The Americas: Mulroney Faced Anew With Provincial Schisms

Republished on on February 07, 2006

Wall Street Journal, Jan
30, 1987

To Canada`s suffering prime
ministers, the country`s politics must sometimes look
like one of those children`s games where you try to get
all the balls in holes simultaneously—except that there
aren`t enough holes. It is simply impossible to balance
various regions` interests for long.

For example, just before Christmas
there was an ominous indication that Quebec`s language
politics were heating up once again. Amid great
publicity, the French-nationalist

St. Jean Baptiste Society
organized a five-bus tour
of downtown Montreal. Signs in French only were cheered,
those including English booed.

The Liberal provincial government
of Premier Robert Bourassa had been quietly trying to
finesse the language issue by maintaining legislation
passed by its separatist predecessor to suppress
English, but stalling

prosecution of merchants
displaying English-only
signs in contravention of it. Now the government
hurriedly announced it would tighten up—only to be
blind-sided by a long-awaited ruling from the Quebec
Appeals Court striking down aspects of the legislation
under the
Canadian Charter of Rights.
Between Canadian law and
French nationalist rage, including an immediate serious
firebombing, Mr. Bourassa`s Liberals are trapped—an
outcome Quebec separatists have long predicted.

Meanwhile, back in Western Canada,

of the "CF-18 affair" have
barely died down. This was the

by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney`s
Progressive Conservative government in Ottawa to divert
the maintenance contract for Canada`s version of the
F-18 fighter to Montreal and away from a Western firm
that had submitted the lowest bid. Mr. Mulroney tried to
justify his intervention on Canadian Nationalist
grounds: The Western bidder was technically
British-owned. It is a measure of Western Canada`s
alienation that his explanation was universally
dismissed as a transparent excuse for outrageous

A recent trip from Montreal to
Victoria brought home again how profound these sectional
divergences are—and how unaware of each other, apart
from these periodic explosions, most Canadians remain. A
Montreal journalist says flatly that there are no
Western separatists—open advocates of the secession of
Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and/or British Columbia
from Canada. But a few days later, a Vancouver talk show
is besieged by them. English Canadians widely assume
that Quebec has rejected separatism for good. But in
Montreal the emergence of Quebec as a French
nation-state in all but name is regarded as

Many of Canada`s problems are quite
simply the fault of a constitution flawed in terms of
elementary political science. Canada imported from
Britain a parliamentary system developed for a small,
homogeneous unitary polity. It lacks the protection for
distinct but outvoted regional communities that in the
U.S. is furnished by the Senate, with its two members
from each state regardless of population. Canada`s 10
provinces have considerable individual powers, but they
lack direct influence over the federal government.

This is why Western Canada has
found itself treated by Ottawa as a colony in a pure
mercantilist sense. Its windfall energy profits from the
OPEC price hikes were confiscated under royalty
provisions of the National Energy Program, and now the
realization is dawning that federal interference may
well have cost the West this once-in-a-lifetime chance
to develop its high-cost reserves.

Canada`s absence of checks and
balances has also made possible the governing elite`s
prolonged effort to bribe and co-opt the French-speaking
quarter of the population, virtually all concentrated in
Quebec, by offering it more power and perquisites than
its size would warrant. But the very real economic and
political costs of this policy to English Canada are
increasingly apparent.

For example, the province of
Ontario is now moving toward official bilingualism
although almost all of its tiny French minority (1.6% in
metro Toronto) speak English. The expense will be
enormous—$4 million to translate existing laws alone.
More important, the consequence of federal bilingualism
is to award the minority a decisive advantage in getting
government employment. Since the Progressive
Conservative Party invariably wins elections in English
Canada, only to be stymied by the Quebec bloc vote, it`s
hardly surprising that some influential Toronto
conservatives are discussing a campaign to expel Quebec
from confederation.

Of course, the Progressive
Conservative Party actually won the federal election of
1984 by the significantly desperate expedient of
accepting as its leader Brian Mulroney, who had never
even sought public office but had the advantage of being
a bilingual Quebecer. And Mr. Mulroney did carry
Quebec—but it is now agreed that this was a historical
freak like John Diefenbaker`s similar 1958 sweep, and
will prove equally evanescent.

However, Mr. Mulroney`s position in
Western Canada also seems vulnerable—either to the
socialist New Democratic Party, which has not yet
totally squandered good will from its Western populist
beginnings, or to a new regionally oriented party. He
has a lot of juggling to do before the federal election
deadline in 1989.

Mr. Brimelow, a senior editor of Forbes magazine,
recently toured Canada promoting his book on the nation,
"The Patriot Game" (Key Porter Books, Toronto).