QUEBEC CITY — For three days, in an ornate salon in this wintry provincial capital, 36 men and women have been engaging in talks that Quebecers hope will settle their province's grievances with English-speaking Canada once and for all.
The Commission on the Political and Constitutional Future of Quebec was created in September and given a mandate to travel throughout this vast province, three times the size of France, and to hear testimony from the public on how Quebec's relationship with the rest of Canada ought to be changed.
By the end of March, the commission is supposed to deliver a report on Quebec's choices, with recommendations.
"What we are seeking is a new definition of the relationship between Quebec and Canada and of Quebec's place inside or 'beside' Canada," commission co-chairman Michel Belanger said in his opening remarks.
This week's talks are just the kickoff. From Quebec City, the commission will move next to Montreal for more hearings. And after that, it will spend the rest of 1990 traveling to various outlying towns, some of them known for the stridence of their pro-independence views, others for their ambivalence on the Quebec sovereignty issue.
The commission's approach is slow, cautious and deliberate, and proponents say this shows Quebec's maturity and determination to handle its affairs in a democratic manner. Indeed, this is nothing like the Quebec of the 1960s and early 1970s, when militant French-speaking separatists bombed buildings, kidnaped officials and even murdered one provincial minister in efforts to achieve independence.
But critics of the commission's approach say it is so broadly based, so democratic, so committed to hearing people from all walks of life, that it will never be able to reach a consensus by the end of March. If these critics prove right, then Quebec will be no closer to solving its identity problems five months from now than it is today.
Quebecers today say they feel, as never before, emotionally divorced from English-speaking Canada. Their feelings lie in their fear that their language and way of life will vanish in a sea of Anglo culture if actions are not taken to protect all things French.
With that in mind, the Quebec government has banned English-language outdoor signs throughout the province, required most children to attend French schools and set up its own immigration bureaus in foreign capitals in hopes of attracting French-speaking immigrants.
English Canadians tend to frown on all this, seeing it at best as an infringement on English-speaking Quebecers' civil liberties--and at worst as an attempt by Quebec to become a separate state without coming right out and declaring independence. But the more English-speakers chide the Quebecers, the more the Quebecers conclude that English Canadians cannot respect their values.
Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tried for three years to patch things up by launching a package of constitutional amendments--the so-called Meech Lake Accord--that would have given additional powers to Quebec. But debate over the amendments turned stormy, and Quebecers began to see the accord as a symbol of how seriously English-speaking Canada would ever take their aspirations.
By the time the Meech Lake Accord collapsed last June, about 60% of Quebecers were telling opinion pollsters they favored "sovereignty" or "sovereignty-association," a Quebec term that means political independence combined with continued economic links with the rest of Canada.
It was at this point that Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, a committed federalist, said he would impanel a commission to decide what to do.
Whether the commission will be able to identify a single path for huge, diverse Quebec remains to be seen. The panel's very makeup reflects Quebec's inability, over the years, to agree upon a clear course of action.
Commissioners include Liberal Party members, who tend to support Canadian unity; Parti Quebecois members, who stand for sovereignty; English-speaking Montrealers who vow they'll defend Canadian unity at all costs; old-time unionists who have supported Quebec independence for years; mayors; an artist; a farmer. And there is an Indian-affairs official who, on the first day of the hearings, looked out over the sea of white faces around him and said that if the commission was going to protect Francophone culture, it had better not forget about the native culture as well.
Then there is the commission's double presidency. Initially, a single president was supposed to oversee the hearings, but when provincial political leaders sat down to name one, the sovereigntists objected to the candidates the federalists proposed, and federalists were uncomfortable with the sovereigntists' nominees.
So in the end, the commission was given two presidents: Belanger, an intellectual turned banker who was president of the National Bank of Canada until earlier this year, and Jean Campeau, a financier who ran Quebec's powerful state-run pension fund.