M. Pelletier breaks his silence

Gilbert Lavoie’s week-long series of excerpts from his twilight interviews with Jean Pelletier continue to provide fascinating headlines in Le Soleil. The former Quebec City mayor and Jean Chrétien chief of staff always loved to talk, it’s just that during most of his years in Ottawa he was selective about who he’d talk to.  So there’s an element of surprise in much of what he told Lavoie. Not that what Pelletier says should be taken as gospel, and indeed just about the only thing missing from Lavoie’s yeoman work is some attempt to put Pelletier’s assertions into context and to test them against the recollections of contemporaries. Still, fun. Highlights:

• Pelletier says Chrétien was a year away from developing a high-speed rail line between Quebec City and Toronto that would have been financed through the sale of Petro-Can shares. But the whole thing was sidelined by Paul Martin, “who was always a bus guy.”

• Pelletier calls Martin a nasty word for firing Pelletier from Via during the sponsorship unpleasantness.

• Pelletier says he supported the Meech Lake accord (he didn’t start working for Chrétien until after its collapse) and he wrote Chrétien a long personal letter explaining his disappointment with the death of Meech. Chrétien read it and discussed it with Pelletier, but it “didn’t change his mind.”

And now there’s more. In today’s installment, Pelletier repeats a claim the Chrétien camp has been making lately: that the Clarity Act was Chrétien’s idea, not Stéphane Dion, and that in fact Dion resisted the idea at first before rallying like, in Pelletier’s words, “a good soldier.” Perhaps even more interesting, Pelletier says he and Dion travelled to Quebec City twice in 1999 to try to persuade Jean Charest to “lead the charge” on Clarity — a passage that demands further explanation, because the Clarity Act as written bound the federal government, not Quebec’s National Assembly, so it’s unclear what Charest’s role would have been. But all of this makes it worthwhile, perhaps, to dig out some personal memories to put the events of the late 1990s into some perspective.

  • A lot of the intellectual work on clarity predates Dion’s arrival in politics. Indeed, it predates the 1995 referendum. Sources include the Reform party’s 20/20 legislation, written by Stephen Harper and (the Reform staffer) Scott Reid (not the Liberal), which proposed overhauling the division of powers while threatening tough consequences for a secession attempt; the writing of William Johnson and other members of the foundering Cité Libre group (Trudeau nostalgists, arch-federalist) around Max and Monique Nemni; and a few roads the federal Liberals peered down but decided not to travel. I was at the Cité Libre dinner in 1994 where Allan Rock, as Justice Minister trying to grab a little Trudeau-ite lustre for a future leadership bid, admitted that a unilateral Quebec declaration of independence would have no legal basis, but called such considerations “a technical detail.”
  • Somewhere there’s a piece I wrote for the National Post within a few days of Dec. 1, 1999, tracing Chrétien’s actions from the referendum until the then-looming arrival of the Clarity Act. There’s a clear line of action from a speech he gave in Toronto, just a couple of days after the referendum, to Clarity. Chrétien tells the Toronto crowd he will “never” let another referendum on a fuzzy question happen again. Many at the time wondered whether he would ban referendums outright. He appoints Marcel Massé to come up with proposals for post-referendum strategy, on a very tight deadline — five weeks, I believe. Massé is soon joined by Allan Rock, who has decided legal questions around secession can no longer be a “technical detail.” Under Rock, the Justice Department intervenes in a Quebec Superior Court case on secession’s legality, then puts a secession reference to the Supreme Court. (Anne McLellan replaces Rock at Justice soon after the reference is launched.) When Dion joins cabinet at the beginning of 1996, he becomes part of a strategy group with Massé and Rock called the G-3. Later Lloyd Axworthy and Sheila Copps are added and it becomes a G-5. Massé revealed his strategy report at the Gomery hearings; every element was substantially in place by the time Dion joined cabinet.
  • Dion’s role from 1996-1999 is largely rhetorical. Which is far from saying it was insignificant. He was the pitch man — incredible but true — for a federal role in Quebec, and for the proposition that secession would entail difficulties its advocates refused to acknowledge. He does this with an endless series of speeches and his open letters to Lucien Bouchard, Jacques Brassard, Bernard Landry and even Claude Ryan. The legal stuff is handled, well, by Rock, and shakily by McLellan. The court’s ruling on the secession reference closely resembles the federal government’s factum. Lucien Bouchard, after promising for 18 months to reject the Supremes’ edicts as illegitimate, announces he’s delighted by their ruling. Chrétien pounces, with a triumphant news conference pointing out all the parts of the secession ruling that Bouchard didn’t embrace.
  • But even then there’s a lot of reluctance about “doing the rules.” The Chrétien cabinet, by and large, is certain that legislating some kind of federal response to the Court reference will cause a backlash. So is Lucien Bouchard’s cabinet. Joseph Facal, Bouchard’s intergovernmental minister, calls the National Post — something Facal never did before or since — and summons a scribe to Montreal so Facal can announce that the Quebec government won’t be bound by anything in the Court reference. It’s a clear attempt to goad the Chrétienites, and it works a charm. Dion tables Clarity within weeks afterward.
  • I’ve never known whether Dion was ahead, behind or right beside Chrétien during all this. But the line from 1995 to 1999 is pretty straight, and includes clear statements by Chrétien and actions by his ministers before Dion arrives in Ottawa. In his autobiography, Chrétien says Dion agreed with him on the substance but thought it was too early to legislate; Dion wanted to prepare public opinion some more first. In his own autobiography, Paul Martin says he didn’t want legislation but that when it became public he supported it. This passage in Martin’s book is refreshing because it actually squares with publicly available evidence.
  • Charest is an interesting case. He certainly hated the Clarity Act, came out and held a news conference against it within hours of its introduction. To this day his government continues to defend Bouchard and Facal’s silly riposte, Bill 99, in court. Yet I’ve noticed he never badmouthed Dion personally. And there was indeed early speculation about trying to get the Quebec Liberals onside.
  • Recall that, as Pelletier mentioned in his last interviews, the Court reference calls on “political actors” to decide whether a question or result was sufficiently clear. Indeed Claude Ryan, from the majestic seclusion of retirement, had declared that he found the vagueness of the 1995 question disappointing and wasn’t sure what he would have made of a narrow Yes victory. But Charest was dead set against any federal intervention in setting the terms. Well then: if “political actors” had a role in determining the question’s clarity; and Quebec federalists didn’t think the rest of Canada had a role to play; then, I argued in a Post column, Quebec federalists, led by Charest, should take the lead, by tabling the wording of an acceptable question in the National Assembly. Bouchard would have been furious but helpless. At the time I heard, very much through the grapevine, that my suggestion had caught the attention of one person close to Chrétien. Pelletier’s interview suggests some version of the same argument made its way to Charest, twice, before Clarity was tabled. It’s no surprise that Charest said no. His is the classic Quebec federalist stance: he prays that the PQ won’t ever hold a referendum and frets when they write the rulebook to their advantage, but he refuses to do anything that might act as a counterweight.

Anyway, all of this is moot. The Quebec secession debate lies dormant, for now. If it thaws, it will be under different actors and in different circumstances. Pelletier’s interview serves as a reminder that nothing definitive about 1995 has yet been written on the federalist side.

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