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Behind the Headlines: Death of Meech Lake Triggers Doubt, but Not Panic, Among Quebec’s Jews

July 4, 1990
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In the aftermath of the death of Canada’s Meech Lake accord, Quebec’s Jewish community has questions about its place in a potentially new Quebec society.

The accord, designed to bring Quebec into the federal system after it refused in 1982 to sign the new Canadian constitution, died when the governments of Manitoba and Newfoundland failed to meet the June 23 midnight deadline for ratification by Canada’s 10 provinces.

The two provinces objected to key language in the accord that guaranteed Quebec would be treated as a “distinct society.”

The accord’s collapse means that Quebec remains technically outside the Canadian federal system. Moreover, Quebec’s failure to win special status for its French culture could reignite the secessionist passions that flared in the 1970s.

It is that prospect which worries Quebec’s Jews, most of whom are in the English-speaking minority that stands to lose from separatist tendencies.


But Michael Crelinsten, director of the Quebec region of Canadian Jewish Congress, feels that the community need not panic.

The congress, which is the representative body of Canadian Jewish organizations, feels that the failure of Meech Lake “may have profound ramifications for the future of the country,” said Crelinsten, “but that it has no negative ramifications for the Jewish community, as such.”

“Without a doubt,” said Crelinsten, “the constitutional relationship between Quebec and Canada will be changed — and changed dramatically. But it was the feeling of many that, pass or fail, the Meech Lake accord would change this relationship considerably.”

Voices of moderation were heard in the days after the accord failed. The leader of the opposition Parti Quebecois, Jacques Parizeau, an active campaigner for Quebec’s separation from Canada, called for a calm approach to a new era in Quebec politics.

Steven Scheinberg, a professor of history at Concordia University here, was quick to point out that the methods of achieving political change in Quebec have changed over the years, resulting in more security for people who are not native French-speakers.

“Generally speaking, today’s nationalism is of a moderate sort and not the violence we saw 20 years ago,” he said, adding that “for the most part, it appears to be on a positive course.”

In the early 1970s, the FLQ terrorist organization, advocates of independence for Quebec at all costs, kidnapped British High Commissioner James Cross and federal Minister Pierre Laporte.

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, and marshall law reigned on the streets of Montreal, in what has become known as the October Crisis.


Today the atmosphere is considerably calmer, Scheinberg pointed out.

Immediately after Meech Lake failed, Quebec celebrated St. Jean Baptiste Day, normally a spirited holiday honoring Quebec’s patron saint Hordes of separatists had been expected to flood the streets of Quebec’s major cities and rub English noses in dust reeking of independence.

But events did not transpire as expected. There were celebrations, but they were polite, fun-filled affairs. All minorities were invited to join in the revelry as a new age dawned on Quebec. Panic was nowhere in evidence.

The Jewish community does not appear to be posed for an exodus like the one in 1976, when the Parti Quebecois came into power and made sweeping changes in the language laws.

While an unusual number of “For Sale” signs can be spotted on the streets of Montreal’s heavily Jewish neighborhoods, most of Quebec’s Jews are weighing their options, waiting to see what the new Canada will bring.

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