Despite an overwhelming rejection of a new constitutional accord across Canada this week, Quebec’s Jews are being told by community leaders that nothing will change in the foreseeable future.
In a nationwide referendum Monday, 53 percent of Canadian voters rejected the Charlottetown Accord, while 48 percent voted in favor of it.
The accord, agreed to by all 10 provincial premiers last summer, was aimed at reforming the constitution to allow French-speaking Quebec greater autonomy while preserving Canadian unity. In Quebec, the proposal was rejected by a vote of 57 percent to 44 percent. Only four of the 10 provinces – New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Ontario – voted in favor of the accord.
Max Bernard, who chairs the Canadian Jewish Congress’ National Unity Committee and the Constitutional Coalition, composed of members of the Greek, Italian and Jewish communities, spoke to the campaign team of the Combined Jewish Appeal the morning after the nationwide referendum.
Canadians told the politicians that they don’t like the deal, “said Bernard, whose committees toured Canada pushing the proposal. “It’s also clear that the lack of confidence voters had in our politicians affected them enormously.”
He admitted that the vote reflected some anti-Quebec sentiment, “but only in that they (Canadians) felt Quebec got too much in the deal and we (Quebecers) felt we didn’t get enough. It was actually quite clear that Quebec wasn’t alone in rejecting the accord.”
Had Quebec been the sole province to reject the accord, the results would have been “disastrous,” Bernard added.
Canadians on both sides of the issue rejected the accord. With voter turnout unusually high, hovering around 80 percent nationwide, the reforms were rejected by 57 percent of Quebecers for offering too little political autonomy and by 68 percent of British Columbians for giving the French-speaking province too much.
Canadians have been very critical of the leadership of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney during the constitutional negotiations. Canadians’ distaste for their prime minister was stated as a major factor in the decision to vote against the accord, according to polls taken prior to the referendum.
This is also the second time in just over two years that Mulroney has failed in his attempt to bring Quebec into a new constitution. The 1987 Meech Lake Accord did not receive the unanimous support of all 10 provincial governments – a requirement for ratification – prior to the June 1990 deadline.
A federal election is a virtual certainty in 1993, at which time Canadians will decide whether to elect Mulroney to a third term.
Bernard was careful to stress that Quebec’s separatist forces will attempt to use this renunciation of the accord as a spurning of a united Canada. “There is no option for them other than sovereignty,” he said. “But they will have a tough time convincing Quebecers that the accord was rejected for that reason.”
And he said that Quebec’s Jews had a role to play in keeping the country together. “What we (Jews) have to continue doing is what we’ve been doing all along. We have to be extremely pro-active on the political front and make it clear that we are not only Quebecers, but Canadians who intend to remain in Quebec.
“The Jewish community has to continue playing an extremely strong role,” he said.
Joe Gabay, president of the Communaute Sepharade du Quebec, which represents the Sephardic, largely French-speaking Jewish community in Montreal, said there was “no significant difference” between the voting patterns of his community and those of the Ashkenazic, largely English-speaking Jewish community.
He admitted that some Sephardic Jews supported the separatist movement in Quebec, but many of those who voted against the accord did so for the same reason that many Anglophones rejected it: they did not like the provisions of the deal.
“They are saying (to the politicians), go back to the drawing board. You didn’t do it well enough this time,” said Gabay.
Harvey Wolfe, president of Montreal’s Federation CJA, said in a prepared statement from Israel that “the best thing about the referendum is that it’s over. This will allow our country, our province, our cities, our people, to get back to the business of living, working, planning, building and dreaming together.
“For us in Montreal’s Jewish community, the dream continues of an exciting, dynamic and rich future. It is time to redirect our energy and creativity to our multifaceted community and its network of institutions and services in order to ensure its continuity and viability.”
CJC National President Irving Abella said that “this was a vote against the accord, not against Canada. We recognize that many of the individuals who lobbied hard for the “no” vote are federalists, who did not concur with the agreement reached” by provincial leaders.
But Abella said that CJC would continue its fight for a united Canada. “Right now, we plan to go back to our respective communities for further consultation to evaluate the implications of Monday’s vote. National unity will remain a CJC priority.”
Rabbi Sidney Shoham, one of Montreal’s most respected spiritual leaders, may have summed it up best when he said, “I woke up this morning and breathed the same fresh air. For me, as a Jew and a Canadian, this is just another day.”