Andrew Coyne: Lucien Bouchard or Jacques Parizeau?

Who's more 'realistic' about sovereignty?

Amid the kerfuffle over Lucien Bouchard’s renunciation of the separatist “dream” — desirable, perhaps, but not achievable — spare a thought for Jacques Parizeau. Most PQ leaders wind up disillusioned and embittered like Bouchard, loathing the party they once led and heartily loathed in return. Pierre-Marc Johnson, Andre Boisclair, even René Lévesque himself: all eventually lost their passion for the cause, and were reviled for it by the faithful.

But not Parizeau. Fat Jack still holds to the old religion with undiminished fervor. Not for him Bouchard’s pessimism. In his latest book, La souveraineté du Québec: Hier, aujourd’hui et demain, Parizeau remains as resolute as ever that Quebec’s independence is only a matter of time. If Bouchard’s intervention has made trouble for the PQ leadership, seeming to suggest they might as well give up, Parizeau’s did much the same, by suggesting the battle was nearly won.

And yet, in a way, Parizeau was always the most realistic of the separatist leaders — the most “lucide,” if you will. Levesque thought there could be such a thing as sovereignty-association. Bouchard insisted on proposing an economic and political partnership with what remained of Canada. Parizeau rejected all such half-way houses, reasoning, rightly, that the rest of Canada would never agree to it. And while Bouchard and other PQ leaders may have believed that the terms of separation could be negotiated, like a trade treaty, only Parizeau understood that the thing could never be negotiated: it could only be achieved by a sharp and sudden rupture — a unilateral declaration of independence, followed by a series of lightning-quick manoeuvres, the whole to be effected within days. A revolution, in other words.

That was the plan in 1995, whatever the wording of the referendum question, and by however narrow a margin it might have passed. Some of what Parizeau had in mind, such as his scheme to throw the Quebec Pension Plan into the currency markets to avert a collapse of the dollar, he has been bold enough to share with us. Other measures, the highways that would have been blocked and so forth, are known only to insiders. Suffice to say we dodged a very nasty bullet.

It wouldn’t have worked, of course: even Parizeau was a fantasist, at bottom. His coup would likely have failed within weeks, if not days, as capital fled, banks collapsed, Quebec’s courts ruled the government’s actions unlawful, and the promised international recognition failed to materialize. Among the less unpleasant consequences.

But it had a damn sight more chance of succeeding than Bouchard-style negotiations, which would have gone straight to nowhere, there being no lawful entity to negotiate on the rest-of-Canada’s behalf, nor any means of constituting one. Had negotiations ever got under way, it would soon have become clear that every issue was a zero-sum game, where one side’s gain was the other side’s loss (the debt? the territory? the Habs?). And if by some miracle the negotiators had arrived at a deal, the constitutional amendments required to enact it would have had to be ratified by every province, most by referendum. Not. A. Chance.

But then, the entire enterprise would have been undermined from the start by a logical paradox. Quebec’s sole bargaining chip in the negotiations would have been the threat of unilateral separation. But if such a threat were hollow, as Quebec’s presence at the table suggested, what incentive would we have had to negotiate?

So it’s a little rich for Bouchard to be posing as the voice of reason in this debate — as it is for him to profess himself so lately distressed at the PQ’s intolerance. This was the leader, after all, who scolded Quebecers for being the “white race” that has the fewest babies, who demonized Jean Chretien as a vendu, and who upheld, first to last, separatism’s fundamental premise: that it is intolerable to have to share a country with the Other. Even the sainted Lévesque, whom Bouchard holds up as a beacon of tolerance next to the current yobs, was not above pointing to Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s middle name to suggest where his true loyalties lay.

It’s possible, in sum, to measure who’s the more tolerant separatist, just as it’s possible to grade them on a scale of realism. But is it really worth the effort?

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