Chapter 2
The Confederation Crisis

15 November 1976

The point of departure for the Task Force cannot be other than the election of the Parti Québécois as the government of Quebec on 15 November 1976. That election victory was the culmination of a long historical process; it was also the beginning of a new era in the life of our country. There had been other occasions in Canadian history when provincial governments were elected in opposition to Confederation, but never before had the goal of provincial independence been sought with the firmness of purpose displayed by the leaders of the Parti Québécois. For the first time since it was created in 1867, the Canadian political union faced the genuine possibility of the secession of one of its largest provinces.

While this signal event in the life of our country stimulated a great deal of concern and discussion in the months which immediately followed, we are aware that it has now receded in importance in the consciousness of many Canadians. It is a very human tendency to believe that a problem has ceased to exist the moment it has passed temporarily from view. This is what has happened, we believe, to the issue of Canadian unity, a subject which in the past decade or two has bobbed up and down in public consciousness like a cork in a choppy sea.

This is not surprising. We recognize that even crises can become tedious and difficult to believe in if they go on too long and if nothing seems to happen. Yet this absence of staying power merits concern if one judges that the problems are ripening quietly beneath the surface while people concern themselves with other things. In addition, we have noticed a resulting tendency to treat each disturbing event which pushes itself through the surface as a fresh and novel occurrence, without historical roots and with no intimate connection to a much broader range of concerns.

When the Task Force was created in the summer of 1977, the memory of the Parti Québécois election victory of November 1976 was still fresh in people's minds, and they had not yet grown accustomed to the fact of having a secessionist government in Quebec. But the Parti Québécois has been in power for more than two years now and, in the minds of many people, nothing too dramatic has happened. We are still one country, the government of Quebec and everyone else seem to be carrying on with business as usual, and the date for the Quebec referendum on sovereignty-association seems, like the horizon, to recede as you move toward it. So why worry?

It is our opinion that this attitude is radically in error. Whatever one's preferences may be, the issue of Canadian unity will shoulder its way to centre stage again and again during the next several years.

While we take the election of the Parti Québécois as our point of departure, we do not regard that event, or any single federal election, or the pending Quebec referendum as defining the sense and substance of the issue the Task Force must tackle. Whether the referendum is "won" or "lost," the underlying problems will remain and will have to be confronted. We believe that such events as these should be taken to symbolize the political crisis Canada is facing, rather than to constitute it. The political crisis which has led to such occurrences displays historical roots which are much deeper and dimensions which are broader than any such single event can comprehend, and its rhythms of development are slower and more inexorable than a single election or referendum would suggest.

The recent past

Almost exactly fourteen years ago, the members of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism warned Canadians that, without fully realizing it, they were passing through the greatest crisis in their history. Although its source was located in Quebec, the size and strategic importance of that province, and the "chain reactions" set off elsewhere, meant that it embraced the whole of Canada. The cause of the crisis, in the opinion of the B&B commissioners, was that "the state of affairs established in 1867, and never since seriously challenged, is now for the first time being rejected by the French Canadians of Quebec."

The fact that so soon after the B&B Commission's diagnosis a secessionist government has assumed power in Quebec shows how accurate it was. But, as the commission itself recognized, the crisis was not really a new one, even at the beginning of the 1960s. In fact, the growing tension in French-English relations in Canada was, as the commission said, "over and above anything that is new, the product and consummation of all the past resentments."

Since the commission made those statements a good deal has been accomplished or attempted by the central and provincial governments to reflect more satisfactorily the French reality in Canada. At the federal level, the main vehicle of reform was the Official Languages Act of 1969 which carried into effect many of the recommendations of the commission. In part as a result of the policies applied under the act, the participation of French-speaking Canadians in the federal public service has increased substantially (although progress at the senior executive level has been slower), and the capacity of the federal public service to serve Canadians in French as well as English has been dramatically extended. In the political domain, too, French-Canadian participation has increased, making it easier for French Canadians to view the institutions of the federal government as common to both the French-speaking and English-speaking citizens of the country. In the last decade, French Canadians have served, for the first time since Confederation, in key economic portfolios, and have taken a wider role in cabinet generally.

