Diane Talbot
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Divided We Stand

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Fueled by two different visions of Canada, the English and French media failed to convey the true nature of the Meech Lake Accord

“Two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” That was how Lord Durham perceived the relationship between Upper and Lower Canada in the late 1830s. According to Durham the only way to resolve the tensions between the two Canadas was to unite them. Once French Canadians developed political and economic ties to Upper Canada, they would see the advantages of the English way. After all, Quebec could not possibly survive as a distinct nation in the wake of English immigration and English progress, Lord Durham said.
History has proven that Lord Durham’s dream of assimilation was unrealistic. In fact, the ongoing constitutional crisis in Canada has intensified the long-standing differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada. If the Meech Lake debate exposed the gulf between English and French Canadians, media coverage of the debate further alienated them. As the debate gained momentum in the winter and spring of 1990, the coverage took on dangerous nuances. Images of intolerance littered our newspapers and polluted our television screens. Again and again, the media showed the spectacle of a handful of zealots in Brockville, Ontario, trampling the fleur-de-lis. Ontario mayors who declared their municipalities English-only were portrayed as anti-French and anti-Quebec. Dissenters, especially provincial premiers, who saw the Accord as flawed, hasty and force fed, were presented as obstructionist at best, traitorous at worst. People who did not think the Accord was good for Canada commanded little media space. Thus, the real flaws in the Accord were ignored in the panic to see it pass without changes so Quebec wouldn’t separate.
Both French and English media can be criticized for the dramatic play given to certain symbols that had little or nothing to do with the contents of the Accord. The Quebec media in particular turned the debate into an emotional battle between French and English.
What happened in Brockville actually occurred on September 6, 1989, long before Meech heated up. At the time, the image was reported around the world in newspapers such
as Le Monde and The Guardian. Brockville made the news on television programs such as Telejournal, NBG’ Nightly News, Montreal Ce Soir and The National. It was discussed on radio current affairs shows like As it Happens and on the Montreal francophone station CKAC. But the Quebec media kept the image of bigotry alive until the demise of the Accord. Le Point, the French equivalent of The journal, replayed the incident in March 1990, six months after it made the news. The image remained vivid throughout the debate. The journal reported that out of 1,000 Quebecers, 60 percent thought the flag trampling occurred in March or April 1990.
Brockville was referred to in emotional editorials calling the incident symbolic of
Canada’s dislike for Quebec, and in angry letters to the editor in Le Devoir, La Presse and Le Soleil. In a June 23,1990 editorial in LeSoleil, Raymond Giroux wrote: “Many Quebecers, perhaps a majority, are happy that Meech Lake has finally died. After flags were torn, Quebecers lost their honor and enthusiasm for the deal.”
The Brockville episode was repeated so many times on television news, radio call-in programs and in editorials that it looked as though an epidemic of anti-Quebec sentiment was forming in English Canada. Disapproval of the Accord appeared to be more widespread than just in Newfoundland, Manitoba and New Brunswick.
In November 1990, CBC’s Telejournal ran a two-part feature entitled “The Brockville Incident.” A handful of members of the Alliance for the Preservation of English in Canada, who trampled the flag, said they didn’t realize how powerful the image had become to Quebecers. The irony was their message had not been intended for Quebec. It was a protest against then-Premier David Peterson’s push for official bilingualism in Ontario. By then though, the ~ image had become firmly fixed as an anti French symbol.
Lysiane Gagnon of the Montreal daily La Presse recognizes that Brockville was exaggerated in the Quebec media. “It was overplayed ~ because it was spectacular. In other provinces, on the other hand, the law on signs, law [Quebec’s French-only sign law], was really overplayed…so one can say that anything spectacular and controversial is overplayed-that’s partly the nature of journalism.”
Journalist Gilles Lesage of the Montreal daily Le Devoir says the flag stomping was emphasized in Quebec because of the timing. It took place when Quebecers doubted that English Canada would accept the deal. “It confirmed a distrust” of English Canada. Journalists like Lesage, therefore, began to doubt the merits of a deal that would not likely be accepted in English Canada.
In a June 7, 1990 letter to the editor of Le Devoir a reader wrote: “The media in Quebec, like in the rest of Canada and the world, sometimes encourage simplifications and sensationalism. It would be a shame if the incident that was repeated on television were to convince Quebecers that all anglophones scorn and detest them.”
