CANADA

BOUCHARD'S HAT TRICK

The Opposition leader juggled several roles while assuring Americans

CARL MOLLINS,CARL MOLLINS March 14 1994
CANADA

BOUCHARD'S HAT TRICK

The Opposition leader juggled several roles while assuring Americans

CARL MOLLINS,CARL MOLLINS March 14 1994

BOUCHARD'S HAT TRICK

CANADA

The Opposition leader juggled several roles while assuring Americans

CARL MOLLINS

Lucien Bouchard went hatless during the chilly, blustery 48 hours he spent in Washington last week. But by his own account, he wore three metaphorical hats—as Quebec separatist, as leader of the official Opposition in Canada’s Parliament and as a diplomat. Much of the time, certainly during a meeting with members of the U.S. Congress and in a speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, he was first and foremost the separatist (his word, in preference to the more ambiguous “sovereigntist”). At other times, he pressed Canada’s interests, notably during a private audience at the state department, as he described it later. And throughout the public parts of his itinerary, he was always the diplomat, mostly on behalf of Quebec’s secession but also, he said, in his determination to avoid embarrassing either Ottawa or his American hosts. So much was Bouchard the diplomat, in fact, so cool and composed even when goaded, that he made the breakup of Canada and its aftermath seem as smoothly untroubled a process—for Americans, as well as for Quebecers and the rest of Canada—as his own sedate behavior in the slushy U.S. capital.

All in all, judging from the serene and even positive public reaction among his American audiences, and from the gracious VIP treatment he received at the Canadian Embassy, Bouchard’s hattrick performance was a star turn. “There is less apprehension about a sovereign Quebec,” said Minnesota Democratic congressman James Oberstar after Bouchard’s Capitol Hill session. And that, along with similar remarks from others, reflected just what was sought by the leader of the Bloc Québécois. Bouchard said he found that Americans are now more interested in how Quebec will separate from Canada rather than, as in the past, raising the question of why Quebec would do so. “I am quite satisfied with the result of my visit,” Bouchard said of his agenda in Washington and at a New York City meeting beforehand with United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. “It pro-

REPORT FROM WASHINGTON

vided me with the privileged occasion to expose as clearly and as objectively as I can the parameters of the sovereigntist project in Quebec.” The “project,” as Bouchard described it, is almost cut and dried: the election of a Parti Québécois government this year, followed by a referendum on sovereignty, followed by negotiations with Canada to maintain “the Canadian economic zone,” as he called the present makeup of Canada in his 25-minute speech to the international studies group. ‘We believe that the imperatives of mutual interests will prevail, given the advanced level of economic integration that exists between Quebec and Canada.” The Bloc Québécois, meanwhile, will defend Quebec’s negotiating positions in Ottawa.

After that, said Bouchard, Americans should know that “they will always be able to count on the co-operation and friendship of their neighbors to the north.” Indeed, he said, Quebecers are friendlier to Americans than are other Canadians, adding that Quebec carried the day for the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in the 1988 federal election, and citing among other examples Bloc Québécois support for U.S. cruise missile tests over Canada.

Bouchard’s scenario, despite including a qualification that its fulfilment depends on Quebec voters, was challenged during a question-and-answer session after his speech—from a Canadian, not an American, and more as an answer than as a question. Reed Scowen, Quebec’s New York-based delegate-general in the United States, took issue with Bouchard’s account of Quebec’s past and present, questioned his claim that the Bloc Québécois represents the interests of Quebecers and said there is no guarantee that Jacques Parizeau’s PQ will defeat Premier Daniel Johnson’s liberals in the Quebec election that must be called by next fall. “It is far from certain that the Liberal party will lose that election,” said Scowen, “and if they do lose, it is far from certain that the people of Quebec would vote in favor of independence.” Bouchard insisted that his party was sent to Ottawa to represent Quebecers in

Parliament and told Scowen it would be better to debate that in Canada.

