Separatism's quiet evolution
Quebec's new Catalonia trade bureau is part of the province's 'long and elaborate' dress rehearsal for nationhood on the world stage, Kate Jaimet writes.
Ottawa Citizen 13 March 1999
On the surface, the event will spotlight a bid to strengthen Quebec's economic and cultural links with Catalonia -- a region of Spain whose people, like Quebec's, speak a minority language and share a history of struggle for autonomy and self-expression.
But the new bureau is also part of a larger effort by Mr. Bouchard's Parti Quebecois government to convince foreign nations to accept sovereignty as Quebec's legitimate and inevitable destiny -- and to be prepared to recognize Quebec as an independent nation when a Yes vote finally triumphs in a future referendum.
"It's a long and elaborate game, and it has gone on intermittently since the Parti Quebecois was first elected in 1976," says Michael Bliss, a history professor at the University of Toronto. "One way in which Quebec (plays) this game is by trying to establish its offices as embassies abroad. It's true that the Pequistes, as long as they are in power, are going to try to push at this."
Since the 1960s, Quebec has developed by far the largest foreign presence of any of Canada's provinces, and is the only province with a Ministry of International Relations. With a budget of $82 million, the ministry maintains six general delegations -- in Brussels, London, Paris, New York, Tokyo and Mexico -- and about two dozen smaller offices across Europe, South America and Africa, some located within Canadian embassies.
This week, Quebec announced it will increase resources in its offices in New York, Boston and Chicago, and open three other new offices: in Argentina, Chile and Brazil. It also plans to reinforce its presence in Shanghai. The primary purpose of these offices -- all of which are approved by the federal government -- is to promote trade and cultural links.
They serve to "represent Quebec as it really is to the outside world," says Martin Roy, press secretary to Quebec Minister of International Relations Louise Beaudoin. "If there are other reasons, they're secondary."
Asked if laying the international groundwork for Quebec sovereignty is one of those secondary reasons, he replied: "You can see it like that."
There is evidence to "see it like that" in an internal document from Quebec's Department of International Relations, leaked to the press in 1997.
The document outlined a strategy in which Quebec would strengthen ties "with certain regions of Europe, including Catalonia, Bavaria, Flanders, Wallonia and the Rhone-Alps." Like Quebec, those regions are smaller political units within larger countries, where cultural minorities have long histories of pushing for autonomy.
According to the 1997 document, the strategy would be to gain the support of these regions, in the hopes that they would then "exercise a determining influence on the central governments of their respective countries, which they might sensitize to Quebec's particular political situation."
For more than 30 years, Quebec governments have been fighting for more power abroad, while the federal government has insisted that only Canada speaks with the voice of a sovereign nation. Although France's current policy on Quebec independence is "non-indifference, non-interference," in the shoving matches between Quebec and the federal government, France has sometimes acted as Quebec's informal ally, cheering and urging the province on.
It began in 1961, when Quebec opened its first diplomatic office in Paris. In the course of that decade, there is evidence that some members of the French government worked to promote the sovereigntist cause in Quebec, including diplomat Pierre-Louis Mallen. Mr. Mallen engineered French President Charles de Gaulle's unforgettable 1967 visit to Quebec.
The trip climaxed with Gen. de Gaulle shouting "Vive le Quebec libre!" from the balcony of the Montreal City Hall. A few months later, Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson warned his cabinet that Gen. de Gaulle had "mapped out a deliberate campaign for the separation of Quebec from Canada."
In 1968, the African nation and former French colony of Gabon invited Quebec delegates to an eduction ministers' conference, but pointedly left Canada off the list. Mr. Pearson believed Paris was behind the snub, and recalled Canada's ambassador to France for three weeks.
It was also during the 1960s that the idea first arose of creating la Francophonie -- a gathering of French-speaking countries analogous to the British Commonwealth.
Power struggles among Canada, France and Quebec blocked the project for years. France refused to hold a summit without representation from Quebec, while Ottawa and Quebec could never agree on that province's role within a gathering of national leaders.
Finally, in 1985, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney struck a deal with Premier Robert Bourassa that gave Quebec a wide margin of free expression within la Francophonie and also allowed New Brunswick, Canada's only officially bilingual province, to participate.
The first Francophone summit, in February1986, allowed Quebec to step into the diplomatic ring with leaders of sovereign states. But New Brunswick premier Richard Hatfield criticized the arrangement, saying that it brought the divisions within Canada to the world stage, and gave other countries an advantage against Canada in diplomatic negotiations.
"Are we not confusing the world by having several voices speaking for a single country?" Mr. Hatfield asked.
By the time the March 1997 Francophonie summit was held in Hanoi, Vietnam, Mr. Hatfield's apprehensions had proven well-founded. In a news conference leading up to the summit, Mr. Bouchard openly promoted Quebec independence and tried to convince delegates to accept the legitimacy of a sovereignty referendum.
The latest Canada-Quebec spat occurred Wednesday, when France invited Quebec to a meeting of representatives of sovereign states, and Canada's representative stayed away in protest.
Although the incident itself was minor -- the meeting was an informal luncheon discussion on cultural diversity -- there was a principle at stake for both parties.
But other governments, especially European ones, have their own problems with minorities seeking independence, says Mr. Bliss: the last thing they can afford to do is support a unilateral declaration of independence from Quebec. Even France may have to restrain its support, lest its Corsican minority follow Quebec's lead.
In fact, Mr. Bliss adds, Mr. Bouchard will be pressured to take a subdued, diplomatic tone on his trip to Barcelona -- a trip during which he will meet with the leader of Catalonia, President Jordi Pujol, but not with Spanish leader Jose Maria Aznar.
"Mr. Bouchard will have to be very careful what he says," Mr. Bliss says. "I suspect if
he isn't careful, he's going to have an angry Spanish government on his hands."