The plotters had been busy for months. Ever since he captured the Parti Québécois leadership in September, 1985, Pierre Marc Johnson had been under attack, both from dissidents within the PQ and from former members who resented his push to remove independence from the party platform. And in the emotional days following the Nov. 1 death of PQ founder René Lévesque, disgruntled indépendantistes intensified their campaign against Johnson. But even his most loyal supporters were stunned last week when Johnson suddenly and dramatically announced that he had no stomach for the internal fight. Rising in Quebec’s national assembly to announce his resignation as party leader, Johnson declared, “I do not want to preside over the weakening of Quebec’s nationalist forces.”
Johnson’s emotional and bitter departure from politics ended a oncepromising political career—at least for the foreseeable future. And it left the already floundering PQ in chaos. The party must now plan another expensive leadership race at a time when its membership is dropping and it is $300,000 in debt. Most importantly, his resignation set the stage for supporters of outright independence to capture leadership of the party after years of taking a back seat to those—including Lévesque and Johnson—who advocated a more gradual policy of promoting Quebec’s status. Their favored candidate to succeed Johnson: Jacques Parizeau, the brilliant and colorful economist who served for eight years as PQ finance minister (see box).
Still, Johnson’s departure could not have come at a worse time for Parizeau. A dedicated indépendantiste, Parizeau has been the embodiment of the anti-Johnson forces, who regard the former minister as the best choice to revive the party’s moribund fortunes. But the 57-year-old Parizeau must now decide whether to run for the leadership of a party now supported by fewer than one in four Quebec voters. Although he avoided most reporters last week while seeking the advice of trusted political observers, Parizeau admitted in an interview with Maclean's that he feared being relegat-
ed to several years in opposition. “That is the question I am asking myself,” he said. “It will certainly affect my decision.”
Similarly, Johnson agonized over his choice to resign the leadership he fought so hard to win just two years ago. Only 41 years old, Johnson is both a lawyer and a medical doctor by education—but a political animal by instinct. “Pierre Marc is a totally consumed political being,” said André Sormany, a longtime friend and adviser. “The situation had to be intolerable for him to quit.”
Johnson’s decision was even more surprising because he still commanded the overwhelming support of the PQ’s 58,000 members. In fact, at a party convention last June, Johnson’s controversial concept of national affirmation—whereby Quebec would slowly
try to increase its powers rather than seek outright independencewon the endorsement of 80 per cent of delegates. Said Gilles Rousseau, president of the PQ association in Fabre riding, just north of Montreal: “Johnson could certainly have stayed leader of the party. He could have stopped the insurrection and expelled the dissidents.”
But Johnson’s uninspired performance as a critic of Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa’s government caused him to lose the momentum he had gained at the convention. His attack on the Meech Lake constitutional accord found few sympathizers in Quebec, where the deal is widely seen as a political victory for the province. And Bourassa’s mastery over Johnson in economic debates in the legislature often left the PQ leader seething in his seat.
The poor performance was reflected in the polls. Two years after he was elected, Bourassa’s personal approval rating among Quebec voters still hovers at 60 per cent. Meanwhile, support for the PQ slipped to just 23 per cent in a survey last month by Montreal’s Centre de Recherches sur l’Opinion Publique—just one point ahead of the rising NDP (and fully 31 points behind the Liberals). Said Monique Daoust, president of the PQ’s TailIon riding association on Montreal’s South Shore: “Even our more moderate members were demoralized by the polls.”
The lethargy was contagious. Over the past year Johnson had often mused aloud that he might suddenly call it quits. Not only was his wife, MarieLouise, unhappy with political life but Johnson himself resented not being able to spend more time with his 11year-old son, Marc-Olivier, and
eight-year-old daughter, Marie-Claude.
Still, the crisis that provoked his departure was swift and unpredictable. On Oct. 29, while Johnson was in Paris, PQ member of the legislature Gérald Godin publicly attacked him, contending that he was leading the party to ruin. Just three days later Lévesque, the PQ’s spiritual father, died after a massive heart attack in his Montreal apartment.
Lévesque’s death sparked an emotional outpouring that quickly provoked comparisons between Johnson’s cold, aloof public personality and nostalgic memories of Lévesque’s folksy style. And Lévesque’s death gave Johnson’s enemies more ammunition. Johnson’s failure to return from Paris in time to give his former leader a eulogy in the national assembly was portrayed by his critics as disrespect toward Lévesque. For Lévesque loyalists, the slight recalled the key role of Johnson supporters in the messy 1985 backroom campaign that forced Lévesque’s resignation as PQ leader and premier.
During the week of mourning for Lévesque, Johnson met with caucus supporters to broach the possibility of resigning. Then, on Nov. 6, the day after Lévesque’s state funeral, Johnson told Claude Filion, a confidant in the PQ caucus, of his decision to resign.
