Behind the Headlines: Constitutional Crisis in Canada Holds High Stakes for Quebec Jews

The current constitutional crisis gripping Canada has created widespread uncertainty about the prospects for continued union of the country’s English and French-speaking populations.

For the Jewish community in the province of Quebec, the stakes are especially high, since anti-Semitism appears to be growing in proportion to linguistic and cultural tensions here.

Uncertainty about Quebec’s future and that of the entire country was heightened this week as it became increasingly doubtful that all 10 of Canada’s provinces would ratify the Meech Lake accord by the June 23 deadline.

The accord is a package of constitutional amendments that redefine the confederation of Canadian provinces by giving Quebec special status, It is named for the government retreat in Ontario where the pact was signed in June 1987 by Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the premiers of the 10 Canadian provinces.

The agreement was designed to bring French Quebec into the constitutional fold, after its refusal to participate in the 1982 repatriation of the Canadian constitution. At that time, Quebec was led by the separatist Parti Quebecois, which had little interest in Canadian federalism.

The landslide victory of Quebec Liberal Party leader Robert Bourassa in 1986 seemed to change that. The Mulroney-led Conservative government sought the shift as an opportunity to write history by uniting a country seriously divided by language barriers.

After the accord was signed in June 1987, all that was necessary was the ratification of the deal by the individual provincial legislatures by the June 23, 1990 deadline. An easy enough task, or so it was thought at the time.

TREATMENT OF MINORITIES A CONCERN

But several provinces balked at the idea that the agreement would guarantee Quebec’s status as a “distinct society,” allowing its predominantly French-speaking citizens rights and privileges not enjoyed by Canadians elsewhere.

Believing that a politically independent Quebec would bode ill for the rest of Canada, the parliaments of Manitoba, New Brunswick and Newfoundland refused to ratify the deal.

Of much concern to Canadians was Quebec’s treatment of its minorities, specifically the Anglophones, who had watched their language rights whittled away since the stunning 1976 election of the Parti Quebecois, or PQ.

Canadian Jews have been active during the past decade in the fight for minority rights in Quebec.

Eric Maldoff, past president of English rights lobby group Alliance Quebec, is Jewish. Another Montreal Jew, Robert Libman, has been very outspoken in championing minority rights. To further this cause, he founded the Equality Party, which won four seats in the Quebec parliamentary elections last year.

This prominence has made Jews easy targets for racist elements in the Quebec separatist movement. The past year has seen several key incidents where Jews have been singled out simply for being Jews.

When Libman appeared on a radio talk show, a caller told him that if he didn’t like what was going on in Quebec, he should “move to Israel.”

The Montreal Suburban weekly newspaper received racist telephone calls after publishing columns by a Jewish writer calling for less repressive legislation and warning of its similarities to laws the Nazis enacted in Germany. The paper is owned by Israelis Amos and Avi Sochaczevski.

A FRENCH-CANADIAN KU KLUX KLAN

French-Canadian entrepreneur Pierre Peladeau, who is publisher of the French daily tabloid Journal de Montreal, told his editorial staff to write less of Quebec’s Jews, as they took up “too much space” in his publication.

He refused to issue a public apology, despite pressure from members of the Francophone community, Jewish advertisers and even British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell, himself a Jew and one of Peladeau’s business partners.

Perhaps the worst incident occurred in April, when Montreal’s main Jewish cemetery was desecrated by vandals. Swastikas and other racist graffiti were sprayed on some gravestones, and others were overturned and broken. Local Skinhead youths were suspected as the perpetrators, although none has yet been apprehended.

Several weeks later, the French-Canadian version of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan was unveiled in Quebec, adding to the community’s concern that racism was rearing its ugly head once again.

The Canadian Jewish Congress, the representative body of Canadian Jewish organizations, has serious concerns about the viability of the Meech Lake accord. Two years ago, CJC submitted a brief to the government expressing those concerns, one of which was the relationship between the Quebec “distinct society” clause and its judicial and legislative interpretation.

Earlier this month, Mulroney and the 10 provincial premiers gathered in Ottawa for 11th hour meetings to try to save the deal. CJC’s national officers held meetings of their own there June 3, under the guidance of Michael Crelinsten, director of CJC’s Quebec region.

CJC SUPPORTS ACCORD

The Jewish delegation sent a telegram to the Prime Minister’s Office stating that it would support the accord “in the interests of Canadian unity.” But it expressed hope for “further discussions” on the accord’s judicial and legislative ramifications.

The weeklong prime ministers session ended with all parties signing another agreement to work at passing the accord. Manitoba and New Brunswick were now on line, but Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells found parts of it hard to swallow and implied that he would let Newfoundlanders decide the fate of Canada.

Then on June 16, a new wrench was thrown into the proceedings. Manitoba’s native peoples, as Indian and aboriginal groups are called here, decided they would try to kill the accord. They felt aboriginal rights should be guaranteed as much as the rights of Francophones in Quebec.

Newfoundland’s premier stated that if Manitoba’s Indians kill the accord, he will probably cancel plans to hold a free vote on the deal in his legislature.

Canadians this week were sitting on pincushions as the fate of their country hung in abeyance. For the Jews of Quebec, doubt about their individual futures was every bit as pressing.

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