Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard reached out to Quebec’s English-speaking community in a speech on March 11, inviting them to engage in a dialogue with his Parti Québécois government.

Speaking to about 400 handpicked anglophone guests at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre, the premier called for an end to the bitterness left after the Oct. 30 referendum on sovereignty. It was an attempt to soothe the anguish that followed the marginal victory of the No side and ease the tensions created by Mr. Jacques Parizeau’s comment that “money and the ethnic vote” were responsible for the separatists’ loss.

Peter Blakie, a Montreal businessman, acknowledged Mr. Bouchard’s gesture and considered it “a huge slap in the face” to former Premier Jacques Parizeau.

“I know full well that to have dialogue, more than one person has to speak,” Bouchard said in his speech. “But someone has to make the first move. That’s why I’m here. What we need to do now is to engage in a two-way dialogue.”

Bouchard said he understood why English-speaking Quebecers voted against independence – “It was perfectly legitimate that they did so” – and added that their choice was “perfectly reasonable.”

The invited guests represented a broad spectrum including business leaders, community activists, lawyers, politicians, partitionists and playwrights.

The lack of specifics in the speech was largely criticized by those in attendance.

Alex Patterson, chancellor of Bishop’s University, suggested Bouchard’s intentions are honourable and anglophones should respond in a positive way.

While it is clear there will never be a consensus on Quebec independence, “we can’t destroy our society while just waiting for that question,” Patterson said.

“It’s action that counts,” said Michael Hamelin, president of Alliance Quebec. “There might have been good intentions here but as the saying goes: Where’s the beef? Where’s the content? The community needs concrete gestures and actions.”

Among other demands, Alliance Quebec is promoting linguistic school boards to replace the present religion-based system and is also requesting easier access for children to English schools. In addition, they feel anglophones should hold more positions in the Quebec public service.

Bouchard – who is waiting for a final report on the state of French nearly 20 years after Quebec’s French Language Charter became law – said: “I’m not here to make promises.”

Nor did he. Bouchard made no promises to widen access to English schools or to hire more anglophones in the civil service. He said nothing about language legislation or about his party’s policy to restrict access to English education institutions.

Instead, the premier praised anglophones for helping to build a modern Quebec and for lobbying in the failed Meech Lake constitutional accord.

Bouchard said he has “no illusions about our ability to bridge the gap on Quebec’s future,” but he hopes anglophones and francophones can work together “once the debate is behind us.”

“When that happens,” he said, his government will recruit “two, three, four” anglophone cabinet ministers.

Bouchard confirmed the PQ’s commitment to “preserve the rights of the anglophone minority” in an independent Quebec.

Anglophones would have “control over schools, colleges and universities, access to courts and government in English,
availability of health and social services in English and public broadcasting in English.”

These guarantees would be entrenched in a Quebec constitution – “the very best insurance policy” anglophones could have.

There will be another referendum and tempers will flare again, Bouchard predicted, but he reiterated his recent endeavour to tackle the provincial deficit and revive the province’s ailing economy, not to fight national-unity battles.

For those who were expecting Boucharrd to say, “No more referendum,” it was a disappointment.

Equality Party leader Keith Henderson said, “Underneath the velvet glove was the iron fist of the third referendum.”

Dan Philip, president of the Black Coalition of Quebec, called it “a very good speech in which he tried to make all communities inclusives in his Quebec. But it was very disappointing to me that we seem to be running into another referendum again. This can only bring division.”

Solomon Awashish is an announcer-producer for CBC North.