DESPITE HIS CONSTITUTIONAL STAND, JEAN CHRETIEN SEEMS CLOSE TO LOCKING UP QUEBEC
The moment should have belonged to Paul Martin. As more than 400 Liberal party members in the Quebec riding of Hull-Aylmer gathered last week to choose 12 delegates to send to next June’s leadership convention in Calgary, all the calculations, even those of rival contender Jean Chrétien, indicated that Martin’s supporters would sweep the slate. That would have breathed badly needed new life into the Montreal MP’s faltering bid to succeed John Turner as the next Liberal leader. One reason for the Martin forces’ confidence was the early declared support of the riding’s sitting MP, Gilles Rocheleau, a former Quebec cabinet minister. But when the votes were counted at the end of the evening, against expectations, Chrétien’s backers grabbed all 12 slots. The outcome left the Martin camp reeling. “We came up short,” confessed a gloomy Daniel Déspins, one of the defeated Martin candidates. “Obviously, it hurts.”
As the wearying process of selecting Quebec’s delegates to the Liberal convention enters its final few weeks, a Chrétien victory in his home province appears increasingly likely. The former Liberal cabinet minister has taken a commanding lead in the contest to win the loyalty of Quebec’s roughly 1,200 convention delegates. That accomplishment is the more striking in view of Chrétien’s opposition to the Meech Lake constitutional accord—which is strongly supported in the province by both the Liberal Quebec government and public opinion.
In fact, in spite of separate victories of thenown, even workers for Chrétien’s principal rivals—Martin and Hamilton MP Sheila Copps—were beginning last week to question whether anything could prevent the leading candidate from claiming a first-ballot victory in June. As one party worker, unofficially committed to Martin, remarked privately, “If it’s true
that the leadership will be won or lost in Quebec, then we may already be past the point where Chrétien can be stopped.”
The figures are telling. By the end of last week, 42 of Quebec’s 75 ridings had selected convention delegates. According to the best estimates of most organizers, Chrétien has secured the commitment of approximately 370 of them. Martin, his closest opponent, has about 150 votes. Copps is a weak third, with 37 delegates. And with fewer than half of the province’s constituencies still to make up their minds, the opportunities for Chrétien’s opponents to cut into his lead are running out.
In public, at least, both the Martin and Copps organizations remain optimistic. “I think Chrétien has already taken his best shots,” said Dennis Dawson, Martin’s chief Quebec organizer. “When all the heads are counted, Chrétien will not have a majority of the delegates from this province.” Indeed, both Martin and Copps were cheered last week—in spite of Martin’s disaster in Hull. In the suburban Montreal riding of Longueuil, a joint MartinCopps slate almost upset Chrétien, whose camp ultimately took 10 delegates by the narrowest of margins. The following evening in Châteauguay, south of Montreal, Martin’s
team won all 12 delegates, while Copps swept the slate in Quebec City’s Langelier.
According to the Martin and Copps organizations, the narrow defeat in Longueuil and the twin victories in Châteauguay and Langelier are the first signs of a slowdown in Chrétien’s sweep. According to rival strategists, Chrétien has benefited from the strong network of political allies he forged during his long years in politics. But that advantage may diminish as the battle for riding delegates leaves Montreal and western Quebec—where Chrétien’s organization is strongest—and moves into the eastern part of the province. That region is markedly more nationalistic than the rest of Quebec, according to opinion polls, and as a result may prove less favorable to Chrétien’s anti-Meech Lake stand. Copps and Martin both support the accord.
In fact, Chrétien’s isolation from other Quebec leaders on the constitutional issue was underscored last week when the Quebec national assembly voted 105 to 3 to reject any changes to the accord. Only the three members of the English-rights Equality party dissented. But late last week, Chrétien appeared to soften his anti-Meech rhetoric. Insisting that he still opposed the accord as written, Chrétien suggested that he would still not be alarmed if it were ratified by the June 23 deadline—if there were also guarantees of future amendments.
Meanwhile, Copps stood to benefit from the support of senior provincial Liberals. Quebec Health Minister Marc-Yvan Côté, for one, threw his support to Copps after former Quebec environment minister Clifford Lincoln withdrew from the leadership race on Feb. 27. Côté, the provincial party’s chief organizer, is credited with orchestrating Robert Bourassa’s 1985 return to power after his defeat by the PQ
in 1976. His influence was evident last week in Copps’s victory in Langelier.
And, in spite of his lead over Copps in delegates, it was Martin whose campaign appeared most troubled. “While Chrétien was stroking the political pros who can deliver the delegates, Martin was worrying about the youth clubs,” said one Montreal-based Martin
supporter, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. “Then, he waited around for Côté to join him, which was another mistake.” Martin’s failure to demonstrate early momentum in Quebec has badly damaged his supporters’ contention that he was the only candidate able to generate widespread support in the province. Indeed, by last week, provincial media speculated that Martin was considering dropping out of the campaign. Martin promptly denied any such intention. But his campaign’s failure to catch fire has clearly demoralized
some supporters in Quebec and elsewhere. “We had been led to believe that Martin would control Quebec,” observed one Nova Scotiabased Martin backer. “It is very discouraging to see polls showing that Chrétien—and even Copps—is more popular.”
In fact, according to a late March survey by the Montreal-based CROP polling firm, the Montreal MP is running a distant third as Quebecers’ choice for party leader, with the support of a mere 14 per cent of those surveyed. While 27 per cent backed Chrétien, it was Copps who came out on top, with 32 per cent. That outcome, according to Brigitte Fortier, Copps’s western Quebec organizer, reflected the appeal of the 37-year-old Hamilton MP’s pro-Meech stand, fluent French and populist political stance. Declared Fortier: “She is a breath of fresh air.”
But Copps’s popularity in public opinion seemed to hold little significance for the majority of Quebec Liberals. For now, it is the battle for partisan loyalists that counts. And on that plane, at least, the battle is clearly running in Jean Chrétien’s favor.
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