The Sovereignty Option
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 20 Sep 1993, p. 90-102
Bouchard, Lucien, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
A joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Canadian Club of Toronto.
Cooperation between sovereign states in Europe and elsewhere. Examples of Canadian Nationalism. Constitutional concerns of Quebec. The Canadian economy. Quebec Sovereignty.
Date of Original
20 Sep 1993
Language of Item
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Full Text
Lucien Bouchard, Chief of the Bloc Quebecois
Chairman: Dr. Frederic L. R. Jackman President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

Julie Hannaford, Partner, Borden & Elliot and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Evelyn Abitbol, Press Attache to Mr. Bouchard, Bloc Quebecois; Herbert 1. Phillipps Jr., Vice-President, Trust and Securities Services, Royal Bank of Canada and President-Elect, The Canadian Club of Toronto; Jeffrey Caton, grade 13 student, Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute; Audrey Best-Bouchard; Claudette Mackay-Lassonde, Vice-President, Corporate Affairs, Xerox Canada Ltd. and a Director, The Canadian Club of Toronto; Georges Mathews, Special Adviser to Mr. Bouchard, Bloc Quebecois; The Reverend G. Malcolm Sinclair.

Introduction by Dr. Jackman

Ladies and gentlemen, 3-1/2 short years ago, Lucien Bouchard stood at this very microphone and addressed The Empire Club about the importance of the country endorsing the Meech Lake Accord. As we all know "Meech" failed and as a result many Quebeckers continued to feel excluded from the fabric of Canada. That speech, now history, is contained in the Empire Club Yearbook (page 208). That speech was in February, 1990. Lucien Bouchard spoke then as the Honourable Minister of the Environment. A brief three months later he resigned from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's cabinet and became part of the Bloc Quebecois.

Yet, earlier in his life, he had been an ally of Brian Mulroney. They had worked together on the Quebec Cliche Commission Inquiry on the construction industry where Mr. Bouchard acted as Chief Counsel. Then in 1985, the Prime Minister appointed Mr. Bouchard as our ambassador to France where he served with distinction. In 1988, he was recalled to become Canada's Secretary of State. A by-election was created in June of that year, which he won in the riding of his birthplace, Lac-Saint-Jean. Immediately afterwards, the general election was called for November 21 in which he received over 23,000 votes, almost double what his Liberal and NDP opposition received together.

Active on many government boards and commissions, he is no stranger to the problems of federal-provincial relations as he served on that very Commission.

Today, some pollsters predict that the Bloc Quebecois could hold the balance of power after the October 25 vote. Some say that the Bloc could win 60 of the 75 seats in Quebec. That would be about 80 per cent of the members from Quebec and that could represent the balance of power by virtue of being the third-largest party in Canada.

Today, Mr. Bouchard will talk about Canada and Quebec, about unity and sovereignty, about today and tomorrow. The question many Canadians have asked is whether the Bloc would use its power to negotiate sovereignty or to negotiate acceptable terms for Quebec to remain in a sovereign Canada?

Mr. Bouchard will take questions at the end of his address. Ladies and Gentlemen would you please welcome Mr. Lucien Bouchard.

Lucien Bouchard

Ladies and gentlemen, let me begin by saying how much I appreciate this opportunity to speak to you here today. I am very grateful for this most gracious invitation.

Obviously, I have not come here to win your support for the coming elections. Nor am I naive enough to believe that I will be able to convince you of the merits of the sovereignty option. But I am here because I strongly believe in the possibility of a dialogue. In my view, this is imperative when one considers the events which are more than likely to unfold in the coming months and years. Because if I'm right, a majority of my fellow citizens will soon choose sovereignty as the best possible option. Since any true dialogue can only be based upon respect and honesty, I think it is important that I take this occasion to try and explain to you the role and "raison d'etre" of the Bloc Quebecois at this particular time of history.

But in order to do this, we must also consider that while we are still debating our future, momentous changes are taking place all around us. As the face of the world seems to be changing almost by the hour, new forces and new tendencies are clearly emerging. For instance, the European Community has been looking at new ways of fostering co-operation between sovereign states. Central Europe and the former Soviet Union are in the process of reconstructing almost from the ground up. East and West are finally meeting in ways Rudyard Kipling himself never could have imagined. Of course, we all know that not every corner of the world is undergoing such positive changes. But just a week ago, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands over a peace agreement that we had all but given up on. And other countries seem to be moving on peacefully. Courageous and creative men and women have played key roles in these achievements. But if our problems seem to pale in comparison, this does not mean that courage and creativity cannot help us find some of the solutions we have been craving for.

