TORONTO — IN order to counter rising Quebec nationalism and restore his flagging credibility as a leader, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien has brought two "wise men" from Quebec into his Cabinet.
Mr. Chretien touted the appointment of two men in their 40s as a "generational change" for his government. Analysts say the appointment of two political greenhorns outside his own government is risky and shows how desperate he is to get a handle on the Quebec situation and reverse current trends.
Chretien's move closely follows former Prime Minister Lester Pearson, who, wary of rising Quebec nationalism, did much the same thing in 1965. Pearson brought to his Cabinet three "wise men" from Quebec, including Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who later became a prime minister.
Chretien's major Cabinet shuffle, which involved a number of other personnel shifts, came last Thursday but had been anticipated for months.
Stephane Dion, a well-known Quebec political commentator, and Pierre Pettigrew, a respected businessman and former top political adviser, give Chretien's government a badly needed credibility boost among Quebeckers in the fight to keep Quebec from leaving Canada.
In Chretien's case, however, the shuffle quickly grew more important than usual as public support for his government has slipped since the narrow victory of federalists for Canadian unity in a Quebec secession referendum Oct. 30.
Today Lucien Bouchard, who led the separatists to near victory and also gave the separatist cause a big morale boost, will be sworn in as Quebec's new premier. He has promised to lead the province to independence in another referendum to be held sometime in the next two years.
Referring to the new additions to the Cabinet, Mr. Bouchard commented that "He [Dion] is due for a shock, that's for sure....a big shock, because he will discover that most people [in Ottawa] will not listen to him - that they will say 'no' to everything," Bouchard continued.
Perhaps. But Mr. Dion will assume the key post of minister of intergovernmental affairs, the most powerful Cabinet position. He will have wide latitude in policy formation and broad decision-making power over every government ministry. He is known to favor decentralization of the federal government - giving powers back to the provinces. He also favors recognition of Quebec's distinctive French culture - within the current Constitution.
Until last week, Dion was a constitutional scholar and staunch federalist teaching political science at the University of Montreal. He brings unquestioned intellectual firepower to the Chretien government and signals Ottawa's change of tack from a laid-back to a much more assertive stance toward the separatist threat.
Both he and Mr. Pettigrew are expected to be valuable assets on the stump during the next referendum. They will be the mainstays in facing down Bouchard's arguments.
"You can't minimize the importance of Dion's responsibilities," says Guy Laforest, a constitutional professor at Laval University in Quebec City.
"That's the major difference between now and 1965. Back then the three appointees then were given more time to get a feel for government. But Dion and Pettigrew are immediately thrust into the most critical situation," he adds.