Seeking to keep French-speaking Quebec part of Canada, Jewish leaders here are supporting a proposed set of constitutional amendments in a nationwide referendum next Monday.
But a Quebec separatist leader has urged Jews to turn down the compromise language of the amendments, which would recognize Quebec as a “distinct society” within the national union, saying there was no reason to fear secession.
Lucien Bouchard, a federal member of Parliament and leader of the Bloc Quebecois, told Jewish community leaders here last week they need have no trepidation over the treatment of minorities in a sovereign Quebec.
His efforts at reassurance came as polls showed a sharp split in the way the vote will go in Quebec. A majority of French-speaking Quebecers – who make up 80 percent of the population – is expected to vote against the constitutional changes, while sentiment in the Jewish community is running heavily in favor.
Polls show the “no” votes predominate in nationwide attitudes toward the complex reform package, which has been endorsed by all 10 provincial premiers.
Canadian Jewish leaders have warned that a vote against the referendum might trigger a Jewish exodus from Montreal. Some 80,000 to 90,000 Jews live in the city, which contains the headquarters of many national Jewish organizations.
English and French-language television spots in support of the amendments are being shown by the Canadian Jewish Congress throughout Canada, with the exception of Quebec, where the CJC does not have an official “yes” committee.
The two-minute ads feature CJC President Irving Abella and the chairman of the organization’s National Unity Committee, Max Bernard, who argue the amendments serve the nation’s interests.
Bernard also made appearances in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton to back up support for a positive vote.
Bouchard said a “no” vote would not mean immediate sovereignty for Quebec, only that that option would remain open.
He said he recognized that selling the “no” option to the Jewish community was not going to be easy.
“I must be frank,” he said. If I were a member of your community, it wouldn’t be so obvious that sovereignty would be good.”
But he went on to argue that “open nationalism” would “benefit us all in the long run.”
A former Canadian ambassador to Paris, Bouchard said the harmonious relations enjoyed by the Jewish community in France were also possible in Canada. “I consider Marcel Proust (a French Jew) one of the greatest writers of the century.”
Bouchard, who at one time was close to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney but broke away to form his own separatist party, admitted that Quebec’s record was not always one of religious tolerance.
“We all know that in the ’30s, there were some problems for you (Jews), like quotas at McGill University. But it wasn’t only here,” he said, pointing to a similar situation in the United States at the time.
“We in Quebec have to make strong commitments that nothing like that will happen here again,” he said.