Closeup/Politics

Quebec: end of Year One

A report on the state of a nation-in-progress

Graham Fraser November 14 1977
Closeup/Politics

Quebec: end of Year One

A report on the state of a nation-in-progress

Graham Fraser November 14 1977

Quebec: end of Year One

Closeup/Politics

A report on the state of a nation-in-progress

Graham Fraser

On November 15, 1976, Canada entered a new era. In the year since, the unthinkable has become suddenly normal and the impossible suddenly conceivable. English Canadians who had been giving vent easily to their anger about bilingualism suddenly stopped dead; the game had changed, the stakes were different, and the future of the country was being questioned. For the first time since the October crisis, English Canadians looked at Quebec with fresh eyes.

In Quebec itself, it seems like much more than a year since that chilly, rainy November day, and the long night filled with cheers and honking horns. During that day René Lévesque had gone around his south-shore riding of Taillon, jotting notes for three possible speeches that night. One, he called “A Moral Victory”: about 25 seats. Another was for “A Political Victory”: 40 to 45 seats. He worked for some time on this one; it was what he expected—to head a strong opposition. Finally he wrote “The Miracle”—but he didn’t write anything down.

That night, shortly after 10 p.m., he made his way slowly through the ecstatic crowd in Paul Sauvé Arena in the east end of Montreal. Shrugging, he tried to get the crowd to let him speak. It took a long time. “I think ... I think,” he began, more than twice, his voice breaking with emotion. Finally, the crowd let him continue. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud to be a Quebecker”.

That night, 69 Parti Québécois posters were turned to face the crowd; in recounts, the government was to get another two seats: 71 out of 110. During the year that followed, as 71 PQ members learned what it was to be a government, Quebec has

been charged with a new kind of political momentum. It has been a year so packed with words and images, policies and positions, that it is difficult to disentangle them.

The images are complex, often contradictory; it is a complex government filled with contradictory elements. It is a government run by men with virtually no experience in business but with strong ideas about the economy; a government that immediately dropped charges against abortionist Henry Morgentaler, and erected a statue to the late reactionary Maurice Duplessis; a government that includes people of an extraordinary range of

ideology from the left-wing of the NDP to right-wing conservatism, gathered together to fight for the ambiguous objective of “sovereignty association.”

Observers, like the blind men in the parable describing the elephant on the basis of what they can feel, can be woefully incomplete in their analysis.

The Parti Québécois promised good government: one of the symbols of the election campaign was the picture of a broom. In fact, it has delivered a lot, almost too much at once: free drugs for senior citizens, an end to patronage in hiring lawyers, plans for a compromise automobile insurance scheme, a squeaky-clean election financing law, major cuts in government borrowing.

But these have all been overshadowed, in part because of the intense emotions involved in the very existence of the Parti Québécois and its goal of political independence for Quebec, and in part because of the government’s major decision of the first year: to tackle the explosive language issue. For non-French Canadians and opponents of the government, the question of language legislation has been traumatic, deepening the distrust with which the business community greeted the new government and the linguistic minorities that make up 20% of Quebec’s population.

It is still too soon to say whether the shock of Bill 101 will enable Quebec to break free of the issue that has plagued its politics for 10 years and contributed to the defeat of the two previous governments, or whether it will leave it even more tangled and bitter than before. Lévesque is gambling that the province can absorb the legislation in the first year of the mandate, and move on to things he considers more important. It is a very big gamble.

The other great unknowable and unprovable question, in trying to evaluate the government’s performance, is the economy. With the dollar dropping and unemployment rising across the country, it is difficult to blame the Parti Québécois and the Quebec government for all the province’s economic ills. Lévesque inherited the government of a province that had acquired 53% of the increased unemployment that had occurred in Canada in the previous two years, a borrowing requirement of $ 1.4 billion and a budgetary deficit of one billion.

On the positive side, Statistics Canada reports that Quebec investment will increase by 14.3% as compared with 10.5% in the rest of Canada, man-days lost through strikes are down 60% this year, and Quebec has kept its AA credit rating on Wall Street, although it had to pay a premium on its Quebec Hydro borrowing.

