CANADA

Campaigning in Quebec

Bourassa tries to cash in on his popularity

MICHAEL ROSE August 21 1989
CANADA

Campaigning in Quebec

Bourassa tries to cash in on his popularity

MICHAEL ROSE August 21 1989

Campaigning in Quebec

CANADA

Bourassa tries to cash in on his popularity

Emerging last week from the news conference at which he announced that Quebecers would go to the polls on Sept. 25, Premier Robert Bourassa came faceto-face with his main adversary, Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau. Under the glare of TV lights, the two leaders greeted each other jovially. Bourassa, relaxed and smiling, wished Parizeau a happy 59th birthday and good luck in the campaign. Then, after a short chat, the two men parted company—and stepped into a 47-day election campaign. Said Bourassa:

“From time to time, we have to rise above partisan politics.”

With recent opinion polls showing the Liberals about 20 points ahead of the PQ, Bourassa, 56, could afford to be magnanimous, at least in the beginning. Still, he will have to avoid some potential obstacles during the race. Among them: strike threats by nurses and other public-sector workers, renewed criticism of the Liberals’ record on the environment and the continuing anger of Quebec’s anglophone minority over Bourassa’s restrictions on English language rights. As well, the government faced a potentially searing controversy over the disposal of toxic wastes from last year’s fire at St-Basile-leGrand.

Last week, the premier attempted to sidestep those issues. But Bourassa’s campaign got off to a rough start when, a day after he dropped the election writ, he called a Montreal news conference to introduce three of his promised star candidates. One of them, William Cosgrove, an anglophone who is running for the Liberals in the affluent and still largely English-speaking riding of Westmount, fumbled reporters’ questions about Quebec issues. Cosgrove, a 56-year-old former vicepresident of the World Bank, returned only last week to live in his native Quebec after a 16year absence. He acknowledged that he was not familiar with Bill 142, a major piece of legislation that guarantees health and social services in English to Quebecers who want them. Bourassa had to come to the rescue of his obviously flustered candidate, who will attempt to take the Westmount seat vacated by prominent Liberal Richard French, former minister of communications. French—who is not running in the election—and two other En-

glish-speaking ministers resigned from Bourassa’s cabinet in protest against the government’s language policies.

Indeed, Bourassa’s problems with the province’s anglophones—numbering approximately 775,000 in a provincial population of 6.7 million—may be a significant issue in the campaign. Many English-speaking Quebecers still have not forgiven the premier for abandoning a 1985 campaign promise to allow bilingual outdoor signs. Instead, last December his government passed Bill 178, which banned the use of languages other than French on outdoor commercial signs and strictly limited the use of English indoors. But although the majority of Quebec anglophones do not support the PQ, in most cases they have no obvious alternative if they decide not to support the Liberals. Said Geoffrey Kelley, director of communications for the English-rights group Alliance Quebec: “It is very difficult to read what people who are still angry about the language issues are going to do.” He added, “But I do know that a lot of them have decided that, § this time around, they will § simply not vote Liberal.” Since Bill 178’s passage, two new political organizations, the Equality party and the Unity party, have formed partly in an attempt to attract the anglophone vote. Indeed, the Montreal-based Equality party, led by 28year-old architect Robert Libman and campaigning on minority rights, claims to have 8,000 members and plans to run candidates in as many as 20 of the province’s 125 ridings. But in the Eastern Townships riding of BromeMissisquoi, some anglophones are taking advantage of an obscure election regulation to try to elect an independent candidate to display their disapproval of both the provincial Liberals and the PQ. The Quebec Election Act allows for expatriate Quebecers who have been away from the province for less than 10 years to vote by mail. On that basis, organizers of the BromeMissisquoi campaign are seeking out friends, relatives and former neighbors who left Quebec within the past decade in the hopes of getting enough votes to propel their candidate, Heather Keith-Ryan, into the national assembly.

