Rene Levesque, the pro-secession premier of Quebec, had reason to smile. A letter he wrote last week to the nine other Canadian provincial premiers left Prime Minister Pierre Buiott Trudeau out in the cold and put the premiers in a dilemma: should they agree to negotiate language rights with Quebec's separatist leader and so allow him to claim an enormous propaganda victory, or should they refuse to negotiate and seem in Quebec to be rebuffing the French language?
The letter seemed to be an effective political ploy. Language is the most potent and violatile issue in Canadian public life, especially in Quebec where French is the language of 81 per cent of the population.
Since he came to power as premier, or provincial governor in Quebec in November at the head of a party dedicated to leading the province out of Canada and forming a new sovereign French-speaking state, Levesque has been playing language politics to the hilt. The major thrust of his government has been legislation to end the two-language character of Quebec.
A bill before Quebec's legislature, the National Assembly, would strike down English as a language of the Quebec government and would consecrate French as the language of the courts, of commerce, of the corporation, and of public life.
In his latest gambit, Levesque wrote to the other provincial premiers to propose a deal. He will allow citizens of other provinces moving to Quebec to attend English-language schools, he said, if they in turn will guarantee French schools in their provinces for people moving there from Quebec. tr for add one [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
The proposal heads off Trudeau, Levesque's chief antagonist. While Levesque has been busy legislating against the English language and narrowing the range of people who will be allowed in Quebec's English school, Trudeau has denounced the language bill and proposed that parents should have the right to have their children educated in English or French in all parts of Canada.
For Levesque there was some political danger that the federal prime minister might call an election on the issue in the fall and ask for a mandate to establish the federal government as the guarantor of French and English language rights in the parts of the country where they are minority languages, Levesque by-passed the federal government by his letter and proposed that the premiers themselves, when they hold their annual meeting in August, should resolve the language issue - without the participation of the federal government.
If Levesque could achieve the establishment of French schools from coast to coast by the exercise of interprovincial diplomacy he would be a hero in his own province. Cultural insecurity is deep-rooted in Quebec: the sense that the French language leads a precarious existence in North America is instilled in French-Canadian children from their early school years.
Resentment over the historic rejection of the French language in the English-speaking Canadian provinces has been chronic in Quebec. Resentment and cultural insecurity have been the feeding-ground of separatism.
The other provincial premiers, receiving the Quebec leader's invitation to negotiate, were put on the spot. Most of them have already made major changes in their school systems in recent years to provide French education, at least in the major centers of French population. But these changes have not been fully appreciated in Quebec. If Levesque could get signed commitments to provide French education, he could claim the credit for what has been done already and what will be done in future.
Moreover, such an agreement would be a reassurance to Quebec voters that the separatist government can really carry off what it proposes: to acquire international sovereighty for their province and then to negotiate an economic association with the rest of Canada as between two equal, sovereign governments.
An agreement on school rights, negotiated without the federal government, where the one province with a majority French population dealt as an equal with all the English-speaking provinces, would make the separatist dream seem realizable. It would encourage a vote for separation when the planned referendum is held on the issue in about two years.
The people of Quebec have had free access to English-language schools since soon after the conquest of Quebec by the English in 19760.
Levesque was offering a deal to the other premiers: if they expand their French schooling, he would reduce access to English schools less than he would without the agreement. (As the language bill in the Quebec National Assembly now stands, only long-time Quebeckers could be enrolled in English-language schools.)
The first reaction of the premiers was cautious. The premiers of the two other provinces with by far the largest French populations. Ontario and New Brunswick, made it known that they were not about to sign such an agreement, nor did they see any need for it because they already guarantee French education to citizens who want it.
But in Quebec's French press the measure was favorably received. Quebec City's daily Le Soleil said that the reaction of the English-speaking provinces to Levesque's proposal would show which provinces were in earnest about promoting French, and which were being hypocritical.
As a byproduct of the affair, the English-speaking provinces are being forced to re-examine their treatment of the French-speaking minorities and to recognize that French education in British Columbia or Newfoundland is a national issue, not just a matter of local concern.
Canada has long resisted full recognition of the French language. Prime Minister Trudeau has so far had only indifferent success with his dream of a country recognizing English and French from sea to sea.
Faced with the threatened break-up of the country, provincial premiers, like other Canadians, are having to decide whether they want one country where two languages are spoekn in all regions, as defended by Trudeau, or would rather deal with Levesque's vision of two countries, one Canada - speaking English, and one Quebec - speaking French.