The Referendum: Everyone's Business
Publication:
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 9 Feb 1995, p. 421-431


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Vennat, Michel, Speaker
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Text
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Speeches
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Facing two issues that are closely linked: a provincial government doing its utmost to break up the Canadian federation; a debt and deficit problem that threatens our well-being as a nation. The importance of tackling both these issues immediately, and why it is so important. A review of the Quebec separation issue. Strategies of the separatists. "Faced with all this, what do we do?" A response to this question, with a discussion of each of the following suggestions. "The first thing that Canadians outside Quebec have to do is to realise that separatists do not speak for all Quebeckers." Second, "avoid falling into the trap of a debate on the Constitution." Also, "focus attention on the real question, which is separation." Urging all Canadians to "stand up and participate in this referendum. Reminding our fellow citizens in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada of how much they would stand to lose, in economic and financial terms, if the separatists were to triumph in the referendum. Confidence that the people of Quebec will once again opt for Canada. An invitation to all Canadians to reach out to Quebeckers in the next few months to help keep our country united. The intention of the Council for Canadian Unity to spare no effort to achieve this goal.
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9 Feb 1995
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English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
Michel Vennat Q.C., Chairman, Council for Canadian Unity
THE REFERENDUM: EVERYONE'S BUSINESS
Chairman: John A. Campion
President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

Bruce Sinclair, Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Alexandria Dosman, grade 13 student, Oakwood Collegiate Institute; The Rev. Charles Plaskett, Minister Emeritus, Timothy Eaton Memorial Church; Mary McLaughlin, Vice-President, Public Affairs, The Mutual Group; Matthew Barrett, Chairman and CEO, Bank of Montreal; The Hon. Francis Fox, Q.C., Partner, Fasken Martineau; Peter G. White, Chairman, UniMedia Inc. and President, Council for Canadian Unity; Denise Cole, Public Policy and Political Consultant, McFoy Cole & Associates and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Sgt. Bob Crawford, Head of Aboriginal Peacekeeping Unit, Metropolitan Toronto Police; Marvin Yontef, Senior Partner, Stikeman, Elliott; Richard Gwyn, Columnist, The Toronto Star; J. Urban Joseph, Vice-Chairman, Toronto Dominion Bank; and The Hon. Michael Meighen, Q.C., Counsel, Meighen Demers.

Introduction by John Campion

Intergalactic Message for a Country Divided

In the year 2080 an intergalactic historian sent a message upon his arrival upon a dead planet. He had been sent to inquire into the cause of the remote little nuclear catastrophe which the sensors of his galaxy had recorded. When he arrived, he discovered that people, not property had been destroyed. In his early observations, he discovered and sent his message accordingly that the last 300 years of recorded history on the planet were incomprehensible without some understanding of a curious word--"nation." He read that Walter Bagehot called the history of the nineteenth century--one of nation building; and that Bagehot had observed with characteristic common sense that:

"We know what it is when you ask us but we cannot very quickly explain or define it."

One of the world's great historians, Professor E.J. Hobsbaum, has made several significant points on the history of nations and nationalism in his brilliant essays of the same title published in 1985:

"Firstly, the idea of nation is a relatively new one. Few nations which we recognize today date from before the nineteenth century;

Secondly, most nations consider themselves to be of ancient lineage with a strong national identity and pride, but this illusion can best be summed up by the comments of the French historian Ernest Renan when he said "Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation";

Thirdly, the idea of nation evolved from its beginnings in the French and American Revolutions which equated people with the state. It has changed over time to become variously equated with language, ethnicity, communication, economy, physical space, historical determinism and even raw sentiment;

Fourthly, nationalism changed dramatically from 1870 to 1918 and reached its apogee from 1918 to 1950. The principle of nationality was triumphant at the end of Word War I. This set in train the use of nationality to fuel the great anti-Colonial movements of Africa, Asia and South America. But, alas, the concept of nationalism has a diminished lustre in our modern world beset with a world economic order, instantaneous global communications and other international forces;

Finally, in the late 20th century, nationalism remains a powerful force but one which the professor describes as essentially negative and divisive. These negative forces are essentially ethnic or linguistic. He describes Quebec as intensified linguistic nationalism with mass future shock. Twentieth century nationalism is a defensive reaction to the threat brought on by international population movements and ultra-rapid, fundamental and unprecedented socio-economic transformation."

