CANADA

Triumph and humiliation

The PQ may have established a dynasty as formidable as the Ontario Tories

David Thomas April 27 1981
CANADA

Triumph and humiliation

The PQ may have established a dynasty as formidable as the Ontario Tories

David Thomas April 27 1981

Triumph and humiliation

CANADA

The PQ may have established a dynasty as formidable as the Ontario Tories

David Thomas

Claude Ryan blamed it on God. His humiliated, decimated Quebec Liberals, however, are more inclined to blame Claude Ryan. Their leader’s haughty contempt for the modern political techniques of polling and marketing resulted last week in an old-fashioned rout when voters re-elected the Parti Québécois.* Ryan’s refusal to permit private opinion polling under his leadership kept the Liberals in blithe ignorance of the evolving mood since last year’s referendum and allowed Premier René Lévesque to perform, unimpeded, some remarkable surgery on Quebec’s body politic. His Péquistes, far more than the Liberals, now command a provincial consensus and may well have established a dynasty as formidable as that of the Progressive Conservatives in Ontario.

Lévesque was welcomed as a returning hero when he met in Ottawa Thursday with seven English-speaking premiers for whom the once-feared separatist has become an essential ally against federal encroachment upon their powers and riches. Had Ryan won, their common defence would have disintegrated. Ryan would have joined Trudeau in the eastern grab for western oil and demanded that bilingualism be imposed a mari usque ad mare. Lévesque’s week of triumph proved he had managed to fashion both a new alliance within his province and a modus vivendi with the rest of Canada. The price, of course, was a promise not to pursue his party’s commitment to independence during this mandate. Instead, his thrust must be toward strengthening Quebec’s political and economic autonomy within the Canadian Confederation—an objective acceptable to most Quebeckers and to his bedfellow premiers.

*Seats won last week: PQ 80; Liberals b2. Party standings at dissolution: PQ 67; Liberals 3b; UN 5; Independents 2; vacant 2.

The Parti Québécois managed a surprise raid into the Liberals’ once dogfaithful following of anglophones and immigrants: support from the immigrant belt separating French and English Montreal was directly responsible for the magnitude of Lévesque’s victory. For the first time in the PQ’s history of ethnocentric rallies, Lévesque acknowledged that election night by breaking into English: “I want to express special thanks to Quebeckers of English and other ethnic stocks who today gave us enough support to have given us this second mandate. Thank you.” Even more significant, the 10,000 euphoric partisans sardined into the East End arena cheered those words spoken in a language they once abhorred as an alien threat. A contingent of Greek immigrants was the artisan of victory in Montreal’s Mercier riding for Immigration Minister Gérald Godin, who divides his passion between ethnic integration and his home-mate, nationalist heroine and singer, Pauline Julien. And, in the waving blue sea of fleurdelysê flags Monday night, there floated a single red, white and green tricolore of Italy, alone but benvenuto.

At the same time, the PQ ran rampant through the French-speaking countryside, gobbling up the crumbs of the Social Credit and Union Nationale parties which were wiped, probably forever, from the political map. Ryan’s Liberals have been reduced almost to a minority rump, heavy with English-speaking members whose number and visibility far outweigh their share of the provincial population. Superficially, the Liberals’ 46-per-cent share of the popular vote is respectable, but that score is due to ghetto-like results in Englishspeaking ridings such as D’Arcy McGee in Montreal where the Liberals won 25,125 votes to the PQ’s 1,552, reaffirming victor Herbert Marx’s boast that he has the “biggest majority of any election outside the Soviet bloc.” But, complains his former National Assembly colleague Georges Lalande, defeated in Maisonneuve riding, “French-Canadians have been isolated from the Liberal party. They’ve gone to the PQ and I think they were right to do so.” And the Liberals’ own chief organizer, Pierre Bibeau, calculates that francophone voters chose the PQ 2 to 1: “It could be that we are seen by the public as primarily the party of the English.” If so, that may mean several more elections—and a new leader—before the Liberals can recover power.