On the negative side, unemployment rose to 10.3% in July (estimates vary from 11% to a horrendous 13% for the winter), business is upset about the changes in the labor law and near apoplexy about the language law. But more than any specific act or piece of legislation, the sheer impact of the results of November 15 was a crushing experience for the business community. In a flash, a government of strangers: strangers, moreover, who had been working to build a party designed to create Quebec independence. In the aftermath of the election, the Royal Bank transferred its international money department and Canadian Pacific transferred some of its accounting department to Toronto; the mini-conglomerate Warnock Hersey International left Quebec, as did the engineering firm Combustion Engineering Superheater Ltd. All head offices in Montreal have been unnerved by the language legislation.

But, the head offices have a very weak bargaining position from which to deal with the new government. They are caught in a vicious circle that is partly of their own making. The economic theory of the Parti Québécois—as first formulated by Jacques Parizeau and developed by Bernard Landry and Rodrigue Tremblay—is that the so-called “head office industry” is moving west,and has been since the Second World War. It is a continental phenomenon, that has affected Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore to the advantage of Atlanta, Houston, Fort Worth and Los Angeles. In Canada, Halifax, Quebec City and Montreal have suffered while first Toronto gained and now Calgary and Edmonton are booming. This being the case, the theory goes, the Quebec government should concentrate on helping smallscaled business. Big business is leaving anyway, they argue, so Quebec should try to scale down its economy to its own needs and concentrate on trying to develop more economic self-sufficiency. Thus, the government has concentrated on trying to help the weak sectors of the economy: textiles, furniture, and so on.

As a result, when a major company threatens to move its headquarters out of Quebec unless the language law is changed, the government officials tend to react coolly-even though Camille Laurin assured businessmen that it does not see the departure of the head offices as the price of the language policy. Since they feel, for example, that the Canadian banking industry is centralizing in Toronto, they assume that the Royal Bank and the Bank of Montreal are not threatening to leave for political reasons, but the reverse; since market pressures encourage them to leave, it is politics that is keeping them in Quebec. In the long term, they may be right. But in the short term, this approach has lead to an acceleration in the rate of departure, a slowing down in investment, and an increase in layoffs.

Personally, René Lévesque is thriving as premier. Power agrees with him. He still smokes just as much and stays up as late, but, to the amazement of his friends, now arrives at the office between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. A man renowned for his habitual lateness as a minister and as party leader, he has surprised his staff even more as premier by keeping his appointments.

Although the atmosphere of near-idolatry has subsided somewhat, his personal popularity is extraordinary for a man who has been a politician for 17 years and a TV star for several years before that. It is difficult to imagine any other politician able to emerge with his personal reputation intact from a fatal auto accident at 4 a.m. when driving his private secretary home. And yet the political impact of last February’s accident is negligible.

Within the government, even those who were his harshest critics inside the Parti Québécois before the election have been impressed. “I must say, I was one of those making gloomy predictions about how he would operate as premier.” admits assistant secretary-general for parliamentary reform. André Larocque. Larocque is a former member of the Parti Québécois executive and ran against Lévesque for president of the party in 1971 as a representative of the so-called “left” of the party. “I was expecting that he would be sitting on his ministers all the time, always on their backs, and never giving them any leeway. But it’s the reverse. Not, as was the case with Bourassa, passing the buck because of weakness, but really delegating responsibility, letting the ministers develop their own projects. I’ve been amazed.”

The contrast between a man who was tense and often irritated by disagreements when he was head of a political party in opposition and now appears calm, more sure of himself, and prepared to delegate authority while head of a government is explained by his close friend and chief of

staff Jean-Roch Boivin. “Fundamentally, he hasn’t changed,” says Boivin. “Those who are surprised saw him in a particular period. He is a man who sees power as an instrument to do things, and in opposition (without a seat), at his age, with the heavy odds that there were against achieving power, he was terribly impatient.”

In some ways, René Lévesque has the strengths and weaknesses of a journalist— which, as he pointed out recently, he was for longer than he has been a politician. The strengths are his skill in communication and his intuition—a deeply felt gut sense of the popular mood, and a palpable skill in communicating with the public.