Many anglophones were disturbed by the flag coverage. Hundreds of anglophone Canadians gathered in a downtown Regina park carrying Quebec flags to express their concern over the flag desecration. A June 9, 1990 article in Le Soleil reported that the Regina anglophones said they wanted to send a clear message to Quebecers that Brockville was an isolated case. “They were frustrated by the negative publicity surrounding the relationship between francophones and anglophones in Quebec,” it said.

The extensive coverage of English-language resolutions in Ontario municipalities such as Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay also added fuel to the flames. “The hysteria was media generated,” says Richard Starr, program editor for CBC Radio’s Media File. The resolutions made English the language of business in 47 out of 839 municipalities in Ontario, while 33 other cities, including Toronto, reaffirmed bilingualism. That fact was rarely reported. Starr says the media made it appear communities were suddenly declaring themselves unilingual to spite Quebec, when in fact many resolutions were in the making months before the Meech Lake deadline.
Both French and English media referred to the resolutions as “symbolic decisions” and “evidence of bigotry.” In a Toronto Star article on February 3, 1990, reporter Darcy Henton drew a link between the Sault Ste. Marie resolution and Quebec’s perception of it. “The Council vote has sparked a national controversy, adding fuel to tensions already inflamed by the debate over the threatened Meech Lake constitutional accord and the role of Quebec within Canada.” And when Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Joseph Fratesi tried to defend his position as not anti-French, the Quebec media were skeptical. Lise Bissonnette, publisher of Le Devoir and former columnist for 1be Globe and Mail, wrote: “Soo Mayor Joseph Fratesi’s first attempt to camouflage the bigotry in the city’s move had to do with money.” Money was not the question. Although municipalities said they adopted unilingual resolutions because they could not afford to offer C/O French language services, in fact, the French “‘
Language Services Act requires provincial government agencies, not municipalities, to offer some French services in areas of Ontario where francophones make up 10 percent of the population. Several city councillors said they supported the unilingual resolutions to show their anger with Queen’s Park’s policy of transferring programs to municipalities without consulting them. “But it was a gratuitous, untimely slap at francophones – a run on the bank of tolerance when its reserves were already low,” Andrew Cohen wrote in his book A Deal Undone, the 5 Making and Breaking of the Meech Lake Accord. More and more, language became the catalyst for further divisions between English Canada and Quebec. In a Globe and Mail article on February 1, 1990, two senior Quebec cabinet ministers described the unilingual resolutions as “deplorable but not surprising in light of increasing language tensions.”
In a noted case of distortion, Toronto Star columnist Gary Lautens was misquoted in Le journal de Montreal. Lautens had written a column about Quebec on June 13, 1990, in which he described his personal observations about Meech and what he saw as the reality of Quebec. He said that Quebec is now a place where English on signs is banned and where the Queen is unwelcome. The problematic line was: “A Quebec where ‘federalist’ is a four-letter word.” Le journal de Montreal printed 10 paragraphs of Lautens’s article and added the word “fuck.” Lautens wrote to Pierre Peladeau, chairman of Le journal de Montreal, saying Peladeau owed his readers an explanation and Lautens himself an apology. “I only make this public to show how Quebecers are manipulated,” Lautens wrote in a column on August 27, 1990.
Le Soleil also referred to Lautens’s column in a June 14, 1990 column by Michel Vastel entitled “The Accord Awakens Old Demons in English Canada.” Vastel wrote that Lautens’s article was yet another example of English Canada’s disapproval of francophones. “The Toronto elite gladly say that incidents like Sault Ste. Marie are isolated. But one of the most highly regarded columnists in the largest daily in the country, Gary Lautens…didn’t hold back his punches yesterday.” Again, Vastel added the word “fuck” to Lautens’s column.
In Cohen’s A Deal Undone, he observed how symbols had become critical in the debate over Meech Lake. “The towns, villages and hamlets that spurned a bilingual regime that did not apply to them did not necessarily want to be mean-spirited. Similarly, the desecration of the Quebec flag by bigots in Brockville, Ontario, did not represent the feelings of most Canadians, but the footage of the event was played repeatedly in Quebec as if it did. The discussion was no longer rational. It had moved from the merits of the accord to the perception of its impact or the consequences of its demise.”