Whatever the truth or controversy which attaches to the professor's view of nationalism, we in Canada are again engaged in a powerful debate in the jaws of the definition of the idea of nation. Canada's present dilemma arises not from the lack of definition of nation but because the idea of nation and its values is rapidly changing.

In our great national debate, we Canadians must help ourselves including those in Quebec to discover the truths which lie beneath political rhetoric and sloganism. We must expose false prophets and deal with the essentials. We must not dream or hope our way into a sentimental abyss. At the same time, we must not unleash forces of resentment, selfishness and division.

It is to this search for truth and unity that the Council for Canadian Unity owes its existence. It views Canada as a country of enviable prosperity, international stature, an extraordinary quality of life and civility. The Council for Canadian Unity recognizes Canada as the best bulwark against all of our fears and the best garden for continuing economic growth.

Michel Vennat, is the Chairman of the Board of the Council. He is a prominent lawyer in Montreal, a recently retired Chairman and CEO of United Westburn Incorporated and has an enviable background of political public service in Ottawa. He serves on a number of boards of directors.

Michel Vennat was born in Quebec, graduated from College de Jean de Brebuth with a Bachelor of Arts degree, studied law at the University of Montreal and was a Rhodes Scholar.

His role is to promote Canadian unity as the best political and economic alternative for us all. Please welcome Mr. Vennat and show our appreciation for the work of the Council for Canadian Unity.

Michel Vennat

Ladies and gentlemen:

On behalf of the Council for Canadian Unity, I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss our country's state of affairs as we approach the Quebec referendum.

Several prominent Quebeckers have appeared in--Toronto in recent weeks to express their differing views

on the subject. And so I wish to pay tribute to your patience and understanding in subjecting yourself to yet another analysis of the situation. It says a lot about your interest in Canada's future. Although most of you will not be voting on referendum day, the outcome of this exercise concerns you and all other Canadians every bit as much as it concerns those of us who live in Quebec. Your presence here today is an encouraging indication that you are not ready to heed Jacques Parizeau's advice to stay out of this debate, which, in his view, should be restricted to Quebeckers. As you may have noticed, this is an opinion that he expresses regularly, except, of course, when travelling in France to drum up active support or when commissioning polls to drag the rest of Canada into the debate in an attempt to build barriers between Quebeckers and other Canadians.

At present, we are facing two issues that are closely linked. On the one hand, we have a provincial government doing its utmost to break up the Canadian federation. On the other, we have a debt and deficit problem that threatens our well-being as a nation. Despite the remarkable challenges that these two issues represent, it is important that we tackle both of them immediately. Just because we have a referendum coming up does not mean that we should hesitate to solve our deficit problems. Quite the contrary. History has proved that fiscal irresponsibility has been a prime source of political troubles and divisiveness. Dynamic and demonstrable steps to solve the national debt will emphasise for Quebeckers and all Canadians that this country really works.

At the same time, the referendum debate provides all Canadians with the opportunity to demonstrate to Quebeckers how important we think Quebec is to the Canadian federation. Make no mistake. The majority of Quebeckers want to stay in Canada. And when it comes to Quebeckers' primary concerns, constitutional issues are at the very bottom of the ladder. They, like other Canadians, are mainly pre-occupied by the economy, jobs, and the quality of their lives.

After nearly two decades of separatist slogans, opinion polls indicate that a strong majority of Quebeckers still say today that they feel an attachment to Canada; that they consider Canada a success; that they think it is a good country to live in; and most importantly, that they would not accept a reduced standard of living to pay for such an adventure, not any more than the rest of Canada is willing to pay for such an adventure. In short, after 20 years, Quebeckers still reject independence.

A number of other factors militate against the success of separation as a political goal. Like our population, the idea has aged. Demography is working against it. Young Quebeckers today have changed and, like their counterparts all over Canada, are more concerned with their economic future and quality of life in a global environment than with political squabbles. Whereas the PQ used to be able to boast that the vast majority of young people from 18 to 35 years old supported their option, that is no longer true. Finally, and most importantly, Quebec's society has changed. Over the past 30 years, it has developed a public education system equal to any in Canada. It has become an important source for technological innovation, both within Canada and internationally. It has created a dynamic and expanding business sector, that is trade oriented. Culturally, it has taken on a remarkable vibrancy in many fields. And all of this has taken place within the context of the Canadian federation. Yet, once again, Quebeckers are facing another referendum on their future within Canada at the insistence of a separatist government that, despite the difficult economic context and the dire need for jobs within the province, relentlessly pursues its goal to achieve independence using every means at its disposal. The strategy of separatists is clever but transparent. On the one hand, they are attempting to make separation appear inevitable in the hope that Quebeckers and other Canadians simply buckle under and resign themselves to the fact that it is eventually going to happen. If the referendum doesn't succeed this time, there will be another and another and another, as regular and as painful as a visit to the dentist, says M. Parizeau. I frankly don't think the Quebec people will stand for that kind of browbeating, or should I say, "drilling."

