CANADA

Neck and neck in Quebec

René Lévesque’s slick march and Claude Ryan’s plodding trek to the wire

David Thomas April 13 1981
CANADA

Neck and neck in Quebec

René Lévesque’s slick march and Claude Ryan’s plodding trek to the wire

David Thomas April 13 1981

Neck and neck in Quebec

CANADA

René Lévesque’s slick march and Claude Ryan’s plodding trek to the wire

David Thomas

His craggy head pokes through the doorway and scans the dining room like an aged tortoise hungry for an inattentive fly. Then, gnarled hand cocked for action, Claude Ryan strikes at the nearest table where surprised lunchers suddenly must shift from picking the bones of a barbecued chicken to grasping the candidate’s insistent claws. There’s no band, but from a cassette recorder slung over the shoulder of an accompanying aide crackles the tinny Liberal campaign theme which even Ryan’s chief communications adviser, Gilles Liboiron, admits “has a depressing effect on audiences.” A few hours later, the chest-swelling jingle of the Parti Québécois swells clearly from a battery of 32 concert hall speakers, barely overpowering the adulatory roar from 8,000 voices directed at the little man on stage, who lifts his hands in a gesture of feigned modesty, which serves only to amplify the tribute. René Lévesque has managed to dump his party’s objective of Quebec independence and still maintain the fervor of the faithful. As the campaign entered its last week before the April 13 vote, there was an increasing possibility that he might retain his job too.

Such was the contrast Thursday between Lévesque’s slick march and the plodding trek of Ryan that even the religious Liberal leader’s own entourage

was praying for the intercession of a power greater than himself. Ryan’s press attaché, Michèle Bazin, wrote a private note Thursday speculating that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau might once again rush to Ryan’s aid as he did in last May’s referendum campaign, when he promised to negotiate constitutional changes that would satisfy Quebec. Trudeau had been shaken, noted Bazin, by opinion polls indicating that “the ground seems to be slipping from under our feet.” Ryan publicly disclaimed the need for Trudeau’s assistance, but there was no denying the unexpected closeness of the race. Two respected surveys published in mid-campaign showed the PQ leading among decided voters, even allowing that most uncommitted electors will finally fall to the Liberals. Ryan’s party might not have the substantial lead in popular votes it needs to win a majority of seats in the National Assembly. Many thousands of Liberal votes are almost wasted since they merely contribute to outsized majorities in English-speaking ridings. That factor has twice caused the Liberals to lose elections—in 1944 and 1966—to its old rival, the Union Nationale (now led by Roch LaSalle).

Ryan’s Liberals had anticipated the election campaign as a formality, confi-

dent that Quebeckers would continue to repudiate the PQ as they had in the referendum and a string of 11 byelections. It appears, however, that the referendum victory of federalist forces purged separatism from voter preoccupations and relaxed partisan polarization over the issue. Ironically, the fear factor is now working against Ryan as his ascetic, imperious personality emerges as the lurking issue of the campaign. Lévesque feeds the fear by suggesting that Ryan would dismantle the PQ government’s language legislation, its protective zoning of agricultural land and its measures to ensure safe working conditions. The strategy worked well enough to cause Ryan to drop his once-firm desire to open English schools to all anglophone immigrants. He also became a late convert to the cause of saving agricultural land from speculators, but attracted his opponents’ ridicule by promising to eliminate a sales tax on agricultural machinery—a tax that does not exist. Ryan’s unfamiliarity with farm matters was further evident Thursday during a milking-time tour of Arthur Thibodeau’s dairy farm near Mirabel Airport. Unmindful of a cow’s intentions when she lifts her tail, Ryan narrowly avoided being fertilized after he bent to examine the animal’s udder.

Rural voters are important to Ryan because many are old Union Nationale loyalists who voted for federalist forces

in the referendum but who have been orphaned by the demise of their party. Parti Québécois strength in rural ridings seems to indicate a greater affinity to Lévesque’s now-moderated nationalism than to Ryan’s Liberals, still identified as the party of les anglais.

So reduced are cultural tensions in Quebec that Lévesque was warmly welcomed last week at McGill University. Not one question was raised about language or independence as the students, like many Quebeckers, appeared to accept the premier at his word: “I won’t go into chapter and verse about the referendum campaign. It wasn’t exactly attractive in many ways but, what the hell, it’s over and we accepted the results.”

The visible success of Lévesque’s promise to shelve attempts to wreak a change in Quebec’s status during a second mandate has worried Ryan, causing him to redefine the election as Referendum II: “If we vote differently April 13 than we did last May 20, the referendum will not have been much use.” Only he, argues Ryan, can wrench from Trudeau the increased powers for Quebec that federalist forces were promising last spring. But Ryan’s credibility

WHY VOTE FOR THE UNION NATIONALE?

on that score is weakened by Trudeau’s determination to avoid further negotiation with the provinces before his unilateral patriation is completed.

Caught in a constitutional no man’s land between Lévesque and Trudeau, and with voters somnolent in the face of the old separatist scarecrow, Ryan has been unexpectedly thrust into a contest for which he is ill-prepared. His incessant shaking of hands in restaurants and shopping centres worked well enough against the spectre of recession. This time, however, he’s fighting a popular premier and a party determined to remain on top. <£>