Closeup

The son also rises

Daniel Johnson’s boy will go far, labor permitting

Graham Fraser October 17 1977
Closeup

The son also rises

Daniel Johnson’s boy will go far, labor permitting

Graham Fraser October 17 1977

The son also rises

Closeup

Quebec

Daniel Johnson’s boy will go far, labor permitting

Graham Fraser

Friday, July 22, just before noon. About 200 strikers gather in front of the Robin Hood Multifoods plant on Notre Dame Street in St. Henri. Robin Hood is the only one of four Montreal flour mills to keep operating in the strike that started in February, and police arrive to watch for trouble as the trucks move through the picket lines. Then the police leave, called away to another picket line elsewhere in the city. A group of 20 strikers climb the eight-foot Frost fence, hurl stones at the cars parked in the yard, and, grabbing a hose that’s lying nearby, start to spray. Three guards move out in front of the parked cars. Two on either side in jeans and short-sleeved shirts carry Plexiglas shields. In the middle, his belly bulging over his belt, wearing a white undershirt, Bermuda shorts and a police riot helmet, a scowling guard is carrying a. 12 gauge shot-

gun. He fires into the air, and then lowers the gun and aims.

“There was no one in our gang who thought that the rifles were really loaded,” said Sarto Emard, after he was released from hospital. “We thought they were loaded with blanks. But when we saw a few guys fall, we changed our minds pretty fast, and wondered what kind of hell we’d got ourselves into.”

In the flurry of gunfire, eight men fell to the ground writhing, and were taken to hospital.

A few hours later, Pierre-Marc Johnson, who had become the Quebec Minister of Labor only two weeks before, arrived at the ministry’s offices in a limousine that had driven him from the National Assembly in Quebec. Claude Filion, an aide, quickly told him the news.

“Why haven’t I been getting reports on this strike?” Johnson asked. Learning that it was under federal jurisdiction Johnson called the Ministry of Justice to suggest that the whole question of security guards be examined. For the 31 -year-old minister, Robin Hood was the first taste of the tension and potential for violence that exist on the Quebec labor scene. And, paradoxically, the shots that rang across the Robin Hood shipping yard

would be of some assistance to him.

In assuming the labor portfolio, Johnson became the adoptive father of the Quebec government’s first piece of labor legislation: Bill 45. The law, which labor leaders consider the most advanced in North America, prohibits the use of scabs or strikebreakers to do the work of an employee on strike, guarantees the right of a striker to get his job back after the conflict is over, compels the automatic contribution of union dues and the use of a secret ballot by unions in votes.

It is a law that the Parti Québécois congress last May demanded virtually unanimously. And, while the law had already been drafted when the Robin Hood incident occurred, the violence shocked the province, and one of Johnson’s aides commented: “My goodness, that’s going to make people receptive to the law.” In the burst of criticism the bill received from the business community, even that bit of preparation was a help.

The fact that Pierre-Marc Johnson is the third labor minister in less than a year (Jean Cournoyer having been minister when Bourassa was defeated and Jacques Couture first named to the post after the November 15 election) is proof enough of the conventional wisdom in Quebec since the late 1960s: that the labor portfolio is the toughest job in the government.

The Bourassa government had been rocked by major labor problems, which had made it appear weak and indecisive. It had intervened unsuccessfully in the GM strike in 1970, it had been hurt by the violence of the La Presse strike of 1971, the general strike of the Common Front and the jailing of the three major labor leaders, Louis Laberge, Marcel Pepin and Yvon Charbonneau in 1972. Along with the mounting radicalism on one side, there were growing signs of corruption and thuggery, indicated by the invasion of a National Assembly committee meeting by labor goons working for plumbing union boss André Desjardins, and the multimillion dollar sabotage of the James Bay installations at LG2 by a labor hood, which led to the Cliche commission inquiry. All of these, perhaps as much as the language legislation, Bill 22, led to the defeat of the Bourassa government.

Pierre-Marc Johnson’s success in dealing with labor, whose cooperation is crucial to the completion of the $ 16-billion James Bay hydroelectric project, and yet whose radicalism represents the principal source of left-wing criticism of the government, will be the key, not only to the Parti Québécois’ promise of providing good government but also to Johnson’s own political future. For Pierre-Marc Johnson is an ambitious young man.

Now, at 31, he has the presence and style of an older man. He dresses conservatively and his hair is prematurely grey.

