his recounting of the events of Nov. 4, 1981. Above all, the stubbornness with which he persists in considering normal and legitimate the goings-on during the night of Nov. 4 commands admiration. A simple test, however, is sufficient to break through the artifice. Try to explain to any outsider that 11 first ministers were invited to a conference crucial to the country's future and that, during the final night, 10 of them got together to design an accord that, far from satisfying the 11th, took away part of what he already had. You will not find one who will believe that a democracy could act in that manner, regardless of the circumstances or alliances.

But let us follow for a moment the wobbly thesis of Mr. Trudeau. He accuses René Lévesque of having "betrayed' his allies. What had the Quebec leader done to earn that rebuke? He had agreed to submit a key aspect of the new constitution to a referendum.

Thus does he reproach René Lévesque. Because he wanted Canadians and Quebecers to express themselves, through a referendum, on their fundamental law. According to the former prime minister, that is why all the players in the drama - his allies and his adversaries - agreed on an understanding that excluded Mr. Lévesque, his province and his people.

Mr. Trudeau urges us then to choose between a democrat who would have abided by the will of the people and a federal prime minister planning "almost a putsch, a coup de force."

The choice is easy. If Mr. Lévesque were the only one in Ottawa to believe in democracy, he was surrounded by many others when he returned to Quebec.

Since that time, Quebecers have continued to make that choice. When he was elected in February 1980, before the "coup de force," Mr. Trudeau had swept 74 seats in Quebec with 68 per cent of the vote. After the coup de force, in the next election his party plummeted to 17 seats and 35 per cent of the vote. Admittedly, there were several factors in that reversal. But one of them was the promise of Mr. Mulroney to correct the error committed in 1981. Never since 1980 has the party of Pierre Elliott Trudeau managed to win a majority in Quebec. Should we not see that as a signal?

Today, the temptation to commit a coup de force is unfortunately still present in the federalist universe constructed by Mr. Trudeau. On the night of the referendum last October, speaking to the nation and fortified by a vote of 50.6 per cent for the No, Mr. Chrétien declared:

"In a democracy, the people are always right. Tonight there is just one winner, the people. Tonight more than ever we have every reason to be proud of democracy in Canada."

He added: "Quebecers have spoken and we must respect their verdict."

Some days later, however, he declared that if the result had been in favor of the Yes, he would not have respected the verdict of those same Quebecers. Since then, Mr. Chrétien and his ministers have been trying to find ways to cheat on democracy in Quebec, to alter the threshold required to respect a verdict.

Inspired by Mr. Trudeau's remarks in 1980 on the divisibility of Quebec, Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Dion are playing a dangerous game with the health of our common democracy and with Canada's international reputation.

Quebecers, though, have always respected the rules of democracy. They have acted as a people, in solidarity with decisions taken by a majority. Let us consider for a moment what would have occurred if they had on the contrary followed the logic of Trudeau, Chrétien, and Dion.

In 1865, the parliamentarians of Lower Canada - Quebec at that time - endorsed confederation by a vote of 37 to 25. According to the Trudeau/Chrétien/Dion rule, around 40 per cent of Quebec then would have stayed outside the new Canada.

In the August 1867 election that ratified confederation, only 55 per cent of Quebecers voted for the pro-confederation Conservative Party. According to the Trudeau/Chrétien/Dion rule, the remaining 45 per cent would have "partitioned" themselves - as would the 48 per cent of Newfoundlanders who voted against joining Canada in 1949.

These major decisions, however, concerned "our children and our grandchildren" to repeat the argument invoked by Mr. Dion in support of his thesis of a higher threshold. These decisions profoundly affected the identity of the citizens concerned. Each time, however, Quebecers respected the verdict of the majority.

In 1980, sovereignists held their first referendum. At the time, the region of Saguenay-Lac St. Jean voted Yes, as did 40 per cent of the population. It did not occur to any Quebec democrat to decree that those territories could proclaim themselves independent. And rightly so. It is the people in their entirety who decide, not regions, neighborhoods or linguistic groups.

Similarly, in 1995 all the regions in Quebec save the Outaouais, the Beauce, and part of the Island of Montreal voted Yes. No one suggested that "Yes" regions be "partitioned out of Canada." For the Quebec people and for all the political parties represented in the National Assembly, the cardinal rule demands that a majority of the people rules, whether by one vote or by 26,000. On Oct. 30, sovereignists were in the minority and respected the verdict.

 

On 'respect for democracy'

In so doing, the Quebec people followed the example set by Canada, which in recent years has recognized a large number of new countries within their original boundaries. All these peoples included in their midst linguistic or regional minorities democratically and legitimately opposed to the sovereignty of their new states. In these cases, Canada proposed neither changing the rules of democracy nor changing boundaries. Why should Quebecers, who turned out for the October vote in the exceptional proportion of 94 per cent, not be entitled to the same respect for democracy?

The former prime minister has taken up his pen to remind us of him. That is his right. Beyond the battles waged by ego and among historians, let us seize the opportunity he has given us to remind ourselves that the 15 years that have passed since his last "coup de force" have not sufficed to repair the wrong he caused.

At a time when there are those in Ottawa who, inspired by his theses, are considering following in his footsteps, it is good to see where his past behavior has led us, Canadians and Quebecers, anglophones and francophones.

In Quebec, leaders such as Jean Lesage and René Lévesque, Daniel Johnson senior and junior, Jacques Parizeau, Claude Ryan, and Brian Mulroney are undoubtedly not perfect. Their plans and their laws may not endure for "a thousand years." But all of them respected the democratic process and its verdict. All of them abided by the decisions of the majority. All of them have sided with the will of the Quebec people.

All of them, at one time or another, have been repudiated, scorned, accused by Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Only six days after being sworn in, I have been admitted into that club of democrats. With them, and with all Quebecers, I plead guilty.



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