In the run-up to Quebec’s referendum, Canadians debated tortuously whether and how the French-speaking province could leave their 128-year-old federation. Did the constitution make any provision for a break? What legal obstacles could be employed to block secession? How would the national debt be divided? Could Quebec continue to use the Canadian dollar? It was all very stimulating, if inconclusive.
Meanwhile, politicians in Quebec City were ready for action. With opinion polls moving in their favour, the separatist leaders started to behave as if their dream of a new French-speaking country in North America was about to become a reality. What if it had?
Quebec’s Caisse de d?p?t et placements du Qu?bec, the giant public sector pension fund, would have intervened aggressively to buy Canadian dollars and treasury bills in the days after a “Yes” vote, as foreign investors dumped anything marked Canada or Quebec.
The ruling Parti Quebecois (PQ) would have named defence and foreign ministers-in clear defiance of the Canadian constitution-and served notice on Ottawa that negotiations should start immediately on new economic and political arrangements. The near certain breakdown of these talks, assuming they even got off the ground, would have been the trigger to proclaim the new Republic of Quebec, perhaps as early as next spring.
While Quebec City executed its well-mapped battle plan, the rest of the country would have been shocked, divided-and unprepared. Just a few weeks before the vote, the federalists were so confident of victory that they gave little thought to the consequences of defeat. One reason why Jean Chr?tien, the prime minister, refused to reveal his strategy in the event of a “Yes” vote was simply that he didn’t have one.
But Quebeckers would have been in for a few shocks of their own once the referendum celebrations were over. The flight of capital and talent from the province would have been immediate and severe. Non-francophones have been edgy since the separatists first took office in the mid-1970s. Mordecai Richler, the novelist, who lives in Montreal, wrote a few years ago: “What I blame the PQ for, unreservedly, is that I grew up in a city where an anglophone young man or woman could feel at home and anticipate settling into a future commensurate with his or her ability. This is no longer the case. Just about everything has been done to make the anglophone youth, even those who are fluently bilingual, feel unwelcome in Quebec.”
The Republic of Quebec would be rich in trees, water and minerals. But it would be starved of foreign capital. The new government would be preoccupied with keeping the economy afloat and pacifying angry aboriginal groups which lay claim to vast chunks of Quebec.
Instead of being North America’s oppressed “white niggers,” as they used to think of themselves, the citizens of Quebec might come to bear a closer resemblance to South Africa’s Afrikaaners: struggling to defend their language and culture, intolerant of those who didn’t share their values, and seeking approbation wherever in the world they could find it.
Could all this still happen, despite the federalists’ victory on October 30th? The razor-thin, (50.4-49.6) margin-much narrower than the previous sovereignty referendum in 1980-suggests that the PQ may be tempted to call another vote sooner rather than later. Dithering politicians in Ottawa and the parochial premiers of Canada’s nine other provinces are more than likely to play into the PQ’s hands, with another interminable squabble over how to accommodate Quebec.
But Quebec can’t count on the winds blowing in its favour. The government now has some urgent-and unpopular-business to attend to. Quebec has made least progress among Canada’s ten provinces in coming to grips with its fiscal mess. The axe began to fall barely a week after the referendum, with the health minister announcing the closure of seven hospitals.
The secessionists might find it increasingly difficult to blame Ottowa for all of Quebec’s woes. Don’t count Canada out just yet.