(His older brother Daniel, who is the secretary of Power Corporation, insists the grey hair is recent. “Every time I see him, there is a 10% increase in grey hair.”)

On the surface, the speed with which Johnson’s career has taken off seems extraordinary. In July 1975, he finished his internship and began to practise medicine. A year and a half later, he was elected, and then, only two years after leaving university, he was appointed to the toughest ministry in government. For people who know him, however, the appointment was less surprising. They point to the fact he studied not only medicine, but also law. “He has every quality for the job but one,” said a Parti Québécois official. “He has no experience with labor.”

“I would rate him as a very powerful minister,” predicts Meyer Brownstone, a Toronto political scientist and former deputy minister in Saskatchewan who worked with Johnson on the board of Oxfam Canada. “He’s got an intelligent attitude, toughness and a great deal of personal charm. He’ll do his homework incredibly well. He’ll prepare like no other minister. He’ll assume he knows more than anyone else—and he will, very quickly.” Articulate and fluently bilingual, he exudes the charm and confidence of a man who has

spent his life preparing for politics.

Which, in a sense, he has. His father, Daniel Johnson, was premier of Quebec from 1966 until his death in 1968. Unlike many sons of politicians, Pierre-Marc was close to his father, particularly in his last years. His father’s premature death gave him both the precious gift of intimacy with a man at the peak of his career and, at the same time, the liberation from what can be the crushing shadow of a famous living father on someone starting out in a related career. Daniel Johnson holds a special place in the minds of Quebeckers. While the ambiguities and apparent contradictions in his dealings with Ottawa

were mocked by Pierre Trudeau and dismissed as posturing by English Canada the sometimes contradictory stance reflected the mixture of restlessness and caution in the province.

Johnson was a strong nationalist, and ii was, ironically, Pierre-Marc’s nationalism that drove him from his father’s party, the Union Nationale, in 1969 when the government of Jean-Jacques Bertrand passed Bill 63—the first of the series of language laws that culminated in Bill 101—which legalized freedom of choice in the language of education. The note of passion anc anger at what he feels was the Union Nationale^ betrayal of principle still comes

into Pierre-Marc’s voice when he speaks of Bill 63.

“It was as if this party, after 30 years of nationalist life, in the name of provincial autonomy, Quebec first, égalité ou indépendance■, said, ‘We believe this—that we’re not really at home here, and we’re going to legislate to consecrate the current situation, where we’re in the process of becoming a minority in our own territory, and we’re going to do this in the context of Canadian federalism, which we believe in.’ I couldn’t accept that.” While Bill 63 drove him out of the Union Nationale, the War Measures Act made him a Péquiste.

From his father Johnson has not only in-

herited his strong sense of nationalism but also a great respeot for the intuitive nature of politics. From his intuitive feel of the political mood, fed by daily phone calls to people across Quebec, Daniel Johnson raised ambiguity to a new level of political skill.

“The loneliness of the long distance runner, ça existe dans la politique. It is the difficulty someone in politics can have in sharing his perceptions because those perceptions are formed from so many elements that they are almost impossible to translate. For politics is not technocratic. It’s not black and white.”

To explain what he means, Johnson says

that he has always indentified two kinds of politicians: technocrats or les rouges (traditionally the nickname for the Liberals in Quebec), and humanists or les bleus (the nickname for the Conservatives and the Union Nationale). “I’ve always considered myself more a humanist.”

And a bleui

“Oh yes, basically I’ve always stayed a bleu,” he says with a chuckle. “The technocrat will rationalize the choices he sees, weigh the advantages of his choice—and stick to it until he runs into a brick wall, whereas what I call the intuitive or humanist will operate with a basic philosophy and try to translate it from a human concern into a political act.”

Commented Yvon Charbonneau, president of the Centrale de l’Enseignement du Québec: “Mr. Johnson is completely at ease as a politician, despite his age.”

Labor leaders have been careful to say that they are basically pleased with Bill 45, but that it is too soon to make a judgment about Johnson. In fact, the labor movement as a whole—the most turbulent element of Quebec society over the past five years—is still groping for an appropriate response to the new government. Quebec labor is a unique blend of North American business unionism, and European ideological syndicalisme de combat, and, over the past five years, has seen the extremes of both: from the “on the waterfront” gangsterism in the Fédération des Travailleurs du Québec (FTQ) that destroyed LG2 on the James Bay site, to the emergence of an indigenous Marxism in the Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux (CSN) and the Centrale de l’Enseignement du Québec (CEQ).

