140 characters, and a force for national unity
As midnight tolled on Parliament Hill on the 1987 night when the pieces of the Meech Lake constitutional accord were stitched together, the First Ministers negotiating inside the Langevin building and the journalists waiting for them on the sidewalk fell off the radar together.
With radio and television stations signing off for the night, with newspapers about to be put to bed across the country, little of the talks would transpire until the next morning.
In those days, the media cycle still came with a pause button.
As it happened, the marathon meeting did not break until sunrise. In its aftermath, that would be one of the few things those who participated in the fiery Meech Lake debate would continue to agree about.
Over the next three years, the same set of basic facts evolved into one of the most divisive stories ever put to the country.
It haunts us still.
Whenever I contemplate the proposition that the 24/7 news environment and the chatter of the social media have shattered any hope of a constructive national conversation, I remind myself of the dialogue of the deaf that took place between the 1987 negotiation and demise of Meech.
Far from bridging the Quebec/ROC divide, the media - in both official languages - often made it larger. Malice was not involved, but reciprocal ignorance certainly was at play. That ignorance was nurtured behind the firewalls of a highly compartmentalized media universe.
By the time the accord failed in June 1990, it was possible to watch its death throes in the legislatures of Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador and in the hallways of Parliament from a television set at the Calgary Liberal convention that picked Jean Chrétien as leader.
It did not have the scope of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it was the beginning of an overdue breakdown of the silos within which most journalists who report on Canada’s political life had operated.
Two decades later, the last debris of those silos are being cleared away by social media. The result is a rougher but more true-to-life environment.
When I joined Twitter nine months ago, I was faced with an unexpected existential question.
I knew I had no wish to tweet as if I were writing on flip sides of a bilingual cereal box but I was not sure whether I should converse in French or English.
I am a full-time columnist at the Star and enjoy a prime-time spot on the CBC but I am also very much part of the Radio-Canada family and I have found cozy second homes in the pages of Le Devoir and L’Actualité.
That makes me neither totally an insider nor a tourist in either the French or the English-language media world.
That is also true in real life. A francophone whose formative years were spent in Toronto before becoming an adopted Montrealer in midlife — I have had a foot on each side of the French-English line for a long time.
There are those who suggest that to be a bit of an outsider in two parallel political universes means that one has a stake in neither. I have found the reverse proposition to be ore true.
In the end, I opted not to choose a default Twitter language. Since September, I have been tweeting indifferently in French or English with little concern for maintaining any particular ratio between the two.
My bet was that most of those engaged in the political conversation in this country would be able to decipher 140 characters in either official language.
And 25,000 followers later, the gamble has paid off.
When I first came to journalism in the mid-’70s, a trail had been blazed (if not paved) by an earlier generation of women. Moving forward mostly involved walking in their footsteps.
This generation of parliamentary journalists is making a different contribution to Canada’s national life. It is helping to create a barrier-free information world for the two so-called solitudes.
I can report that Canada is more challenging but also more interesting when it is looked at from both sides of the Quebec/ROC looking glass.
Chantal Hébert was named an Officer of the Order of Canada on Friday. A columnist at the Star since 1999, Hébert has been a unique voice in Canadian journalism throughout her career. Completely at home in French and English Canada, she is a definitive commentator on national affairs.