At the provincial level, increased recognition has also been given to the needs of the French Canadians, especially in the provinces of New Brunswick and Ontario, where the majority of the French-speaking population outside Quebec live. With an Acadian minority representing a third of its total population, New Brunswick wisely accepted the B&B Commission's invitation to declare itself officially bilingual and has begun the slow process of adapting the structure and services of the province to this linguistic reality. Ontario, on the other hand, with only 5.6 per cent of its population French-speaking, did not accept the recommendations of the commission but has continued the development of French-language services on which it was already embarked. The seriousness of the effort that Ontario has made, for instance, in the field of education, can be glimpsed from the Council of Ministers of Education's estimate that 93.6 per cent of potential French-language students in Ontario are now enrolled in French-language programs at the elementary and secondary levels.

In the same period, Quebec has embarked on a program of more far-reaching consequence. In the 1960s, the emphasis of Quebec government policy was on the reform of education and the major public institutions (such as the provincial government and Crown corporations) to ensure that French Canadians were equipped to meet the demands of a modern industrial society. Beginning in the late 1960s, the institutional emphasis was further accented by an increased reliance upon linguistic legislation. Extending a policy initiated as early as 1910 (when the Gouin government required public utilities and transportation companies to offer services in French as well as English), recent Quebec governments have attempted to strengthen the economic framework of French-speaking Quebec by a series of linguistic measures such as the Bourassa government's Bill 22 (1974) and the Lévesque government's Bill 101 (1977). A major goal of both measures was to improve the access of French Canadians to the highest levels of business in Quebec by regulating the language of work in the province's leading private corporations. In this way, it was hoped to put an end to the economic disadvantages which French Canadians had long experienced, and which previous governments had hoped for over fifty years to remedy, at the individual level, by means of education.

Since the early 1960s, then, considerable efforts at reform have been made in Quebec, in the other provinces, and in Ottawa. Yet more than a decade after the warning of the B&B Commission about a national crisis, the country has moved to an even graver and more critical stage in its history, symbolized by the election of a secessionist government in Quebec.

Why are we drifting apart?

Why have the efforts of governments not been able to reduce the tensions which threaten to divide the country? A variety of answers might be given to this question. In the first place, it would be unreasonable to expect any policies, even if they were correct (something which remains to be established), to quickly undo what is the product and consummation of all the past resentments.

In the second place, the very efforts to improve the situation of French Canadians outside Quebec and at the federal level produced a backlash in English-speaking Canada which in turn generated a reverse effect in Quebec. The complaints about "French power" in Ottawa, the resistance to bilingualism in Ottawa and in the English-speaking provinces, served to convince many francophone Quebecers, some of whom were already disposed to believe it, that little accommodation could be hoped for with English-speaking Canada and that the future of French Canada lay henceforth in Quebec alone. The reaction of English-speaking Canada to the air traffic controllers' strike (known in French as the Gens de l'air affair) during the spring and summer of 1976 played an important symbolic role in convincing some Québécois of the lack of understanding to be looked for from English speaking Canada. For many Québécois, the vehemence with which the English-speaking controllers, pilots and public seemed to reject out of hand the right of French-speaking pilots and controllers to work in their own language, even in a province where they formed a substantial majority, was a clear revelation of the true state of French-English relations in Canada. In this way, the "bilingual backlash,quot; of which the controllers' strike was perhaps the most dramatic example, clearly contributed to the Parti Québécois victory.

But these factors are just the tip of the iceberg. At the base of the renewed crisis are social processes common to all modern societies. The impersonal forces of what the sociologists call modernization-forces such as urbanization, industrialization, mass education, new modes of transportation and communications, and increasing secularization-have had a profound effect on Quebec society, and on Canada as a whole.

Given the functions which provincial governments in Canada are constitutionally called upon to perform, together with the rapid growth in the role and responsibilities of governments in general, it is not surprising that we have seen a vigorous reassertion of the provinces in Canadian federalism. Indeed, part of the explanation of the current political conflict is to be found in the struggle between the central and provincial governments for control over the vastly expanded powers which the process of modernization vests in the state.