There are now four labor centrals in Quebec. The largest, the FTQ, represents the majority of the unions in the private sector, and includes the major international and pan-Canadian unions: steelworkers, auto workers, CUPE, etc. According to the best estimates there are 272,000 members.

The CSN is a Quebec-based central that groups together unions of the public sector and a minority of unions in the private sector. Originally a federation of Catholic unions, it first became a source of intellectual opposition to government in the 1950s, with Jean Marchand as one of its leaders, and Gérard Pelletier and Pierre Elliott Trudeau being advisers.

In the late Sixties, under the presidency of Marcel Pepin, the CSN began to move toward a tough anti-capitalist position, producing a series of strong papers and reports that took a clear socialist analysis. This precipitated not only the confrontations of 1972 but also considerable loss of membership. Last year, Pepin was succeeded by Norbert Rodrigue, a former hospital worker and a much quieter, more low-key figure, who has set himself the task of regaining members. The membership fell as low as 164,000 but CSN staff now claim the membership has climbed back up to almost 208,000.

The most publicized departure from the CSN was led by three members of the executive in 1972, Paul-Emilien Dalpé, Jacques Dion and Amédée Daigle. Angered by the increasing politicization of the union, the men (dubbed the three Ds) formed the Centrale des Syndicats Démocratiques— an association of unions with some 35,000 members, the largest number in such weaker sectors of the economy as textiles and clothing.

Finally there’s the central of teachers’ unions, the Centrale de l’Enseignement du Québec, about 74,000 strong, headed by Yvon Charbonneau. Like the CSN, the CEQ has been the source of a radical,

socialist analysis of Quebec society.

Each of the three major centrals has a slightly different problem.

Laberge of the FTQ has the embarrassment of the Cliche report, which showed how both the Liberals and the FTQ looked the other way as criminal elements took control of some of the key construction unions and, in fact, hoped to profit from the tough tactics that began to be used: the Liberals by obtaining labor peace at James Bay, the FTQ by driving the CSN out of the construction field. The result was the sabotage of LG2.

Laberge’s solution has been to make it almost indecently clear how willing the

FTQ is to cooperate with the government and to operate as René Lévesque’s ally and supporter at such occasions as the economic summit that took place last May.

The CSN and the CEQ, on the other hand, face a different kind of problem. The radicalism of the leadership has resulted in setbacks—the loss of members from the CSN, and the loss of face for the CEQ a year ago when the membership endorsed, by 71 %, a government offer the leaders had urged the members to reject.

“We’re taking a pragmatic attitude,” says Charbonneau of the CEQ. “We decided to deal with the government one piece of legislation at a time. We supported them on Bill 101, we were pretty critical of the auto insurance, we denounced the party financing legislation, and we want the public service legislation withdrawn.”

Public service bargaining won’t begin for another year and a half, and in that time, many things may happen. There is a distinct possibility the CEQ and the CSN may merge. Wage and price controls may be lifted, resulting in much tougher wage demands. The unions might decide that sufficient disenchantment with the government has developed to enable a renewal of the kind of sweeping ideological critiques they made of the Bourassa government.

How will Pierre-Marc Johnson cope?

People who know him say that he is a good administrator, tough and bright. However, some are concerned that he may be too conservative.

“Johnson was a bad choice as labor minister, and I told him so,” grumbled one leftleaning backbencher. “I wouldn’t say he’s anti-labor, but he has some very conservative tendencies toward the unions.”

However, politically, this conservatism may give him strength and credibility with the business community. Like his father, he shies away from labels, stresses the intuitive and cherishes ambiguity. At least one business leader is delighted at the appointment. Brian Mulroney, former labor lawyer, candidate for national Tory leader, a member of the Cliche commission, and now president of Iron Ore Co. of Canada, has known Johnson for years.

“Johnson’s nomination is a brilliant one,” says Mulroney flatly. “He’s got all the charm and all the good judgment of his old man. He’s first class—they don’t make them any better.”

Mulroney paused.

“I happen to think that Bryce Mackasey was the best labor minister Canada ever had. Bryce had a great sense of compassion—not only for the workers, but he also knew that managers are not a bunch of computers. It seems to me that Johnson has a lot of those qualities.”

If Mulroney is wrong, Pierre-Marc Johnson will be one of a succession of ministers to be caught in the quicksand politics of the Quebec labor ministry.

If he is right, he will be a prime candidate when the time comes to succeed René Lévesque.T>

ANGUS McNtfc