Liberal victories in 11 consecutive byelections and the referendum on sovereignty-association had cowed Ryan’s critics like the subjects of Hans Christian Andersen’s vain emperor, whose new clothes only the honest and wise could see. Election night, the Liberal leader paraded naked as his selfpraised “methods” garnered a paltry 42 of 122 seats. Ryan’s methods were long, fidget-inducing sermons, contempt for television and an apparent conviction that incessant shaking of hands in shopping centres was an effective substitute for modern campaign techniques. For the lack of anything else, the Liberal campaign concentrated on Ryan’s personality—a hard product to sell when its major traits of arrogance, authoritarianism and brittleness were packaged in a bent body and a face pasty from too many hours in dark studies consuming official reports. It wasn’t Ryan’s image that was at fault. It was his reality. Says re-elected Liberal Reed Scowen: “There are going to be a lot of suggestions made to Ryan over the next little while. Some of the things he’ll find very difficult to accept because they go against his nature. He doesn’t like image-making, polls or manipulation, but behavioral flexibility is required of the leader of a party. Ryan may well say, ‘I’m not that kind of man.’ ”

Ryan’s winning reputation was acquired during the referendum campaign when, titular head of the “no” campaign, he was flanked by popular federal figures such as Jean Chrétien and Pierre Trudeau. In the election campaign, he stood alone and his mantle of invincibility came unstitched. Even the newspaper he once edited, Le Devoir, advised Quebeckers to vote against him. In an eleventh-hour panic, Liberal organizers bused in supporters from across the province to pack the same East End arena where, four days later, the PQ would celebrate its victory. It was obvious then that Ryan’s proclaimed renewal of the Liberal party was largely sham and that he did not have the loyalty of the rank and file. The platform was guarded by thugs even more disreputable in appearance than in the bad old days of former premier Robert Bourassa: one, with tatooed hands and dressed in faded denim, collar upturned 1950s-style, amused himself during Ryan’s strident speech by kicking at a poster in the hands of a middle-aged Liberal. As Ryan spoke, a constant chattering from his audience of 8,000 indicated that even his own party had stopped listening. Though the speech was unusually short (less than 30 minutes), nearly a third of the crowd walked out before it was over and, at the end, applause died out after 15 seconds.

Liberals don’t like losers, and Monday evening, as the returns rolled in, the message to Ryan was clear. A downtown college gymnasium prepared for a victory party was shunned like a leper colony: at 8:30, 28 spectators could be counted in the bleachers cordoned off from the official and press section. By 10 o’clock, their number had dwindled to 16. When a literally red-faced Ryan arrived to concede two hours after his defeat was obvious, his phalanx of burly guards thrust forcibly through the door into what they had expected to be a crowd and plowed into the knot of waiting journalists, completely missing the planned path of honor to the podium. Charging ahead with Ryan in tow, they pushed the reporters toward the stage and into another line of heavies hired to keep them away from it.

Ryan said the discrepancy between his party’s popular vote and its meagre harvest of seats showed the need for a form of proportional representation— ironically, an old demand of the PQ, suddenly dropped once the system started working for it. But the last day of the campaign the Liberal leader had told party workers the result would be the work of “a superior will” guiding the province: “May the will of the Father be done.”

Such religiosity is clearly as anachronistic as was Ryan’s style of politicking. According to his own assistant press attaché, Andrew Caddell: “Ryan just didn’t understand. He can’t shake everybody’s hand.”

Much resentment was directed at the coterie of inexperienced and fawning aides with whom Ryan surrounded himself, notable among them the boyish Pierre Pettigrew, who unintentionally made Ryan a laughingstock in midcampaign by naively passing on to his boss an April Fools’ Day radio report that Trudeau had resigned. Ryan drew up a reaction statement before being saved from ridicule by older, wiser counsel. Members of the leader’s entourage (which displaced the party’s old pros) were dismissed as “crawlers” by headquarters worker Guy Gagné, while even prestige candidate Quebec Medical College President Augustin Roy openly blamed the defeat on “the pernicious influence of party strategists.” Roy, who lost, said Ryan should quit the leadership and, like many Liberals, suggested the time is ripe for a return of Bourassa: “He would be an excellent candidate for the leadership.”

Several Liberals identified with Bourassa survived the PQ sweep while most of the new-blood candidates sponsored by Ryan were rejected by voters. One prominent loss was former journalist Solange Chaput-Rolland, who became noted for teary-eyed testimonials in praise of Ryan and for nodding off during her leader’s speeches, particularly those after lunch. Another was Camil Samson, Quebec’s last elected Social Créditer before Ryan converted him to Liberalism in hope of winning away right-wing rural voters. Samson’s presence probably cost him many more votes than it earned.

The PQ government had losses of its own, but most of them were welcome. The only minister retired by voters was Hull’s Jocelyne Ouellette, whose abrasiveness made her unpopular among colleagues. The party’s only Haitian, Jean Alfred, was mercifully retired from the National Assembly where he had embarrassed the government by praising the dictatorial regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier in his former homeland.

As for the weeks ahead, Lévesque’s biggest problem may be finding enough to occupy his large and talented caucus now that the common mission of independence is cryogenically frozen for revival once a cure has been found for popular rejection.

With files from Anne Beirne.