However, in Quebec this process has taken a unique form because of the cultural and linguistic vocation of the province. The process of modernization has produced new leaders who are anxious to exercise power but who do not believe that they can achieve the goals essential to their society within the framework of the old power structure of the federal system. This new leadership has an interest, therefore, in the development of the Quebec state as the unique framework of French Canada, and it has been able to mobilize a significant portion of the Quebec electorate to achieve this end. From this perspective, then, what is being sought is not the radical decentralization which appears to be implicit in the goal of sovereignty-association, but the centralization and concentration of power, not in Ottawa, but in Quebec City.

Part of the appeal of this enterprise issues from the fact that the forces of urbanization and industrialization have reduced the influence of some of the old institutional safeguards of French-Canadian society. They have weakened the parish, the Church and the rural community as the framework of French-Canadian society in Quebec and have placed correspondingly greater emphasis on the institutions of the state and of business corporations: hence the ambitions of the new leadership and the legitimacy it has acquired in the eyes of a large portion of the public. This legitimacy is enhanced because the same forces of modernization have weakened the older institutional safeguards of the French-speaking communities outside Quebec, which do not have the ability of the Québécois to fall back upon the power of the state. As a result, the future of those French-speaking communities outside Quebec is put in doubt; and this peril reinforces the tendency of many Québécois to focus their concerns, for all intents and purposes, on Quebec alone.

Other trends of the modern world contribute to this general process. Whereas the era of Confederation was a period when large national states such as Germany and Italy were being forged out of numerous smaller ones, the 1950s and 1960s were a period in which many small states threw off the bonds of European colonialism and emerged independently onto the world stage: at both periods, the international atmosphere undoubtedly influenced the mood and impulse of Quebec.

Contemporary technological and economic changes have tended to centralize bureaucratic and economic power and homogenize social life. Yet this very trend toward centralization and uniformity has produced its own counter-reaction in the reassertion of local identity and autonomy. This is readily apparent, in Europe, for example, where the reassertion of Welsh, Scottish, Breton, Basque and Flemish identities has gone hand-in-hand with the process of economic integration.

Thus paradoxically the process of modernization seems both to submerge and to stimulate the re-emergence of cultural and linguistic loyalties; and this world-wide pattern reinforces the old particularism of Quebec. It lies behind Quebec's drive for increased autonomy, if not independence, and helps to explain the relative inability of reform efforts inside and outside Quebec to reduce the impetus of the independence movement in the last decade.

The same world-wide social forces which are felt in Quebec also affect the rest of Canada, and they have had consequences there which have altered the nature of the unity crisis.

Widening the Issue

When the B&B commissioners were preparing their reports in the mid-sixties they could assume certain facts about the country which can no longer be taken for granted. This change reflects the important ways in which the challenge to Confederation has been modified and amplified in the intervening years.

The most important new element in the equation is the growing strength of the other provinces and the regional loyalties that have formed themselves, primarily within the framework of the provinces. A decade ago it was possible for the B&B Commission to minimize the obvious regional differences in Canada and to stress instead the relative unity within each of the two Canadian realities, French and English-speaking Canada. But that is no longer possible. The international tendency toward local particularism and the broad process of modernization which are reflected in Quebec have also taken root in the rest of Canada, reviving the regional tensions which are an old feature of Canadian life but which had remained relatively muted between the Second World War and the 1960s.

The revival of regionalism was assisted by Quebec. By resisting the centralizing impulse of the federal government during the postwar generation, Quebec helped to open the door to a more general provincial renaissance in the sixties and seventies. But this new reality has also widened the issue originally posed almost exclusively by Quebec so that it now spans the Canadian union as a whole. The crisis which the country faces today is not one of Quebec or of French Canada only: it is a crisis of Confederation itself. In this sense, the challenge to the country differs from that of a decade ago and must be considered in much wider terms. To the fundamental challenge of Canadian duality must now be added the other important challenge of Canadian regionalism.

