A version this appeared in The Gazette, March 20, 1995

Two months ago, when the Parti Quebecois government unveiled the consultation process for its draft bill on Quebec sovereignty, minority community groups were faced with a dilemma. Should they or should they not participate?

First, it was obvious that the consultation process put in place was an attempt to manipulate public opinion. It was clear that sovereignists did not have the numbers to win a referendum and an attempt was being made to recreate the enthusiasm generated by the Belanger-Campeau commission of four years ago. The hearings of that commission followed the failure of the Meech Lake accord and provided a forum where supporters of Quebec sovereignty far outnumbered those opposed and created the impression that an unbeatable emotional move toward independence was sweeping the province.

Second, the draft bill under discussion was itself seriously flawed. It declares Quebec’s sovereignty and makes a series of unilateral assumptions about economic association, currency, citizenship, entry into treaties and territory that can only be concluded with the consent of other parties.

Minority community groups who almost unanimously oppose Quebec secession were faced with the decision of either participating in hearings on Quebec’s future and giving credence to the whole exercise, or staying away and having their legitimate concerns ignored.

Many groups decided to heed the call for a boycott by the provincial Liberal Party but many other groups, such as B’nai Brith Canada, felt that this would be a missed opportunity.

Staying away meant that the hearings, which wrapped up about two weeks ago, would be a sovereignist “love-in” and the local papers of all the small towns in Quebec would report that everyone from their town was in favor of sovereignty, creating the appearance of a bandwagon.

There would be no one to burst the sovereignty bubble and show that the road to sovereignty is littered with potholes.

Although the provincial Liberals boycotted the hearings, party leader Daniel Johnson gave groups opposed to sovereignty the go- ahead to participate in the hearings and express their disagreement.

Many groups who were part of the boycott reversed their position, and other groups who intended to participate were relieved that they would no longer be breaking a minority-community common front.

This also suited Premier Parizeau, who could now claim that his hearings represented a widespread grass-roots consultation process.

Many of these groups made sincere presentations that loyally reflected the views of their communities.

Some of the presentations were met with hostility, but they received an airing nonetheless. These presentations were crucial in that they clearly demonstrated there was no over-all Belanger- Campeau “consensus” for sovereignty.

Therefore, the participation of these groups has put the government in a corner.

The test of the government’s sincerity will now be measured by how the results of the consultations are reflected in the final reports of the commissions. In this, the PQ faces both a risk and an opportunity.

It could demonstrate the legitimacy of the consultation process only by publicly acknowledging in their reports the serious reservations people have expressed about sovereignty.

Conversely, if the commission reports do not reflect these widespread concerns, the PQ use of the entire process will fall into disrepute and the reports will be justifiably ridiculed.

If the PQ does not acknowledge the reality of these concerns, the credibility of the government and the sovereignist cause will be dealt an even more severe blow and the desired result of these commissions will have backfired in every way.

* Robert Libman is Quebec regional director of B’nai Brith Canada; Rubin Friedman is director of government relations for B’nai Brith Canada.