For his part, Bourassa has said that he will rely heavily on the Liberal economic record to

convince voters to give his party a second consecutive mandate. Since the Liberals defeated the PQ in 1985 the province has enjoyed four years of growth exceeding four per cent annually—compared with 3.9 per cent for Canada as a whole. Investment in the province has grown by an average of 15 per cent annually since 1985, and the Liberals take credit for creating 233,000 jobs in the same period. Still, unemployment in Quebec is stalled at between nine and 10 per cent—about twice as much as Ontario’s rate. Bourassa says that is a result of temporary structural problems in the Quebec economy, stemming from a decline in the number of jobs in traditional

manufacturing industries. But, in the opening forays of the campaign, Parizeau repeatedly pointed to unemployment as a major flaw in the Liberals’ economic performance.

The conflict between Quebec’s unionized nurses and the provincial government, which has been simmering since early this year, also has the potential of exploding during the campaign. The nurses, who are demanding immediate wage increases that are currently scheduled to take effect over the next three years, have been disrupting hospital services by refusing to work overtime. They will decide this month if they will stage a full-scale strike. As well, other powerful public-sector unions, representing thousands of workers who are without contracts, may step up their pressure tactics to further embarrass Bourassa during the campaign.

At the same time, both the Liberals and the

PQ face serious trouble over environmental issues in a campaign in which both parties clearly want to appear as committed defenders of the environment. Bourassa’s government and its PQ predecessor both came under heavy criticism by Quebec fire commissioner Cyrille Delage on Aug. 3, when he released his final report on the disastrous fire last year at a toxicwaste warehouse in St-Basile-le-Grand, 40 km southeast of Montreal. That fire sent smoke from burning oil laden with dangerous polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) across the surrounding countryside and forced the evacuation of 3,500 people for 18 days. In his report, Delage said that neither the Liberals nor the PQ

had paid sufficient attention to storage and disposal of toxic wastes. Now, Bourassa’s government is facing the problem of finding a disposal site for the thousands of litres of PCBladen oil still sitting in St-Basile and for toxicwaste stores elsewhere in the province. Some of those wastes were to have been burned at disposal sites in Britain. But, last week, port authorities there turned away a waste shipment because of environmental concerns in Britain (page 43).

Parizeau, meanwhile, demonstrated swiftly that he intends to wage an aggressive campaign in his first time out as leader of the separatist party. On the day of the election call, he assailed the Liberals for their failure to solve the problems of unemployment, health and social services, labor unrest and the environment. Parizeau also said that he would energetically promote the PQ’s aim of using a series of

referendums to remove Quebec slowly from Confederation. Insisted the PQ leader: “The sovereigntist fervor is being rekindled in Quebec at the present time, and, of course, the election results will give an indication of how strong the revival is.”

Still, Parizeau presides over a party that remains bitterly divided between outright separatists and those who favor the moderation of former leader Pierre Marc Johnson. Parizeau also lacks the populist appeal that contributed to the election success of PQ premier René Lévesque, who died in 1987. Said former PQ policy adviser Jules-Pascal Venne: “This time around, the strategy is just to keep the PQ alive.” Indeed, the Liberals, who have been showing increasingly nationalist colors in recent months, have clearly moved onto the PQ’s turf. Bourassa’s Liberals stood fast against anglophone language demands and, last week, they revamped their party logo to display Quebec’s fleur-de-lys symbol prominently.

If Bourassa wins next month’s election, one of his first tasks will be to convince New Brunswick and Manitoba to join the other provinces in endorsing the Meech Lake constitutional accord before next June’s deadline. Bourassa, aides said, will view a strong election victory as a renewed mandate to stand firm on the accord. For that reason, the federal government, too, would welcome a strengthened Liberal majority in the 125-seat assembly—which has three new seats due to redistribution. At dissolution, the Liberals held 98 seats compared with 19for the PQ.one Independent and four vacant seats. But the Quebec-Ottawa al-

liance on Meech Lake does

not appear likely to extend into other important areas after the Sept. 25 vote. A potential showdown is looming over Ottawa’s involvement in an environmental assessment of Quebec’s plans to expand its James Bay hydroelectric network in 1991. And Bourassa has already attacked the proposed nine-per-cent federal goods and services tax as an unwarranted intrusion into provincial jurisdiction. Concluded political scientist Pierre Fournier of the University of Quebec: “For a number of reasons, the period after the election will be more difficult for him than the election itself.” For the Quebec premier, however, the immediate preoccupation was to make it through the campaign without a major—and potentially costly—mistake.

MICHAEL ROSE in Quebec City with

BRUCE WALLACEX