Another factor which also merits consideration is the growth in self-consciousness of Canadians who are of neither French nor British background, and who are sometimes regarded as a third element to be added to the historic fact of Canadian duality. It was indeed the very definition of the country in dualistic terms, both in the mandate and outlook of the B&B Commission, which helped to stimulate the assertiveness of these ethnic groups, an assertiveness which was consecrated in 1971 by the Trudeau government's policy of multiculturalism. Thus, partly as a result of the government's policy and the response to it in the ethnic communities, the Canadian reality has become more complex, and this complexity must be taken account of in a way that did not seem as necessary a decade ago.

Another social development since the 1960s is the increasingly articulate voice of Canada's native peoples. The dilemma of the native peoples has been a continuing but neglected feature of Canadian life, yet it has acquired a new urgency in recent years, and their place in Canadian society can no longer be overlooked as it frequently was in the previous decade.

A further complicating factor in the equation is the changing condition of the Canadian and world economies. Ten years ago the problems of national unity could be considered without according enormous weight to the economic limits to public policy. With the exception of the short recession at the end of the 1950s, Canada and other industrialized countries had enjoyed uninterrupted economic growth and prosperity since the Second World War. It was still possible to believe that such growth would continue indefinitely and that the choices which Canadians might make about the future of their society were not limited by severe economic constraints.

Since the early seventies, however, we have had far less room to manoeuvre. The economic performance of most industrialized nations has remained sluggish throughout the decade and, what is more, harsher economic conditions have laid bare the long-term structural weaknesses and vulnerability of the Canadian economy. We can no longer hope to buy our way out of our difficulties. Our options are now limited to a degree that was not apparent a decade ago and, whatever happens, hard choices will have to be made.

Another new factor concerns the central government itself. Fifteen years ago, it stood high in the minds of a large number of Canadians, and was widely regarded with respect and a feeling of loyalty. Even those who felt little loyalty to it at least respected its efficiency and competence. Today, that is much less true; "Ottawa," as we found on our tour, is for many Canadians synonymous with all that is to be deplored about modern governments remote, shambling bureaucracy that exacts tribute from its subjects and gives little in return. We recognize that this is an unfair stereotype, and that in another fifteen years the pendulum may have swung back to the other extreme; but the fact that this view has such a widespread appeal today is one of the significant elements that must be borne in mind in any attempt to improve our situation.

Confederation: a crisis and an opportunity

For these reasons, Canadians now find themselves in a situation quite unlike any they have faced before. While we have had major crises in the past, this one is qualitatively different. The diverse elements already described, and others besides, have converged at one point in time and, partly as a result of this convergence, the rather rough-and-ready consensus which once ensured the reasonably effective governing of the country is at the point of breaking down.

People do not normally calculate carefully the costs and benefits of membership in a country; citizenship tends to be accepted as a matter of course. But people today, and not exclusively in Quebec, are asking fundamental questions about their country. Instead of being an unquestioned framework within which life's problems are addressed, the country itself has been placed in doubt.

The widespread dissatisfaction with the present arrangements of the Canadian federation which we have witnessed on our tours might not have crystallized at this time had it not been for the election of a secessionist government in Quebec. The victory of the Parti Québécois has served to focus this dissatisfaction and to legitimize the questioning of the fundamental condition of Canadian nationhood. In so doing, it has plunged the country into a crisis graver than any it has known before.

The election of the Parti Québécois, and all that it entails, has compelled or allowed Canadians to confront problems which they would have been obliged to face sooner or later. It would be foolish for Canadians to think of the challenge which lies ahead solely in terms of the forthcoming referendum on the independence of Quebec. A victory for the federalist cause in the referendum will accomplish little, if no effort is made to address the sources of discontent which have occasioned it.

Yet it would be a mistake to regard this situation as a crisis only, for it is also an opportunity-an opportunity to build anew that sense of common interest, of common purpose and of common will which the present crisis shows us to have been so seriously eroded. Further erosion of the common will in which our society is ultimately grounded would almost certainly spell the end of the Canadian experience.


Last HTML revision: 10 May, 1996

William F. Maton