Another element of their strategy is to attempt to recreate the sense of rejection that Quebeckers felt after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990. For that was the only time that public polls showed a majority of Quebeckers supporting their option. The only time. Since 1991, support has been declining steadily to the point that it is now where it traditionally has been over the past two decades. In the most detailed public opinion poll ever held in Quebec, published two weeks ago, with more than 10,000 people surveyed, when a direct question was asked on independence the response was an unequivocal 60 per cent "No."

So, a sense of rejection and a confusing question are essential elements to a separatist victory. This, no doubt, explains why the PQ government just commissioned a survey of Canadians outside Quebec to attempt to force a wedge between us and reinforce the notion that other Canadians do not understand Quebec's concerns. Separatists are, no doubt, hoping for clumsy, insensitive statements which are sufficiently insulting to Quebeckers to allow them to brandish them high as a symbol of contempt for French Canada. Premier Parizeau himself, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, stated that few things could be more helpful to the outcome of his plans than a few Canadians trampling the Quebec flag before a TV camera.

Faced with all this, what do we do?

The first thing that Canadians outside Quebec have to do is to realise that separatists do not speak for all Quebeckers. We have to avoid the cardinal error of lumping all Quebeckers together as supporters of independence. We have to resist reacting hastily to provocation, such as Mr. Campeau's recent declaration that Quebec would not necessarily assume its part of the Canadian debt if it separated. We have to assure that any gesture we make, any statement we issue, shows a sincere respect for the population of Quebec. Indeed, Canadians should be proud that despite all sorts of provocations in the past few months, their political and business leaders, the Canadian public in general, and the Canadian media as a whole have reacted with such moderation in the face of such tactics. Let's hope this continues.

The second thing to do is to avoid falling into the trap of a debate on the Constitution. We have to state loudly and clearly that in a country such as ours, there is no such thing as the status quo. Canada has evolved and is continuing to evolve. It doesn't take constitutional reforms to move things forward. Some Quebeckers fear that voting against the separatist option will forever cement them into a federal system that many feel needs change. What we have to remember is that all the changes we have seen in Canadian society over the past 20 years, and they have been major, have taken place without constitutional amendments. Despite this, within the separatist movement there is a constitutional obsession based on the absurd belief that nothing changes if the Constitution doesn't. And they are trying desperately to transmit this obsession to the population at large. What they refuse to accept is that Quebeckers are just as fed up with the constitutional question as other Canadians are. They are deliberately trying to create a link between opposition to constitutional change and support for the status quo. This we must not allow. The real issue is a choice between a separate Quebec and a Canada on the move. We must constantly stress that we are in favour of an evolving Canada, and that we want to make Canada work better, not treat it as one of history's failed experiments. We must emphasise that a federation is a highly contemporary form of government with a broad capacity to accommodate itself to the challenge of tomorrow.

Changes to encourage administrative efficiency and good government don't require constitutional amendments. This has been demonstrated in a number of provinces already, and we hope it will be demonstrated again by the federal government when it tables its new budget later on this month.

The recent commercial successes of Team Canada in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East highlight how successful this country can be when it works together. They illustrate Canada's ability to adapt to a new economic order and to assert itself as a major, competitive, commercial force on the international scene. It is important that we communicate these facts to Quebeckers and that we do so directly, using our existing networks. We tend to forget that Canada enjoys real and workable social, business, and cultural links that bring us together as real people, not as governments. I am talking, for example, about chambers of commerce and boards of trade, industrial associations, social and community organisations, cultural and university groups, twin cities, and so on. I am talking of men and women talking to each other as colleagues, friends and relatives. I am talking also of the business community, which is held in high regard by Quebeckers, and which has a special responsibility to express its view in the coming months.

