Dominique Clift, “Bourassa on road to constitutional confrontation”, Montreal Star (1 February 1975)

Document Information

Date: 1975-02-01
By: Dominique Clift (Montreal Star)
Citation: Dominique Clift, “Bourassa on road to constitutional confrontation”, Montreal Star (1 February 1975).
Other formats: Click here to view the original document (PDF).

Office of The Prime Minister
Cabinet du Premier ministre


Name of Publication Montreal Star Nom de la publication
Date FEB 1 1975 Date

Bourassa on road to
constitutional confrontation

Dominique Clift

PREMIER Robert Bourassa has been
quietly altering his political aims in a
way that could challenge existing con-
cepts of Canadian federalism and
even existing constitutional structures.

There has been a steady and
almost imperceptible escalation in the
slogans and statements which have
come from the premier. And they
point to new arrangements which
would be half way between outright
separation and the present political
system. However. the Quebec govern-
ment is still some way off from a
direct confrontation with Ottawa and
the rest of the country on the issue.

The premier began to change some
time after the 1970 provincial elec-
tions. On several occasions he pointed
out that it would be unacceptable “for
an English-speaking majority in Ot-
tawa to decide on matters affecting
French cultural interests.” As it
turned out, this covered a wide range
of topics, from social affairs to com-
munications and immigration.

However, Bourassa has always
refrained from pressing his claims
too vigorously, an attitude which
caused many people to doubt either
his seriousness or his sincerity. In
some cases, such as the question of
family allowances and social aid, he
was content to enter into ad-
ministrative arrangements with Ot-
tawa without the underlying constitu-
tional problems being resolved. in the
field of communications, he allowed
matters to drift for a while until a
provincial decision precipitated a
court test on jurisdiction over cable
television. But strictly political con-
frontations were avoided at all costs,
thus masking the changes in outlook
which were taking place.

During the provincial election a
year and a half ago, the premier
campaigned on the theme of “cultural
sovereignty.” The idea was never
clearly definedhand it seemed to be
merely another Liberal example of
political opportunism designed to pre-
empt an important aspect of the Parti
Québécois’ own program.

A few months ago, on the occasion
of a visit to Paris, Bourassa began
talking in terms of “a French state
within a Canadian Common Market.”
Again there is no clear definition of
what the terms imply, even if they
come quite close to Reno Lévesque’s
own views about the future of

The temptation to dismiss these
ideas as mere political talk is a very
strong one. But the road travelled
during five years of Liberal rule in
Quebec suggests that they be taken
seriously. The contrast with what the
premier was saying and thinking at
the time of the 1970 provincial elec-
tions is too great to be ignored.


When he first came to power,
Bourassa believed that the most
destructive aspect of politics was the
chronic rivalry between the provincial
and federal governments. It was clear
to him that the rigid compartmen-
talization of government jurisdictions
was a source of inefficiency in the
sense that it encouraged buck passing
among various levels of public ad-
ministration. People whose problems
did not fit the jurisdictions of one
government or the other found it im-
possible to get help. Conflicting
policies initiated by various levels of
government only served to undermine
public confidence and encourage dis-
satisfaction with the existing political

The answer was close ad-
iministrative co-operation between Ot-
tawa and Quebec. with constitutional
jissues being kept beyond the realm of
politics. This was a time when
Quebec was coming out of an
economic recession and when it
needed money rather than clear de-
finitions of its constitutional powers.
The money was relatively easy to
come by thanks to the Trudeau gov-
ernment and the growth of French
Power in Ottawa.

Quebec had acquired a very
satisfactory pipeline into Ottawa. It
was possible to oxen a very real in-
fluence on the formulation of federal
spending programs. Informal contacts
between cabinet ministers and top
civil servants in Quebec and Ottawa
helped to resolve many problems
which had endlessly plagued formal
meetings and conferences.

In other words. Bourassa’s initial
drive was to minimize policy dif-
ferences and to put the accent on co-
operation. But little by little, the
original determination was eroded. In
his speeches and statements, the pre-
mier gradually laid the groundwork
for a return to an era of confronta-

The crucial turning point may well
have been the decision to go ahead
with a language policy, which seems
to have been made some time in
1973. The govomment’s intentions to
act in relation to the language of
education and business had been stat-
ed many times previously, and there
was little doubt as to what would be
done in these respects.

The key decision on Bill 22 did not
concern its contents as much as its
presentation. The government had to
decide whether it should proceed in a
piecemeal fashion or whether it
should resort to a general and sym-
bolic statement of its aims. Many re-
forms had already been accomplished
in the field of language without draw-
ing too much attention, such as for
example the requirement to know
French before being able to practise
a recognized profession. But Bourassa
opted in favor of a symbolic
legislative statement of language
policy, a move which would in fact
favor linguistic confrontations and
trigger widespread criticism.

On the constitution, the premier
seems to be moving in a parallel
direction, towards a resolution of ex-
isting ambiguities and tensions. This,
in effect, means a hardening of
political attitudes.