For Meech to become law it had to be ratified by the 10 provinces by June 23, 1990. Anxiety was high at the opening of the discussion in early June 1990 and the media began to refer to Meech as a “crisis.” In a Toronto Star article entitled “Pressure Mounting to Salvage Meech Lake,” Rosemary Speirs described the mood surrounding the opening of the conference. “Politicians and commentators across the country yesterday called for a settlement of the constitutional crisis that is fueling nationalist anger in Quebec.” Immediately, the focus in both the English and French media turned to Quebec. The message was: settle Meech and avoid alienating Quebec into separating from Canada.
In the francophone media, unconditional acceptance of Quebec’s demands quickly became the focus of debate. Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s five demands were regarded ‘” as a measuring stick of Canada’s willingness to get Quebec’s signature on the Constitution. To repudiate any of these demands was to reject Quebec. So evident was the francophone media’s eagerness to pass the Accord unchanged that even Premier Bourassa questioned their i3 objectivity.
In a June 13, 1990 article in Le Soleil, Bourassa criticized the media for not allowing him to negotiate a deal and for placing unrealistic demands on him. He was quoted as saying: “There are suggestions that I have given in. When you make compromises that don’t cost you anything, you are not giving in. Agreeing to examine the questions that concern Canadians is not an extravagant compromise.”
But if the media manipulated Bourassa, politicians also did their fair share of media manipulation. On June 7,1990, Premier David Peterson called a news conference exclusively for francophone reporters. Peterson was said to have pleaded with the francophone media to be easy on Bourassa. “Mr. Bourassa is very intelligent in debate but the reality is now that one must try to understand the problems of Newfoundland and Manitoba,” Peterson was quoted as saying in a Toronto Star article. “Bourassa is under enormous pressure here from the fiercely nationalist Quebec media, which grills him and his officials if there is any sign he is giving in on changes to the accord,” Toronto Star journalist Matt Maychak wrote.
As part of the push to see the Accord pass, pro-Meech politicians made opponents look like traitors. There was a tendency in the media prompted by politicians -to apply pressure to dissenting premiers. In a June 1, 1990 article in Le Soleil, Michel Vastel described an internal memo which circulated in then-Premier Peterson’s office. The memo suggested the government manipulate the media into singling out hold-out premiers. Clyde Wells, for instance, was to be portrayed as “a spoiled brat that is not to be trusted.”
The Globe and Mail ran an article on November 10, 1989, entitled “Wells’s Defiance on Accord Casts Him as Odd Man Out.” In a later article, Wells was described as “the angry man at the first ministers’ table.” He was portrayed as a defiant man with a bad attitude. On June 23, 1990, LeSoleil ran an editorial entitled “A Day of Deception.” It referred to “Clyde Wells’s obvious betrayal,” and Gary Filmon, Sharon Carstairs and Gary Doer were branded as Manitoban “Pontius Pilates.”
Bilingual journalists who covered the debate found fault with both English- and French-language coverage. Peter Stockland was in Ottawa during the week of June 3, covering the first ministers’ conference for the Toronto Sun. Stockland, a bilingual journalist, worked as the paper’s Quebec City reporter for two years. He said English and French journalists defined the debate in completely different terms.
“The francophone press has a tribal perspective-the idea that we’re doing this story by, about and for our people as opposed to doing a news story.” Stockland says at a scrum in Ottawa, a senior Quebec parliamentary correspondent with the national assembly asked, “‘Why are we continuing with this taponnage [screwing around]?’ I cannot imagine an English language reporter asking that kind of question. You might say, ‘What do you hope to achieve here?’ or ‘Isn’t this a little bit fruitless?'” Stockland also points out that the Quebec media placed the constitutional debate in a historical perspective, while the anglophone media tended to see the debate as evolving from the 1982 patriation of the Constitution. Clearly, if Quebecers were regarding the debate as a process that has lasted 230 years since Wolfe defeated Montcalm, the impact of its failure would be more shocking.
Rheal Seguin, a Quebec City national assembly reporter for The Globe and Mail, recalls being excluded from Peterson’s francophone scrum in Ottawa because he works for an
English paper. Seguir says the “exclusive’ francophone scrum was a good example of the different interpretation the two media gave to events in Ottawa. “The francophone media had Bourassa under a magnifying glass,” Seguir says. “There was pressure here in Quebec City coming from the PQ saying he’s giving in. He should just walk out of there because they didn’t want him to give in.” On the other hand, the anglophone media outside Quebec, when they go to Quebec to cover an event, often have very little understanding of the origins of the debate, Seguin says. “They take a very simplistic view oj what’s going on here.”