The weaknesses are, however, considerable. He is ill at ease with numbers himself. and is generally over-impressed with expertise. He is trapped by his own experience. He is obsessively interested in newspapers, which has meant that he sometimes gives them too much weight (he leaned heavily on newspaper quotations in his only speech in the Assembly on Bill 101), he argues about coverage, quotes at length from articles he considers unfair— and once even tried to explain Le Devoir s treatment of an economic story he considered overplayed by saying that perhaps the handling was due to French-Canadian inexperience in writing about the economy.

Politically, Lévesque walks a tightrope. He heads a party that is united around the ambiguous goal of “sovereignty-association,” and it appears to maintain its unity about that goal by a tacit refusal to discuss what it means. Behind that objective the party divides between left and right, the extreme nationalists and the moderates. (The ideological rainbow of the Parti Québécois can be seen clearly enough by looking at the previous political allegiances of its members. In the government, there are ex-Créditistes, ex-Union Nationale members, ex-Liberals, ex-cCF/NDPers, and exmembers of the Parti Socialiste du Québec.)

As head of the government, he is caught between ideological pressures from the party, and pragmatic demands of the electorate. His cabinet reflects an ideological range almost as broad as the party, from industry minister Rodrigue Tremblay on the right to Social Affairs Minister Denis Lazure on the left—with the preponderant weight going to pragmatic technocrats.

Faced with these pressures, and caught between obligatory restraint and demands for change, the administration has skated and swooped, seeming to move in several directions at once ideologically. Labor Minister Pierre-Marc Johnson presented an anti-scab law that delighted labor, and then introduced regulations of hiring halls that resulted in Lévesque being booed by electricians in Sept lies. Natural Resources Minister Yves Bérubé blamed the unions for the closure of the Consolidated-Bathurst plant at Cap de la Madeleine—and then a few days later made public the plan to acquire Asbestos Corporation.

Because of the precarious finances of the government, the major reforms of the first year have been inexpensive: the language law, the reform of electoral expenses, and plans that fall far short of complete nationalization in the field of automobile insurance and the asbestos industry.

Lévesque is above all a pragmatist, and it is the most pragmatic of his ministers that are valued most highly in his government. His introduction of a two-tiered cabinet system, with a priorities committee consisting of five ministers of state with long-range planning and coordination responsibilities plus Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Claude Morin and Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau, appears to have worked: most of the senior ministers seem to have performed as expected. Of the lesser known ministers, there have been some impressive performances, and some disappointments.

Thé most unanimously praised has been Natural Resources Minister Yves Bérubé, who has developed a quick mastery of the field. Others who have won respect have been Public Service Minister Denis de Belleval, Transport Minister Lucien Lessard (he was originally slated to give up Transport to make room for Pierre-Marc Johnson, but he handled a truckers strike with such poise this plan was dropped), and, to everyone’s surprise, Claude Charron. Before the election, Lévesque and Charron were barely on speaking terms because of Charron’s criticism of Lévesque’s leadership, and Charron was given the minor portfolio of youth, recreation and sports. But Charron’s energy, enthusiasm and skill in working with civil servants has made an impression.

A number of other cabinet ministers took a long time to adjust to government. Minister of Industry Rodrigue Tremblay quickly became a laughing stock by announcing opinions that were then contradicted by cabinet. Jean Garon seemed to flounder as Minister of Agriculture. Denis Lazure, the Minister of Social Affairs, made some incautious remarks that stirred up the medical profession against him. Others are in serious trouble. Jacques Couture, a worker-priest, alienated everyone involved in the labor field as Minister of Labor, and despite his empathy with immigrants is hampered by his lack of administrative experience as Minister of Immigration. “His office is a shambles,” grumbled one official.

The greatest disappointment in the Lévesque cabinet has been Louis O'Neill, Minister of Culture. Almost a cult-figure in some circles because of his attack on the Duplessis government in 1956, he has proven to be unimaginative, old-fashioned and pompous and has provoked a scathing attack from indépendantiste writer VictorLévy Beaulieu in Le Devoir. When O’Neill replied, he replied alone: there was no sign of anyone leaping to his defense.

