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Politics and Violence: A Familiar Mix for Canada

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"Never, never will I accept that Quebec is associated with violence," Quebec Premier-elect Pauline Marois declared in the wake of the recent election night shooting. "It is an isolated event and it does not represent who we are... Quebec is not a violent society. One act of folly cannot change this."

Mme. Marois is not alone. Across the country, elected officials and pundits of all political stripes tell us that Canada is a "peaceable kingdom" we have all been led to believe, one in which anglophones and francophones, living side by side in perfect Ivory and Ebony harmony, routinely work out our differences without ever resorting to violence.

The reality is quite different and it is a subject which we have been reluctant to even broach, let alone discuss.

Violence has set the political and constitutional agenda in Quebec and Canada. Indeed, our leaders enabled a few random acts of terrorism to influence public policy to such a degree that it led to the near breakup of the country.

I'm not referring to the FLQ bombings, murders, and kidnappings of the late '60s and early '70s; it's been more recent than that. A direct timeline of cause and effect, starting with a few acts of violence by one or two fanatics culminated in the closest experience this country has ever had of dissolution: the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum.

Here is what I refer to:

In the mid-80s, a language extremist set off a fire bomb in a Zeller's in St. Laurent (a suburb of Montreal). Other similar incidents soon followed. In direct response to these terrorist acts, then Premier Robert Bourassa reneged on what was perceived as a campaign promise to amend the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) and allow bilingual commercial signs. Bourassa justified his reversal by invoking the need to secure "social peace," an obvious reference to the recent incidents of violence.

Bourassa maintained his "social peace" policy right up until the Supreme Court of Canada handed down its December 1988 Brown Shoes decision which found the language of commercial signs provisions of Bill 101 to be in violation of the Freedom of Expression guarantees of the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms. In response, Bourassa invoked the Charter's "notwithstanding" clause and officially "suspended fundamental liberties" when his Liberal government passed Bill 178.

Virtually every political pundit versed in the issue agrees that it was Bill 178 that caused the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990.

The "humiliation" of Meech's failure, in turn, led to the Bourassa government's passage of Bill 150 in 1991 which committed the Quebec governement to "hold a referendum on the sovereignty of Quebec" and if the results were 50 per cent plus one vote that "they constitute a proposal that Quebec acquire the status of a sovereign State one year to the day from the holding of the referendum." In other words, a unilateral declaration of independence.

This from the allegedly pro-Canadian Liberal Party of Quebec. Even the Parti Quebecois had, up to that point, never been so audacious in its attempts to sever Quebec from Canada. After all, the PQ's 1980 referendum only called for a mandate to negotiate what is now considered the most tender form of independence: sovereignty-association.

But I digress.

The Quebec Liberals' exercise in "blackmail" (Pierre Trudeau's description, not mine) led to Brian Mulroney's government coming up with the Charlottetown Accord, a collection of proposed constitutional amendments, meant to placate Quebec, to be decided by a country-wide referendum which took place in 1992.

The failure of the Accord set the stage for the PQ's sovereignty referendum of 1995 when, as we all know, the "no" side squeaked by with a 50.58 per cent victory.

A few acts of relatively minor violence, yet they were used as justification by an elected provincial premier to abuse human rights, leading directly to the most significant Canadian unity crisis in, arguably, the country's history.

As we listen to the entreaties and declarations from all quarters of how violence is not part of the Canadian character, I would remind readers that our leaders on both the federal and provincial levels haven't practiced what they preach. Sitting by in silence as a few acts by one or two malcontents are allowed to influence the direction of public policy is, in my book, complicity. Canadian leaders have encouraged both the use and influence of violence by enabling it to set political and constitutional agendas.

The result? Certain sectors of society must inevitably conclude that violence works. If a homemade firebomb can result in a series of events that lead to the near breakup of a country, who is to say it isn't a most effective political tool?

Violence. A little certainly does go a long way.