Maclean’s Interview: Louise Beaudoin

Sovereignty strategist Louise Beaudoin on ‘Frenchification,’ Quebec’s self-confidence, and how to separate from Canada bit by bit

Maclean's Interview: Louise BeaudoinLouise Beaudoin has been at the forefront of Quebec’s sovereignty movement for over 40 years. As a cabinet minister in three Parti Québécois governments, she was largely responsible for the province’s language laws. Now, as a Montreal-area MNA, she is one of the main architects of the party’s new “plan for a sovereign Quebec,” which would use “sectoral referendums” in order to wrestle powers like taxation and culture away from Ottawa.

Q: Tell me about the PQ’s latest plan for a sovereign Quebec.

A: We thought it was time to remobilize the sovereignist troops and relaunch the sovereignty debate. We want to do away with the waiting game. It’s nice to say that we are going to wait for that big night where everything falls into place, but we know this won’t magically happen. So the best way to reignite the debate is this plan that [PQ leader] Pauline Marois has presented. We want to be transparent in what we are doing and what we want. The first thing, of course, is for Ottawa to respect the constitution of 1867, that is to say Quebec’s powers, as well as those that are shared with the federal government, as well as to reclaim certain powers that we think are necessary for Quebec’s development.

Q: In concrete terms, how do you arrive at getting these powers for Quebec?

A: We’ve already started. A year and a half ago we put forward our proposed law on Quebec identity and citizenship. When we get into power we will reintroduce this bill.

Q: You are talking about how the PQ would make it mandatory for anyone running for office to speak French?

A: Yes. We’ll present that part of it as it is, but it’s negotiable. What is sure, though, is that in the next election, if the Parti Québécois wins, both the identity bill and the PQ’s new sovereignty initiative will be front and centre. We will also introduce a new Bill 101, because we believe that it has been very good as far as obliging the children of immigrants to go to French school until the age of 16. But we have to work on Quebec’s businesses. It isn’t worth it for an immigrant from, say, Pakistan, to learn French if he doesn’t need it. And this is more and more the case, especially in Montreal.

Q: This would involves applying Bill 101 to businesses with 50 employees or less. But even Camille Laurin, the father of Bill 101, recognized that this would be nearly impossible on a bureaucratic level to enforce.

A: I think there are ways of doing it.

Q: What can you do?

A: Look, the Journal de Montréal did many investigations, and found that it is easier to be served in English than in French in many places in Montreal. This isn’t acceptable. If Dr. Laurin was still with us, and saw the drift away from French, I’m sure he would be 100 per cent in favour of this. French must be learned inside the walls of every small business, with the blessing of the owner and the managers. The first reflex for an immigrant, and it’s very understandable, isn’t to learn French, it’s to find a job. So you have to make him learn French while, not after, he is working. That is the future of ‘Frenchification’ in Quebec in small- and medium-sized business. It’s the best way to ensure that French is made useful and necessary in the workplace. And under our new Bill 101, the PQ will mandate that immigrants will receive all of their governmental correspondence in French after three years.

Q: It’s an awful lot to say that he must find a job and learn French within three years or else . . .

A: It’s not or else. All we’re saying is that after three years they will receive their government correspondence in French. If they have a problem with reading it, they can call us and we’ll help. But at some point you have to put your foot down. If you are in Italy, you speak Italian. We will inscribe the predominance of the French language in Quebec’s charter.

Q: We’ve had a lot of plans for a sovereign Quebec . . .

A: Yeah, and if one of them had worked we’d be independent today.

Q: Why are Quebecers so apathetic about the idea?

A: I don’t know. I’m not sure they are apathetic, though. The polls say that there are “only” 40 per cent of Quebecers who are favourable to sovereignty right now, but I find that number huge.

Q: But 75 per cent of Quebecers don’t think sovereignty is ever going to happen.

A: I’m trying to find ways to convince them. What we are saying is we are going to do concrete things to get there, to show why sovereignty is necessary.

Q: But it’s been years that you’ve been trying this. This isn’t anything new.

A: Why would I stop? It’s such a lovely road. I was elected to do this.

Q: Tell me about the plans for “sectoral referendums.” I understand the plan is to have not just one but several referendums. What’s the strategy?

A: There’s no real strategy. It’s one of the ways among many to have transfers of power from Ottawa. Like culture, for example.

Q: But what if we go into areas like taxation? Marois wants to remove the federal government’s ability to collect taxes in Quebec. What happens if Ottawa says no?

A: Then the people can decide for themselves. It’s a democracy. Pauline didn’t exclude the possibility of one referendum on taxation, for example. There might eventually be one.

Q: Just one sectoral referendum?

A: One or two.

Q: Or three?