Canadians exist as human beings quite apart from their provincial and federal governments and I think it vital that we show Quebeckers that we share a whole series of common concerns: jobs, health care, quality education, as well as social services that are accessible and affordable. We are all equals and are very much alike. Our similarities are much stronger than our differences. In the messages we send, we have to indicate clearly that the world is changing so rapidly that maintaining the economic and political strengths we have is essential to our ability to succeed in an increasingly global economy. In this era it makes no sense whatever to start carving up a country that is increasingly dependent on trade into smaller, less consequential and, very likely, less competitive units.

We must also focus attention on the real question, which is separation. And we must communicate to Quebeckers the very real difficulties that separation' would entail for all Canadians. We all stand to suffer both economically and culturally and the resulting trauma could not help but increase tension between the former partners of Confederation. We cannot leave unchallenged the separatist propaganda that negotiations with Canada, following separation, on such sensitive and explosive subjects as the use of the Canadian dollar, the sharing of the debt, the continued economic association and the continued use of Canadian citizenship and passport, will be anything but extremely difficult, contentious and not at all automatic. On voting day, Quebeckers must make their choice with the full knowledge of the difficulties and uncertainties that separation would entail for all of Canada, including Quebec.

As I mentioned earlier, attachment to Canada runs deep among Quebeckers--so much so that, strangely and paradoxically, we hear more about Canada from the separatists than from any other participants in this debate. And why is that? Simply because Canada is a strong sell for separatist leaders. They need its currency, its citizenship, its treaties and its legislation to reassure their own partisans and hide the financial and economic consequences of their proposal.

Don't get me wrong. A victory for the federal forces in the referendum will not be easy. Nor is it assured.

Although the fundamentals are right, we face a determined and astute adversary. In order to win, we need the same commitment and strong organisation.

So I urge all Canadians to stand up and participate in this referendum. It is very much everyone's business. It's all very well to say that it is not in Quebec's interest to go it alone. But this is also true of Canada. The rest of Canada also needs to maintain its trading patterns with Quebec and the strong industrial and financial partnerships that have developed in the last few decades. And Quebeckers will need you and other Canadians to achieve the ultimate goal. After defeating the referendum, we will all have to adapt this country to our quickly evolving needs.

We must therefore remind our fellow citizens in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada of how much they would stand to lose, in economic and financial terms, if the separatists were to triumph in the referendum. Let's do away with both complacency and arrogance. Let's convince Canadians in good faith that all of us share, to various degrees, a concern over economic, cultural, and social problems. Let's collectively develop a dynamic, progressive, realistic, practical and tolerant vision of the country. Let's base it on the undeniable assertion that our political system has been, and can still be, one of the most advanced and flexible forms of democratic political organisation in the world. And let's base it also on another irrefutable fact: that despite our tremendous but solvable financial problems, we are still citizens of one of the richest and most enviable countries on earth.

Let me quote a very appropriate paragraph from a recent address by my friend Matthew Barrett, whom I am honoured to have at the table with me today. He said, "In a world beset by tensions and rivalries, Canada's achievement stands out as a beacon of moderation and accommodation. We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to succeeding generations--not to mention the world community--to ensure that our federation endures."

In closing, Mr. Chairman, I am confident that once again, the people of Quebec will opt for Canada. I invite all Canadians to reach out to Quebeckers in the next few months to help keep our country united. We can positively influence the outcome of the referendum by communicating our deep attachment to Canada and to Quebec, our sense of a great future together, and our confidence in the wisdom of all Canadians. We, at the Council for Canadian Unity, intend to spare no effort to achieve this goal. I urge you to do the same.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Denise Cole, Public Policy and Political Consultant, McFoy Cole & Associates and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Referendum: Everyone's Business


Facing two issues that are closely linked: a provincial government doing its utmost to break up the Canadian federation; a debt and deficit problem that threatens our well-being as a nation. The importance of tackling both these issues immediately, and why it is so important. A review of the Quebec separation issue. Strategies of the separatists. "Faced with all this, what do we do?" A response to this question, with a discussion of each of the following suggestions. "The first thing that Canadians outside Quebec have to do is to realise that separatists do not speak for all Quebeckers." Second, "avoid falling into the trap of a debate on the Constitution." Also, "focus attention on the real question, which is separation." Urging all Canadians to "stand up and participate in this referendum. Reminding our fellow citizens in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada of how much they would stand to lose, in economic and financial terms, if the separatists were to triumph in the referendum. Confidence that the people of Quebec will once again opt for Canada. An invitation to all Canadians to reach out to Quebeckers in the next few months to help keep our country united. The intention of the Council for Canadian Unity to spare no effort to achieve this goal.