Bilingual journalist William Johnson, who
covered Meech for the Montreal Gazette, says, “] think both the English and the French press were beneath the ethical standards of journalism during the whole three-and-a-half years oj discussion of Meech, but the French press particularly.” Instead of pointing out all the legitimate reasons why someone could be against Meech, the francophone media simply saw criticisms as rejections of Quebec.
Michel Vastel agrees that there were instances of sensationalism in the francophone media, but the anglophone media were equally guilty oj distortion. In an article entitled “Quebec’s Reputation Takes a Blow in English Canada,” Vastel attacked the media in English Canada for misunderstanding Quebec nationalism. Every week, editorials and political cartoons in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Citizen and the Calgary Herald distorted Quebec’s image. One cartoon in The Ottawa Citizen illustrated four interconnected gears of increasing size. The smallest gear was labelled “Dice Mulroney,” then “Meech Fiasco,” followed by “Quebec Hyper-nationalism,” and finally, the largest gear was labelled “Racism.” Vastel says this cartoon reflected an anti-Quebec bias, where nationalism was regarded as a precursor to racism.
“There is always a provincial or regional bias in the media,” Vastel says. “In Toronto, the media have an English-Canadian bias versus a French-Canadian bias, which is, in my opinion inevitable, as the media reflect public opinion.” Robert McKenzie, Quebec City bureau chief for The Toronto Star agrees. “There is nothing surprising or scandalous in that journalists reflect the society in which they live. There’s no such thing as objectivity. We get the media we deserve with their prejudices and their weaknesses.” Although they can’t be entirely objective, the important thing is that they be honest, McKenzie says.
The media’s prejudices and weaknesses were apparent in the days after Meech died. There was a feeling of bittersweet resolve in the Quebec media. In a June 25 editorial in Le Soleil, Raymond Giroux called the death of Meech “a monumental slap in the face” and added that “Quebecers, calm and serene, are capable of prospering on their own.” In the pages of Le Devoir, former Conservative cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard, who resigned from the Mulroney cabinet and later formed the Bloc Quebecois, expressed his determination. He told Quebecers that they must not be fooled into believing English Canada still wanted Quebec. The point is no one could have blocked the Accord without large support in English Canada, encouraged by anti-francophone sentiment, Bouchard wrote.
Toronto Star editor John Honderich doesn’t think that opposing Meech meant being antiQuebec. “That was hogwash. We had sound reasons for objecting to Meech.”
Lise Bissonnette says one of the first things she did as publisher of Le Devoir in mid-June 1990 was to offer Quebec readers a perspective from English Canada. Jeffrey Simpson, a Globe and Mail columnist, was hired as Le Devoir’s columnist. Bissonnette said she would encourage this kind of exchange because it exposes the reader to a variety of opinions.
If the goal of media coverage is to inform the public, the media failed. Canadians were confused by the coverage. A March 1990 Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of Canadians said they knew little or nothing about the contents of the Accord. The closed-door tactics employed by the federal government did not help, but the media could have focused more attentionon defining the terms of the agreement instead of speculating on the possible consequences of a failed deal.
Some Canadians knew at least enough to express their anger at the coverage in letters to the editor in both the French and English media. “This closed-door session on Meech is a black mark on our history. I do not feel that the Canadian press represented the people properly. Why were they not asking the right questions?” wrote Nancy Macera of Nepean, Ontario, in The Ottawa Citizen.
Other readers were outraged by the way the media shifted attention away from the politics of the Accord to the differences between French and English Canadians. “The political crisis was, and is, real and factual, but it was politically caused. The portrayal of antagonism on the rise within the Canadian people, I believe is inflated and to a serious extent fabricated by the hypercritical media,” wrote Jenny Lynch of Ottawa, also in the Citizen.
By the time Meech Lake approached its final hour, there was a sense that Canadians were a people more divided than ever. Quebec and English Canada have always maintained two versions of what it means to be Canadian. The media helped revive this polarized vision by pitting English against French Canadians. Clearly, those who objected to Meech Lake had legitimate grievances concerning Quebec’s status as a “distinct society,” the protection of women’s rights, the constitutional aspirations of native people and the northern territories. Meech Lake was more than an emotional argument between French and English. This was a time when the media might have used their critical sense to discern fact from fiction and symbols from reality. In fact, the rejection of Meech Lake in English Canada had little to do with anti-Quebec, anti-French bias. It was an understandable reaction to an undemocratic political process in which the media allowed themselves to participate.

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