CANADA

THE BLOC ON TOP AT THE RAMPARTS

LUCIEN BOUCHARD IS POISED TO MAKE A HISTORIC BREAKTHROUGH AT THE TORIES’ EXPENSE

October 4 1993
CANADA

THE BLOC ON TOP AT THE RAMPARTS

LUCIEN BOUCHARD IS POISED TO MAKE A HISTORIC BREAKTHROUGH AT THE TORIES’ EXPENSE

October 4 1993

THE BLOC ON TOP AT THE RAMPARTS

CANADA

LUCIEN BOUCHARD IS POISED TO MAKE A HISTORIC BREAKTHROUGH AT THE TORIES’ EXPENSE

By 9 p.m., the brown, late-model van had turned off Quebec’s notoriously high-speed Route 20 and was bumping along the more tranquil Route 55 towards Sherbrooke. Sprawled in the back seat, his jacket off and tie loosened, Deputy Prime Minister Jean Charest was working his cellular telephone. Over the previous 14 hours, Charest had delivered near-identical speeches in three Quebec City ridings, given five interviews to journalists, shaken hands with all 30 members of a women’s employment centre, breezed through a gentle confrontation with about 200 university students and posed for photographs in settings as varied as a waterfront, an apple orchard and a bam occupied by six bewildered cows. He had called his wife and three children to say good night, and was now happily contemplating the takeout pizza and six hours of sleep that lay ahead before he began campaigning in his home riding the next day at 6 a.m. But before either, a restless Charest called one of his organizers for a briefing on the local Bloc Québécois campaign. “Who’s in their organization?” he asked. “And are we ready? Because those guys are spoiling to fight.”

For Charest, the battle to retain the riding he first won nine years ago is likely to be intense and occasionally nasty. Already, the Bloc Québécois candidate, Guy Boutin, a onetime Charest organizer, has called him a “traitor” because of his federalist views and—employing one of the harshest insults in the sovereigntist lexicon—accused his former ally of being “another Pierre Trudeau.” Despite the attention those comments generated, Boutin has little chance of defeating the popular incumbent. But in the rest of the province, the separatist forces under Bloc Leader Lucien Bouchard appear poised for a historic breakthrough. If present trends hold, they will win more than half the province’s 75 seats. That could deny either the Liberals or the Tories a majority government, and have the ironic effect of making a sovereigntist party the third largest force in the House of Commons—and its potential kingmaker.

In the months before the election call, both the Tories and Liberals predicted that Bloc support would wither as soon as voters gave serious thought to the prospect of voting for a party than can never hold power. But as the campaign approaches the halfway point, the Bloc appears to be holding its own. Private Conservative polling data obtained by Maclean’s last week showed that the Bloc had the support of 35 per cent of decided voters in the province, while the Tories had 28 per cent and the Liberals 19 per cent. Ominously for the Tories, the governing party was ahead in only three of the province’s regions: Charest’s home base of the Eastern Townships, the northern region of Abitibi and the bedroom community of Laval, just north of Montreal.

The same survey shows that the Tories’ support is strongest in francophone, rural areas, and weakest in areas where the population is either heavily anglophone or ethnic. Among urban, well-educated francophones, the Bloc holds an overwhelming lead. The Quebec City area, where the Tories took all six seats in the last election, is “a disaster” for the party, said one Tory organizer; this time, the Bloc is likely to sweep the area. The Tories estimate that based on their polling re-

sults, the Bloc would likely win about 37 seats, leaving the Tories with 23 and the Liberals with 15.

If the Bloc’s support grows even slightly by Oct. 25 at the expense of the Tories, the margin between the two could be much greater— allowing the Bloc to capture as many as 50 seats.

Even more startling were the results of a poll published last weekend by the daily tabloid Le Journal de Montréal. It gave the Bloc the support of 43 per cent of respondents, with the Liberals having moved into second place with 28 per cent and the Tories at 22 per cent. Among the ridings expected to swing to the Bloc: Charlevoix on the North Shore of the St. Lawrence, former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s seat; and the Quebec City riding of LangeKer, where the incumbent is Finance Minister Gilles Loiselle. In Charlevoix, Tories say, Mulroney is expected to appear on behalf of the Tory candidate.

For outsiders—and for many Quebecers— the Bloc’s increasing popularity is baffling. Although it is already certain that the provincial election expected next year will be fought on the issue of Quebec sovereignty, none of the major federal parties is spending much time on the issue. And despite Bouchard’s image as a charismatic leader, his speeches are far more windy and pedantic than is reflected in the short, punchy clips used on television

newscasts. Typically, Bouchard’s tone is intense, aggrieved and utterly predictable—to amuse themselves, reporters often count the number of times he speaks of Quebec’s purported “humiliation” by Ottawa and English Canada. Most of his fellow Bloc candidates are little known even in their own ridings. Many, in fact, are legislative staff assistants on leave from the Parti Québécois.

