It was the last day of April, and in the Liberal party headquarters on Main Street in Rouyn. Quebec, Marcel Lessard, federal Minister of Regional Economic Expansion and veteran slayer of separatists, was trying to stir up the crowd. They were gathered to see Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, but he had just delivered a low-key speech and Lessard wanted to make sure the message was clear. Vote Liberal in the upcoming by-election, he urged, and “prove to the rest of the country that northwest Quebec wants to stay in Canada.”
It was a vintage Lessard speech. But, more importantly, it represented the Liberal campaign theme for five by-elections in Quebec on May 24.* The Liberals have called the by-elections, all in predominantly francophone ridings, a “minireferendum” on the subject of separation. Commented Urban Affairs Minister André Ouellet, coordinator of the Liberal campaign: “Our strategy is to say that, among the four (federal) parties, we’re the best ones to maintain national unity.”
However, on Main Street in Rouyn, the biggest town in Réal Caouette’s old riding ofTémiscamingue, the people are not talking about national unity but about jobs; a series of economic setbacks has left the region with an unemployment rate over 20%.
Elsewhere the story was the same, with local issues dominating the by-election campaigns. In Terrebonne, a suburban-rural riding north of Montreal, the annual flooding caused by a local river was a big issue. In Verdun, Bryce Mackasey’s old federal riding on Montreal Island, the local government and its alleged failings were the focus. In Langelier, Jean Marchandé old Quebec City riding, people were talking about excessive high rise and expressway development. Only in the upper-middle-class riding of Louis-Hébert in suburban Quebec City, populated by professionals and academics from Laval University, did national unity develop into a major issue.
Perhaps sensing this turn of events, Trudeau himself publicly performed an about-face in his view of the by-elections. Asked at a press conference last January whether he would consider the by-elections as a mini-referendum, he said, “yes,” and added: “It’s certain that, whatever my own desire may be, the (by-election results) will be interpreted as the first democratic expression by Quebeckers on the problem of Quebec and Confederation since the November 15 [provincial] election.” Asked last month, however, whether he still considered the by-elections to be a mini-referendum, he replied: “I have never considered these by-elections as a
* A sixth by-election on May 24 was slatedfor Prince Edward Island to fill the seat vacated by A ngus MacLean, a veteran Tory MP who resigned last year to become Conservative leader in PEI. His successor as candidate, biologist Ian MacQuarrie, was expected to retain the Malpeque riding.
mini-referendum, nor have I ever said I did.”
Nonetheless, the Liberals poured a lot of time, money and human resources into the battle and Trudeau himself scheduled campaigns in four of the five ridings during the last week, although it is usually considered too risky for a prime minister to put his prestige on the line in a by-election. But Ouellet made Trudeau’s involvement a condition of his accepting the appointment as campaign boss.
But for the Liberals it was like punching air. because their real opponent, the Parti Québécois, wasn’t running. The Péquistes were in the background, however. Always happy to help knock off a Liberal—even if it means an unlikely alliance with the Tories—the Parti Québécois was reportedly active in at least two or three of the byelection ridings behind Conservative candidates. In Louis-Hébert, Conservative Jean Lavoie boasted that he had dozens of Péquistes working for him and his campaign signs looked suspiciously like the PQ’S. There were also reports that the PQ was backing the Conservative candidates in Terrebonne and Langelier. Said JeanPierre Mongeau. executive director of the federal Liberals in Quebec: “We know that the PQ is involved in those ridings, but we don’t want to start a fight on that issue.”
Conservative MP Roch LaSalle, president of the party in Quebec, moves easily in Parti Québécois circles. He describes PQ cabinet minister Bernard Landry as “an old friend” and has met from time to time with various PQ officials. He denies that any deal had been struck between the Conservatives and the PQ, but he concedes during the campaign: “It’s possible that some PQ workers will want to help us in Terrebonne, for example, to defeat the Liberal candidate. I don’t want to refuse their help.”
The Tories were hoping the informal alliance would produce the same results as in the 1975 by-election in Montreal’s Hochelaga riding, where unheralded Conservative Jacques Lavoie upset prominent Liberal Pierre Juneau, the communications minister who was parachuted into the contest. Lavoie, the Conservatives now admit, had the active support of the Péquistes in the area.
The Conservatives’ best chance for a repeat of this upset seemed to be in Terrebonne. After sounding out more than two dozen prospective candidates in the riding, the Liberals were saddled with Roland Comtois as their standard bearer. Comtois used to be the MP for Terrebonne but resigned last year to run in the provincial election. He was clobbered by Jacques Parizeau, leaving him with the dull look of a loser. But the Conservatives, too, had problems. They were stuck with Roger Delorme, a broadcaster whose anti-Semitic writings and comments were coming back to haunt him. Three years ago, Delorme said on radio that “Zionism is Nazism and racism ... Zionism rhymes with racism ... Zionism is synonymous with Nazism and synonymous with racism and I repeat it again.” Slanders aside, these statements conflict with Conservative policy, which is strongly pro-Israel.
Conservative leader Joe Clark said he talked the matter over with Delorme and
was satisfied that the broadcaster accepts Conservative policy on Israel. Said Delorme: “I subscribe to the policy of the Progressive Conservative Party. That’s the only comment I will make.”
In Verdun, the Liberals sounded out Phil Edmonston, the Nader-style consumer advocate (see page 59) as their candidate but he preferred to run for the NDP. Edmonston says it was a tough decision. The Liberals turned instead to Raymond Savard, a corner-store owner and municipal councillor who is running into criticism for his record at City Hall. Said Savard: “I’m not Santa Claus. Because you’re at City Hall, people think you can do miracles.” But Savard was likely to win because the Tories were in disarray in the riding and Edmonston was starting from too far back (the NDP got just 7.1% of the vote in 1974).
In Louis-Hébert, the New Democrats thought they had lined up a winner, their first ever in Quebec, in Judge Robert Cliche, a folk hero in the province since his well-publicized inquiry into the violenceridden construction industry. But, under pressure from his family, Cliche pulled out at the last minute and the Liberals were expected to retain the seat with their young candidate, Dennis Dawson, 27, president of the local Catholic school board.
In Langelier, the Liberals got the candi9 date they wanted in Quebec City, Mayor ' Gilles Lamontagne. But the Tories also had a strong candidate in Maurice Hamel, son of a former Quebec City mayor. The Conservatives won just 11.2% of the vote in 1974.
In Témiscamingue, Créditiste Gilles Caouette was running to succeed his father, Réal, leader of the Social Credit Party until he died last December. An easy victory seemed assured, although the Conservatives put up a strong candidate in Norman Grimard, a top criminal lawyer and local wheeler-dealer. Grimard, a baseball fanatic, was counting on members of the Los Angeles Dodgers to endorse him on television. But the Conservative vote was almost nonexistent (2.7% in 1974), a tough base on which to build, even with such imaginative tactics. Whatever the outcome, the Liberals’ majority in the House of Commons was assured. Going into the by-elections, they held 135 seats, compared to the opposition parties’ 123.
The Liberals were likely to repeat their performance of the 1974 general election when they won four of the five ridings, Témiscamingue being the exception. A loss of just one of the four would be viewed as a setback, while losing two or more, would be a disaster—a victory for the Parti Québécois in its efforts to help elect Conservatives. Protests Trudeau: “We are not fighting the Parti Québécois; we are fighting the Tories and perhaps the NDP and certainly the Crédististes in one riding.” But nobody really believed that.
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