Still, his resolve wavered over the next three days. Said Sor-
many: “Few people will ever believe that he wasn’t forced out. But this was simply a case of a guy who had had enough.” By Monday, facing opposition from at least 10 of his 22 caucus members, Johnson drafted the 10-page resignation speech that he delivered the following day. In that speech, he said that if he remained as party leader, “I see nothing ahead but divisions
and wounds inflicted for no reason.” Many friends said that they believe Lévesque’s death had a shattering effect on Johnson—whose father, Daniel, died of a heart attack in 1968 at the age of 53 (Pierre Marc was 22) while serving as Quebec’s premier. Said one friend: “Seeing Lévesque may have reminded him of what happened to his father and convinced him to get out.” But others said that Johnson’s resignation might be a strategic retreat designed to escape a disastrous political situation in anticipation of a more realistic chance to regain the party leadership a few years down the road. Said Jean-Guy Parent, a PQ member of the legislature recruited to the party by Johnson for the 1985 election: “The old gang may have won a victory in the short term, but Pierre Marc will win in the end.” Certainly, Johnson’s resignation turned up the political heat on Parizeau. Since tearing up his PQ membership card in January, 1985, Parizeau has remained a critic of both Bourassa and Johnson from the sanctum of his professorship at the University of Montreal. But Parizeau’s unsullied separatist credentials and his ability to challenge Bourassa’s economic policies made him the clear leadership choice of dissident Péquistes. In the past month a group of up to 12 former PQ cabinet members met, usually at the instigation of onetime culture minister Camille Laurin, to discuss the party’s leadership crisis. Among them: former ministers Bernard Landry, Denis Lazure and Pierre Marois. As well, Parizeau discussed Johnson’s
An appetite for power
He has a reputation as a man of ideas. But friends also readily acknowledge that he craves power. As one of the dynamic young architects of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the 1960s and later as finance minister in the Parti Québécois government from 1976 to 1984, Jacques Parizeau grew accustomed to being at the centre of the province’s political life. Now, a group of his oldest colleagues is trying to persuade Parizeau to seek the PQ leadership abandoned by Pierre Marc Johnson.
How much persuading he will need is not clear. With Robert Bourassa’s popular Liberal government having a stranglehold on power, some longtime Parizeau friends
doubt that he will run. Said Roland Parenteau, a professor at the Ecole nationale d’administration publique in Montreal who has worked with Parizeau since the 1960s: “He is a man who likes to be at the centre of power. He would be frustrated in opposition.” Indeed, Parizeau has spent most of his adult life as a powerful actor on the political stage, not as a critic. One of his greatest successes came in 1979 when, as the PQ’s finance minister, he introduced the Quebec Stock Savings Plan. The plan—which allows taxpayers to deduct from their provincial income tax part of the cost of buying shares of Quebec companies—has spurred the province’s recent business revolution.
Still, associates are quick to note that Parizeau is unhappy in his teaching job at the Ecole des hautes études commerciales, a business school affiliated with the University
of Montreal. In recent months he has heightened his public profile by attacking Bourassa’s economic policies and by endorsing free trade at legislative hearings in September.
It is uncertain whether Parizeau’s banker-like demeanor and lofty intellectual wit would be popular with voters. A poll by Sorecom Inc. of Montreal conducted in September showed that only 16 per cent of respondents said that he would make the best premier. And because he is a “clear, open indépendantiste,” as he describes his political convictions, Parizeau would likely campaign during the next provincial election under the banner of political sovereignty for Quebec, an idea that most Quebecers now reject. But Johnson’s sudden resignation means that the timing of Parizeau’s political return can no longer be entirely of his own choosing.
BRUCE WALLACE in Montreal
leadership with Lévesque in the weeks before he died, when, according to several associates, Lévesque rediscovered his enthusiasm for politics.
Many hard-line nationalists have already pledged their support to Parizeau and have promised to return to the PQ if he wins the leadership. Said Lazure: “I do not know how Mr. Parizeau, who has a sense of history and of his responsibilities, can say no.” The pressure on Parizeau to run was immense. “Obviously I must decide soon, perhaps within 15 days,” he told Maclean's on Nov. 11. “I cannot delay my decision for months.” The PQ executive is expected to set a date for the leadership vote in early December; unlike other Canadian parties, the PQ gives all its members, not just delegates to a convention, a vote in the selection.
Should Parizeau run, it is already apparent that he would have few—if any—challengers. Landry has said that he would not run against Parizeau. And Jean Garon, the popular former agriculture minister, is unlikely to challenge Parizeau unless there is a ground swell of support for him. Other possible candidates include Pauline Marois, who ran a distant second to Johnson in 1985, and François Gendron, who was appointed PQ house leader last week.
Still, the independence platform will be an electoral millstone for Parizeau. Support for separatism is on the wane, but Parizeau seems unperturbed. Said Parizeau: “I have never seen an issue so often buried that is still discussed by so many people so vehemently.”
Still, any hardening of the PQ’s position on independence may work to the benefit of Quebec’s New Democrats. Although most observers say that the impressive support for the provincial NDP—founded only in September, 1985—is a ripple effect caused by the soaring popularity of the federal NDP, PQ strategists are worried about the phenomenon. Said Vincent Lemieux, a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City: “Depending on how the federal NDP performs in the next election, the provincial NDP could form the official opposition in Quebec.”
As a result, PQ members acknowledged that they must move quickly to solve their internal problems. Still, they face that task after a period of unprecedented turmoil. Within 10 days the PQ had been convulsed—mourning the death of its founder and watching the messy withdrawal of the only other leader it has known. Repairing the damage seemed likely to be as difficult as the party’s very creation.
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