But once again, to do this, honesty and respect are paramount. This is why, although most of you are more than familiar with what we call the constitutional issue, I thought it essential to try with you here today, to go to the very essence of what we know as the sovereignty option.

I am well aware of the fact that to many English-Canadians, Quebec sovereignty at best appears to be illogical and irrational. They feel that Canada is one of the world's greatest democracies and that, after all, it has been spared most of the calamities history has inflicted upon so many other countries. Canada, they say, is a young country with opportunities that seem even greater than those offered by the proverbial American dream! So why, they wonder, would anyone want to seek sovereignty for Quebec? Seen from this particular angle, notions of culture, language and history sometimes get lost along the way, and often seem more than a little abstract. So let me try to draw a few parallels which, I hope, will help give some of these abstract notions more concrete a meaning.

Now, all of this occurred to me as I was reading the recent Liberal Action Plan for Canada, or more precisely, the flyer that came along with it. The idea of drawing these parallels seemed good to me, although, as you can well imagine, I seldom find inspiration in the literature put out by the Liberal Party. This Liberal pamphlet is divided into five chapters entitled: jobs, growth, change in policy, health and independence. Of course, I expected to find in this last chapter an outright condemnation of the policies of the Bloc Quebecois. But I found nothing of the sort. Instead, and understandably so, the Liberal Party was concerned by Canada's own independence.

If there is one thing in this country which has come a long way in the past 30 years, surely it is Canadian nationalism. Not that it didn't exist before, but it seems to me that this nationalism now has deeper roots than ever in English Canada. It seems to express itself more clearly and more easily. And now, more than ever before, English-Canadians want a real country. They know how they want to be governed and even more so, how they definitely don't want to be governed.

As we all know, Confederation itself was anything but a spontaneous happening. The decision to unite the colonies in 1867 did not only stem from the colonials' own wish to unite their destinies. The proximity and power of the United States was also a major factor. And after that, Canada's growth, while brisk, was at times painful and even heroic.

For a Quebecker, however, and I suppose for English-Canadians as well, it seemed difficult to define the true nature of Canada, or what caused its inhabitants to be attached to it.

But in recent history, this has changed. Many elements have contributed to the emergence of a strong, dynamic, articulate Canadian nationalism. I will only mention some of the more recent examples which strike me as being directly linked to our current political situation.

First of course, there was the patriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982 and the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. With hindsight, it seems strange that a country, built to a large extent by men and women who had come from abroad and who had often suffered from injustice should have waited until 1982 to give itself such an extended charter of rights. Whatever the reason, the guarantee that henceforth every Canadian would be granted the same rights as his fellow citizens soon stood out as one of the most basic symbols of Canadian nationhood. And we can all recall the influence the Charter of Rights had throughout the debate on the Meech Lake Accord.

But in Quebec, the situation was altogether different. Not because Quebeckers were less committed to the protection of rights and freedoms (after all Quebec has had its own Charter of Rights since 1975), but because they were convinced--and rightly so, I should add--that some of the provisions of the 1982 Constitution were explicitly intended to curtail some of the constitutional powers Quebec had exercised since 1867 and, on the other hand, to invalidate parts of a language law that a majority of Quebeckers find essential to the very survival of their culture. This is why Quebec's two major political parties, one sovereignist and one federalist, in a near-unanimous Parliament condemned this patriation. In this perspective, the 1982 patriation is still seen in Quebec as a dramatic breach of trust.

Also recently, much has been made of this new global economy, and the ensuing pressures exerted upon national economies. But less has been said about the fear of losing cultural and political autonomy. The debate over the Maastricht Treaty provides a good example of this. I don't think I need here to stress the relevance of the arguments heard in England and in France about the possible threats this treaty poses to their sovereignty. Were those arguments outrageous or irrational? Sometimes perhaps, but the fact remains that for the most part they expressed an undeniable reality: the need for citizens of these countries to know and to feel confident that, as they embark upon this European adventure, their country will survive. As freer trade and global markets pit the individual against entire continents, against the world even, more than ever we need to have an anchor, a country. In fact, globalization and sovereignty are the opposite sides of the same coin. For many, this has become the only way to achieve economic success. In a recent issue of The Economist, C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Washington Institute for International Economics, suggests that the world draw the appropriate lessons from the past and allow for the coexistence of two seemingly opposite trends: global economic integration and the growing autonomy of smaller political units such as Quebec to which he refers to explicitly as an important growth pole for the next century.