This is the other side of the coin in Lévesque’s dealings with his cabinet. He delegates power—and he delegates the trouble that goes with it. Staying clear of the flak and shrapnel. Two ministers in particular have seemed to play the role of scapegoat during the last year: Minister of State for Cultural Development Camille Laurin, father of the language charter, and Minister of State for Parliamentary Reform and House Leader Robert Burns, responsible for strategy in the Assembly, the election financing law, and the white paper on referendums.

By leaving the language policy to Laurin, Lévesque has been able to virtually disassociate himself from the policy, convey his own unhappiness with the clause that forces Canadians from other provinces to send their children to French schools, and hint that the law will be enforced leniently. In giving Laurin the portfolio and responsibility, Lévesque must have known the probable result: the two men have disagreed about language since 1970. They are not close—they call each other “Mr. Lévesque” and “Dr. Laurin”— but they have a great deal of respect for each other.

The other apparent scapegoat, Burns, was involved in the only serious loss of face the government suffered during the year: a parliamentary manoeuvre in withdrawing

Bill One and replacing it with Bill 101—the amended language law. The manoeuvre, elaborately designed to end debate without imposing closure, backfired and resulted in an embarrassing debacle in the Assembly. Throughout the disastrous week Lévesque refrained from intervening, leaving Burns to cope with the mess (even though the strategy had been worked out with Lévesque’s chief of staff at the time, Louis Bernard) and then, after the fuss was over, distanced himself from the fracas, saying the procedure “had not been the greatest discovery of the century.”

Since then, there have been rumors suggesting that Burns has been tested and found wanting. Suddenly, Lévesque seemed not unlike Lester Pearson, admired and loved by those close to him in government, but showing a ruthless streak beneath the lovable exterior. Pearson’s cabinet ministers were given great leeway—but when they ran into trouble in the House, as Walter Gordon and Guy Favreau discovered, they were on their own and Pearson was somewhere else.

Ironically, this has not been a government that has confronted Ottawa. Certainly, the level of public insult has reached new heights between Ottawa and Quebec City, but in terms of actual demands on Ottawa there have been very few. In contrast with the Lesage government, the Johnson government, and even the Bourassa government, the day-to-day dealings between Ottawa and Quebec City on a pragmatic level have been very smooth. The reason is simple. In contrast with the Lesage, Johnson and Bourassa administrations, Lévesque’s government is committed to negotiating sovereignty-association at some point in the future, it is not prepared to waste energy and compromise future negotiations by haggling over petty details now.

What the Lévesque government is focusing its attention on is strengthening the system in the areas in which it does have jurisdiction. With the creation of the new ministries of state, a new emphasis on long-range planning has been established. Quebec is concentrating on developing an energy policy, serious attention is being given to the interrelationship of public transit and regional planning. The education system is being reexamined, and a new back-to-basics emphasis on academic rigor is being applied.

But the most long-reaching, serious commitment that the government has made has gone unannounced and virtually unnoticed. During the election campaign, Lévesque talked several times about the need to decentralize the government bureaucracy. A cliché in the arsenal of criticisms of big government, it was not a promise many people took seriously. The wheels have been set in motion for a major transformation of the structure of government through decentralization: not just moving offices out of Quebec City but decentralizing decision-making. At the end of the summer, Lévesque set up an interministerial committee which he chairs himself to begin a program of decentralization. The result—regardless of the often very conservative reflex of the government—will be a tremendous strengthening of the role of government as planner, coordinator and promoter of growth and development. As the private sector hesitates to invest in Quebec, government intervention can only increase in one form or another.

In the months to come, the Lévesque government—like every other—will be wrestling with attempts to get the economy on some kind of upswing.

Robert Bourassa attributes his defeat principally to the combination of inflation and unemployment which lasted three years. If the trend continues—and most of the tools to combat the trend are not in the hands of any provincial government—the Parti Québécois may well suffer the same fate. The short-term economic conditions will play a key role in deciding the outcome of the referendum and the next election, however, regardless of the outcome of either vote, the changes that the Parti Québécois government makes in Quebec life— the language legislation, the election funding rules, the structure of government, the nationalization—many of which are not yet visible, will be irreversible. Like the changes wrought by the Lesage govern ment elected in 1960, the transformation that began on November 15, 1976, will not be undone,regardless of any referendum, or election. A phase has been entered.^?