A: No, no. That isn’t our objective. Honestly. If a crisis arises, it will be from Ottawa, because it will be the federal government who won’t be respecting its boundaries.

Q: The thing is, it takes a constitutional amendment in order to change the powers on something as fundamental as taxation. What happens when and if Ottawa says no?

A: We’ve had constitutional amendments in the past. Pauline Marois negotiated for one when Quebec changed from religious- to language-based school boards. Anything can happen.

Q: So you have to create a crisis, as Jacques Parizeau said.

A: No. I don’t think that. I respect Mr. Parizeau’s opinion, but it isn’t my own.

Q: La Presse deemed your current plan “sovereignty à la IKEA,” in the sense that you take the powers one by one because you don’t have the support to take them all at once.

A: We’ve been very clear: our objective is total sovereignty for Quebec. One day there will be a real referendum like in 1995 and 1980.

Q: Is the idea to wrestle so much power from Ottawa, bit by bit, that people become less and less scared of outright independence?

A: That might be a collateral effect, but the intended goal of these referendums is basically to say “always more” for Quebec. More powers, more political space. That’s all.

Q: Many sovereignists seem to have an animosity toward the Quebec population because, they believe, the population is too comfortable and too indifferent. After all, as René Lévesque used to say, Canada isn’t hell.

A: You’re right. Canada isn’t hell. It isn’t a gulag.

Q: In a way that’s your problem, isn’t it?

A: Maybe. But it’s up to us to convince people. It’s a democracy, and democracy means convincing people, not forcing people. Look, people could have elected the ADQ into official opposition again if they wanted to, right? But they didn’t. And our objective, and it’s very clear, is to get out of Canada. And what we say in the meantime is that Quebec wants more. More powers, political space.

Q: When you were minister responsible for Quebec’s French charter, you attracted a fair amount of ire from Montreal’s English community. I’m thinking of that caricature by the Gazette’s Aislin, where he had you dressed up as a dominatrix . . .

A: Ah, yes. My friend Aislin. I’m his fantasy. I hope I still am, despite my age.

Q: What I’m wondering is if you think attitudes have changed on the English side.

A: Yes. I think the anglophone community has become more bilingual and has become more aware and accepting of the French majority. The new challenge now, for us, is getting new arrivals here to become part of the French majority.

Q: But you could say that the English community has done so in the last 15 years because there hasn’t been the threat of separation. The second you bring that threat back . . .

A: What English people in Quebec need to understand is that the PQ has never questioned their rights as a minority. McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s are subsidized to the hilt by the Quebec government, with our tax dollars, so you can’t say that English institutions aren’t respected. It’s changed, but for a long time you could say that the French were a sort of majority ruled by English Rhodesians. Bill 101 changed it, and for a long time it worked. The problem is, globalization has made English the dominant language again. So it is important to reinforce the French fact again.

Q: And you need sovereignty for this.

A: I’ll tell you why we need sovereignty. To have confidence in ourselves, to be as open as possible to others.

Q:You need sovereignty to be open to others?

A: Yes. To be open to others you need to be sure of oneself, and the only way to be totally sure of ourselves is to be sovereign. If you and I talk in 10 years after sovereignty, I’m convinced that Quebecers will have even more self-confidence, they’ll be far more advanced individually and collectively, and everyone will be more happy. There you go.

Q: It’s almost a religion.

A: Oh, good God no. I’m secular, as secular as they come.

Q: So it’s a secular religion, in the sense that you have to proselytize.

A: And federalism isn’t? Federalists do the same thing, so I’m as religious as they are, I guess. Look at Charest, when he raised his Canadian passport in the air during the referendum in 1995. You’re telling me that wasn’t cult-like? When it’s time to fight, Quebec federalists like Jean Charest all become preachers for Captain Canada.

Q: The end result is that Quebec is constantly at war with itself. It’s an obsession. I wish I could come here and interview you about the weather instead. Anything else but this.

A: The weather is never good in Quebec City. What do you want to talk about? Life’s purpose? Death? Love? Sure, but this is part of my life, and I love it.

Q: There’s a cartoon that ran in Le Devoir not long ago of a guy sitting on a horse, obviously from Alberta, screaming, ‘Separate already!’ It seems some Canadians can’t wait.

A: Part of it is that all of this debate happens peacefully. That’s a big thing. Look at what happened in Ireland for 30 years. Look at the Basque territories in Spain. Here we are an example of how to do things. Sure, we piss each other off, and English Canadians say they wish we’d make up our minds, and we say that they don’t understand a thing. But it is exemplary because the debate is civilized.

Q: So because we aren’t violent we are condemned to this endless cycle.

A: Yes, but it’s better than being violent, isn’t it? It’s much, much better.