Now, we could go on for ever discussing the respective merits of economic and sociological arguments. Since economics appears to be no more of an exact science than sociology (witness our governments' budget estimates), I will only say that while we are all keen on broadening our economic horizons, few of us are willing to abandon the notion and the need for a national state.

This phenomenon has been amply demonstrated in Canada. Who can forget the debate over free trade, the concerns about the future of social programmes and Canadian culture, or the deep-seated fear of eventually being absorbed by our powerful neighbour? The same arguments are being heard once again, though to a lesser extent and in another form, about the North American Free Trade Agreement. But one thing is for sure, Canadian nationalism is definitely at issue in these debates.

Needless to say, this concern for the preservation of the Canadian culture and identity is legitimate, understandable and even vital. But if this issue is not raised quite as forcefully in Quebec, it is because we tend to think that the language barrier renders American culture a little less threatening to us. But in English Canada, continental economic integration, critical as it may be, has given rise to a new awareness about the importance of Canada's sovereignty.

The third element in this recent evolution of Canadian nationalism is the Canadian economy itself. The growing deficit and the widespread inefficiencies of our present federal system are a major source of concern. Government debt in Canada has reached unprecedented levels as governments now incur $60 billion deficits, amounting to 8.5 per cent of our gross national product. We seem to have lost control of our public finances. The independence of our monetary policy is threatened by the size of our foreign debt. Our competitive position is compromised.

Three years after the beginning of the current recession, our per-capita gross national product, in real terms, remains lower than in 1989. Although, we have recovered only 42 per cent of jobs lost during the recession, job creation in Canada has substantially slowed down over the past few months. And recent hiring surveys forecast a further deterioration for the fall.

Some will say: "Yes, but it's the same everywhere, Canada is no exception." To be sure, the global environment may spur or slow down economic activity in Canada. But does this explain Canada's poor productivity performance since 1979, the worst of all G-7 members? Does this explain Canada's unemployment rate, the highest of all G-7 countries? Does this explain Canada's spiralling federal deficit: $190 billion in 1984, $475 billion today, and presently increasing by at least $100 million a day? The Canadian economy is simply in decline.

Canada is surely the most over-governed country in the world, with its 11 senior governments for a population of 28 million. Conflicts of jurisdiction have prevented the adoption of truly-coherent policies. In the field of manpower training alone, the Federal Government manages 27 programmes, while the Quebec Government oversees another 25. Of course all these programmes have different standards, criteria, requirements and forms. How could any normal citizen not be confused? But, more important, how could anyone think we can still afford such waste?

Government intervention in the economic field is, and will increasingly be limited by international trade agreements, including NAFTA and the GATT. The prime responsibility of governments in economic matters will be to foster a climate favourable to economic development by ensuring the availability of a skilled work force, and by stimulating particularly education, innovation and research. And it will be imperative to provide the best possible social services at the best possible cost.

English Canada understands all this and has come up with a solution: a strong central government--a federal government that will co-ordinate education, health, research and development, vocational training and countless other fields.

For all these reasons, English-Canadians yearn for a country, a true one, a united one! More precisely, they seek an efficient government for their country. Except that in today's Canada, this has turned into an impossible mission. For the same reasons, Quebec will never accept such a government. And I am not only talking about sovereignists here, I am also talking about the vast majority of Quebeckers, whether sovereignist or federalist. Because Quebeckers, whether federalists or sovereignists, want the same kind of government. The only difference is that they want it in Quebec instead of Ottawa. That's the goal they have pursued, in their own respective ways, during the last 30 years. The federalists thought it could be achieved through Canadian federalism and substantial transfers of jurisdiction. The sovereignists concluded with Rene Levesque that this could only be achieved through sovereignty. The consecutive failures of Meech and Charlottetown have closed all doors to the renewal of the Canadian federation.

Quebec federalists can only contemplate, for themselves and the rest of Canada, endless years of counter-productive debates. Quebec sovereignty is not about resentment against English Canada. It is about two nations which need to go their own way politically in order to give themselves the kind of society they both need and deserve.

The main thing in this process is to make sure that we do not blind ourselves to the price we have to bear for this ongoing constitutional battle. And the sure thing is that neither Quebec's nor English Canada's need to secure the kind of country they want will ever go away. We must soon find a way out of this constitutional quagmire. The growing financial costs of an inefficient system in which conflicting interests are holding both of us down, will find us still together, but sinking very fast.

Many are saying that constitutional issues in Canada should be set aside. That it is, in the end, a pastime to which we can devote ourselves for a while, until we get tired of it, and then go on to more serious business.