There are several reasons behind
the gradual change in Bourassa’s
political aims. Some are rather
frivolous, such as an obsessive desire
to be always one up on the Parti
Québécois. Another is the desire to
recover part of the nationalist support
which has been deserting the Liberal
Party and thereby threatening its
political hold on the province. But
these are peripheral problems that
have little to do with the central is-

The falling birth rate among the
French population is at the root of
Bourassa’s gradual return to the
traditional polarization between
Quebec and Ottawa. Population trends
over the past 10 years have had a
dramatic impact on education,
employment and on the economic
basis of many cultural activities. As a
result, Quebec voters have tended to
adopt a very anxious and defensive
attitude on any question which might
have a bearing on the survival of
French culture.

The premier may not be prone to
this type of cultural anxiety. But in
his own field of activity, which is
politics and public administration, he
can clearly perceive the impact of
current trends.

Within a decade, Quebec represen-
tation in the House of Commons in
Ottawa could easily decline from 25
to 20 per cent, with a corresponding
loss of influence in the federal
cabinet. Because of the very nature
of Canadian federalism, where the fis-
cal preponderance of the federal gov-
ernment means the subordination of
provincial aims, population trends
could seriously affect Quebec’s ability
to have adequate control over its
cultural destinies.

The advent of French Power in Ot-
tawa as well as the political pre-
eminence of Prime Minister Pierre
Trudeau have temporarily halted the
decline of Quebec’s influence in the
Canadian context. While Quebec
representation in the House of Com-
mons has been going down steadily,
its representation in the federal
cabinet has tended to remain steady.

Informal contacts at the cabinet
and the civil service levels have been
extremely helpful in resolving many
of Bourassa’s financial and ad-
ministrative problems. For example,
under any other prime minister than
the present one, it would have been
extremely difficult to resolve the
crisis triggered by the Olymic de-
ficit. But now with a favorable
climate in Ottawa, it is quite likely
that federal assistance in this respect
can be sufficiently disguised so as not
to arouse criticism and antagonism in
the other provinces.

But this kind of string-pulling is a
phenomenon which is not likely to
survive the Trudeau government.
Bourassa is therefore asking himself
what will happen when Quebec’s in-
fluence in Ottawa becomes propor-
tional to its percentage of the Cana-
dian population. At that point federal
decisions are more likely than ever to
clash with the cultural anxieties of
Quebec’s French voters. And at the
same time Bourassa may well be
overwhelmed by the contigencies
that always seem to be arising in
Quebec politics.

Despite the case with which he
talks about cultural sovereignty or of
a French state in a Canadian Com-
mon Market, the premier still has to
work out the constitutional implica-
tions of his slogans. Very little formal
work has yet been done in this direc-
tion, except for some election plan-
ning for 1977. The premier is not even
sure of the results he wants to
achieve, whether he would like a dis-
guised form of separatism or a
modified federalism that would not in-
volve any profound constitutional

The least disruptive approach
would be a reallocation of Canadian
tax resources among the various
levels of government. This is the
traditional approach of Quebec, one
that has not been particularly suc-
cessful in the past. What it would
mean in effect is that Ottawa would
transfer to the provinces complete
responsibility for such federal pro-
grams as Medicare along with the
taxation resources that go with them.
In addition, Quebec would also like to
set its own immigration policies, de-
termine its own interest in the very
wide field of communications and
subsidies to cultural activities.

Changes of this nature would cer-
tainly place enormous strains on the
constitutional interrelationships of
governments across Canada. And the
way these strains are tackled would
depend to a very large extent on the
political mood of the country. In the
past such demands have been said to
be unacceptable by prime ministers
John Diefenbaker and Pierre


In any event, a real test of
Bourassa’s ideas may be coming up
fairly soon. Last fall Trudeau indicat-
ed that one of his priorities was to
bring the British North America Act
under Canadian control and to de-
velop a constitutional amendment
formula that would be acceptable to
all governments in Canada. In June,
1970, at Victoria, Bourassa vetoed a
similar attempt on the grounds that
the new constitution should define
wider powers for the Quebec

A new conference may be taking
place in a year or two which might
signal a constitutional crisis in the
country. It will be the last such at-
tempt while Quebec enjoys a relative-
ly powerful position in Canadian
politics. Afterwards, as Bourassa re-
alizes, the provinces will not have the
political leverage necessary to froce
accomodation to its views.

The premier is under considerable
pressure to succeed in obtaining a
change in Canadian federalism. If he
does not manage to obtain at least a
more favorable distribution of tax re-
soureces, then the political situation
reverts back to what it was before
1970, that is, a choice between the
status quoi and outright separation.

The ambiguity with which
Bourassa has been stating his case in
recent years has at least the merit of
not prejudging the outcome of a re-
newed confrontation with Ottawa. But
it has the marked disadvantage of in-
ducing skepticism about his ultimate
intentions and his political beliefs.

Leave a Reply