On the few occasions when Bloc representatives other than Bouchard have attracted attention, the results have been disappointing. One exception is MP Gilles Duceppe, a onetime labor activist and highly respected hardline sovereigntist. But after Duceppe, the choices are uninspiring. Christiane Gagnon, the Bloc candidate who is challenging Loiselle, was embarrassingly ill-informed in a televised debate on fiscal federalism with Loiselle and Liberal candidate Jean Pelletier last week. One writer in the Montreal daily La Presse described her as “sputtering and floundering.” Meanwhile, Bouchard was forced to

dissociate himself from remarks by Hull/Aylmer MP Gilles Rocheleau, who said Liberal Senator Pietro Rizzuto was a family relation of a Montreal gangster who shares his surname but is not related. Rizzuto has threatened to sue Rocheleau, who ignored

Bouchard’s request to apologize.

Although Bouchard has described the issue of Quebec sovereignty as the sole reason for his party’s existence, he rarely mentions it on the campaign trail. Instead, he spends most of his time criticizing federal government waste and promising to promote Quebec’s interests within the House of Commons. For his part, PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau—who has thrown his party’s considerable organizing skills behind the Bloc—has said that a vote for Bouchard’s party should not be seen as an endorsement of sovereignty. The reason for that is clear: repeated polls have demonstrated that more than a third of potential Bloc supporters do not consider themselves sovereigntists.

Bouchard’s appeal lies in his ability to tap into the widespread public disdain for traditional politics. A deeply passionate man, he quit the Conservatives in 1990 in protest over the Tories’ handling of the Meech Lake accord; his brief and unhappy flirtation with federalism and the Conservatives reflects the disenchantment felt by many Quebecers. As well, he says that he regards politics as a temporary vocation—one that he will abandon if and when Quebec becomes sovereign. Concedes a senior Tory strategist: “You listen to Lucien, and you know exactly what he stands for. He connects with his audience, and that is not something you can say right

now about a lot of other politicians.”

Proof of that popularity was evident last week in the remote Abitibi region. After word leaked out that Bouchard was planning to meet with two organizers, more than 100 people showed up to declare their support.

By contrast, Campbell’s performance in the province has been uninspiring. Although polls and her public appearances show that she is regarded with polite interest, Tory organizers concede that her limited knowledge of French and her perceived preoccupation with deficit-reduction have hampered their efforts. Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, the party’s chief Quebec organizer, acknowledged in a radio interview last week that “Ms. Campbell’s line of thinking is not going over well.”

The federalist forces are also hampered by the fact that they have relatively few popular, high-profile francophones to make their case. The most notable exception is Charest, who enhanced his reputation as the party’s best-known Quebecer during his run for the Tory leadership last spring. By the end of the campaign, he will have appeared with most of

the party’s Quebec candidates. But even his attacks on the Bloc are more muted than during the leadership race. Charest’s speeches praise Campbell, defend the Tory record, attack the Liberals and emphasize the need to cut the deficit. Sovereignty and constitutional issues, he told Maclean’s, “are

not topics people want to talk about—even though they will have to be confronted sometime in the future.”

For now, Charest emphasizes what he calls the two “most ridiculous inconsistencies” in the Bloc’s platform: Bouchard’s assertion that

he wants to improve the federal system while at the same time planning to demolish it, and the Bloc’s promise that a sovereign Quebec would offer a job to every federal civil servant in the province despite Bouchard’s attacks on federal government waste.

Chrétien’s deep unpopularity in the

province—which stems largely from the belief that he helped to derail the Meech Lake constitutional accord—is an obstacle for any Liberal candidate running in a riding with a heavy concentration of francophones. Even some Tories concede that the Liberals’ roster of new Quebec candidates—including such stars as popular former Quebec City mayor Pelletier and onetime senior civil servant Marcel Massé—is as impressive as any team the Liberals assembled under Trudeau. But that may not help them. Pelletier ran third in two published polls after the Bloc’s Gagnon and the Tories’ Loiselle. And Chrétien, who won his own Shawinigan-area riding mostly by successively larger majorities from 1962 until he resigned in 1986, faces a difficult challenge from the Bloc. He may win only if local voters become convinced that the Liberals are going to form the next government, thereby bringing the riding increased federal assistance.

For all parties in Quebec, the key now is the leaders’ debates, scheduled to take place on Oct. 3 and Oct. 5 in French and English respectively. liberal strategists say that Chrétien will shy away from direct attacks on Bouchard in the French-language debate, while telling Quebecers that it is not in their best economic interest to vote for the Bloc. The Liberals know, however, that because of the deep antipathy for Chrétien among nationalists, they stand little chance of winning votes from the Bloc. The Tories, meanwhile, face the opposite challenge. “The Liberal vote in Quebec isn’t big, but it is loyal,” said one Tory strategist. “So the only way to go up is to try to win votes back from the Bloc.” With Quebec’s 75 seats up for grabs, the Bloc’s rise or fall will likely determine whether it is Campbell or Chrétien who forms the next government.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Sherbrooke with E. Kaye Fulton in Ottawa