We can all recall that after the October 1992 referendum, every government in Canada solemnly swore to turn its attention to the economy. Results? Nil.

Nowhere did it appear more clearly than in the endless constitutional saga, that Canada and Quebec were pursuing very different goals.

For years, scores of determined and sincere people have made every effort to solve this problem and define the kind of decision-making process we needed. As for myself, I abandoned the process when I realized that Quebec would never obtain a satisfactory accord. Remember also that Premier Bourassa told Quebeckers loud and clear that Meech was merely a first step, and that it would immediately be followed by another round of negotiations on the transfer of powers.

Following this failure, we all know how many committees were set up, how much energy, effort and money were invested in the process leading to the Charlottetown Accord. Every progress report released over that period was greeted in Quebec, without exception, as an attempt either to maintain the status quo or to further extract concessions from Quebec. None of these reports survived more than 48 hours in Quebec.

In the meantime, Quebec was going ahead with its own agenda in order to determine its political and constitutional future (which should already tell us something...). First, there was the Belanger-Campeau Commission where a vast majority of briefs supported sovereignty. This Commission, as you may remember, ended up recommending a referendum on sovereignty should renewed federalism fail once again.

This movement was so overwhelming that the Premier of Quebec himself--the same who last week called sovereignty "a geopolitical nonsense"--was actually the one who engineered this whole process in the first place!

In the end, the Quebec Parliament voted a law which provided for a referendum on sovereignty no later that October 26, 1992. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Premier of Quebec then chose to amend this law in order to ratify the Charlottetown Accord, by referendum. Many people tried to underestimate the true consequences of this event. Quebeckers voted No because they saw nothing worthy of interest in this Charlottetown agreement. While English-Canadians voted No because they saw too much for Quebec and not enough for Canada.

The Bloc Quebecois was born out of this entire period. It was a response to legitimate democratic aspirations. First and foremost, the Bloc seeks to offer an alternative to all those Quebeckers who turned down the status quo and long for sovereignty. It also seeks to allow them to vote in a way which is consistent with their choice of October 26, 1992. Another objective of the Bloc is to prevent any federal politician from acting like Pierre Trudeau. Quebeckers remember all too well how he justified his denial of their government's demands by stating that his legitimacy was just as real as that of Mr. Levesque since Quebec had elected 74 Liberal members in Ottawa. But until now, Quebeckers had only one alternative: vote for federalists or abstain from voting. The Bloc Quebecois wants to give Quebeckers a real choice.

You all know that the Bloc Quebecois is a sovereignist party. However, a good part of the process itself does not lie within its field of responsibilities. If there is one thing which is clear for Quebec sovereignists, it is that sovereignty will only be achieved through a democratic referendum and such a referendum can only be called by a Quebec government.

But more importantly, the Bloc Quebecois has no intention of obstructing the business of the House of Commons. It will not seek to do what can only be done through a referendum in Quebec. The Bloc will abide by the rules of the House of Commons. Why should the Bloc undermine parliamentary democracy, which will be the foundation of its strength and legitimacy?

Like most MPs, we intend first and foremost to represent as best we can the interests of our constituents. This being said, the mandate of the Bloc will be a clear one. Should Mrs. Campbell try to unilaterally cut $4 billion from transfer payments made out to provinces, or should Mr. Chretien try to go ahead with his plan of further invading provincial jurisdictions, then clearly the Bloc will act with the utmost determination. In the same way, the Bloc Quebecois intend to assure that Quebec receives its fair share of the most strategic federal spending, those that are vital in the development of a modern economy and in the search for competitiveness. As for example, Quebec in 1991 has received a little more than 20 per cent of the total federal expenditures in research and development.

Likewise, if and when Quebeckers say yes to sovereignty, I believe that the Bloc Quebecois will be in a position to stand as one of the voices of reason in the months preceding its implementation. There and then, many things will have to be discussed, including the preservation of close economic ties between Quebec and Canada.

In this sense, we must all consider the need to preserve a Canada-Quebec economic space allowing for the free circulation of people, goods, capital and services, as well as a common currency. As far as specific models are concerned these will be discussed on the basis of our mutual interests.

In closing, let me restate that, for me as for many Quebeckers, sovereignty is first and foremost a unique opportunity to build two countries that would finally be free to govern themselves as their citizens see it.

Thank you. I am now ready to answer your questions.

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The Sovereignty Option

A joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Canadian Club of Toronto.
Cooperation between sovereign states in Europe and elsewhere. Examples of Canadian Nationalism. Constitutional concerns of Quebec. The Canadian economy. Quebec Sovereignty.