As for Quebec’s election prospects, Scowen’s reference to uncertainty reflected developments during the previous few days. On the eve of Bouchard’s departure for the United States, the Quebec Liberals defied expectations by winning a byelection in the Eastern Townships riding of Shefford, their first in six such contests since the party won the last provincial election in 1989. That followed by one week an upset by the PQ in Bonaventure riding, a Liberal stronghold in the Gaspé peninsula. In the interim, an opinion poll showed the Liberals almost tied with the PQ, at 33 per cent of popular support to 31 per cent, after trailing in such surveys for months.

Bouchard’s version of Quebec’s future was also challenged by Quebec’s federalist, and mainly anglophone, Equality party—but from a distance. After Bouchard’s speech, party leader Keith Henderson and Neil Cameron, the party’s house leader in Quebec’s National Assembly, held a news conference at Washington’s National Press Building and heaped scorn on Bouchard’s suggestions that the transition to Quebec independence would be trouble-free. They said a substantial minority of Quebecers will insist on protecting their constitutional rights against what they termed a “unilateral declaration of independence” by a PQ government. Said Henderson: “Mr. Bouchard advocates secession from Canada, a course of action fraught with potential discord and ruin.”

By the time Henderson and Cameron were speaking, Bouchard was finishing lunch at the international studies centre before moving on to a meeting with the Washington Post editorial board. Those appointments were private, as were an embassy dinner given for Bouchard and his wife, Audrey, by Ambassador Raymond Chrétien, and his state department meeting with Stephen Oxman, assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs. At the state department, Bouchard donned his Canadian hat: he said he raised questions on trade in farm products, and as a former federal environment minister he pressed for greater efforts to clean up the Great Lakes. Overall, Bouchard indi-

cated that his encounters with Americans had all been polite-although "frank and direct, as Americans are."

Bouchard returned the courtesy, he explained, by not seeking a meeting with President Bill Clinton for fear of placing both Washington and official Ottawa in an embarrassing position. Even if Bouchard had gone to the White House, as both Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney did when they were Opposition leaders, it is unlikely that he would have received any more than the sparse attention accorded to his visit by the American news media and official Washington. In a self-obsessed capital where foreign envoys and statesmen come and go with scant attention (British Prime Minister John Major's visit to the White House the day before Bouchard's arrival was barely noticed), Bouchard's encounters encompassed only a tight little circle of Americans. In his role as Opposition leader, Bouchard was following a well-worn pattern established by Joe Clark, Muironey and Chrétien when they held the same office. Bouchard is not even the first separatist leader from Canada to make the trip to the U.S. capital. René Lévesque, when premier of Quebec, paid an official visit to Washington in 1982, and delivered almost identi cal assurances to congressional and administra tion leaders as did Bouchard last week.

For Bouchard’s Capitol Hill meeting at the House of Representatives, “20 members, which is extraordinary, confirmed that they would be here,” said New York Republican John McHugh, who co-chaired the meeting with I Oberstar. In the event, however, “there were 1 about a dozen who came in and out” of the I breakfast meeting, said McHugh, blaming bad weather. About 10 times as many people—foreign affairs specialists, civil servants with a Canada brief and the Canadian media contingent—attended Bouchard’s morning speech.

But while Bouchard’s anomalous position as a Quebec separatist in Parliament makes him news in Canada, he did not attract much media attention in Washington other than a couple of prior newspaper reports that said he was coming to assure Washington that Quebec’s separation could be painless for Quebec, Canada and the United States. True to his advance billing, Bouchard said that on trade, for example, Canada’s accession to the North American Free Trade Agreement with the strong support of both Quebec and the Bloc Québécois means that “Quebec is thus included in a vast and expanding free trade zone—and this will not change.”

Others, though, said it would not be so simple. William Merkin, a former U.S. trade negotiator and now a private consultant in Washington, said that an independent Quebec would likely have to renegotiate its participation in the trade pact. “I would be shocked if it was an automatic process,” said Merkin, adding, “I would think they would be at Square 1, just like Chile if and when they come forward to become part of NAFTA.”

Still, some Americans seemed to accept Bouchard’s optimistic message. McHugh, for his part, said that he was “very reassured and very happy to hear the things that Mr. Bouchard said,” citing Bouchard’s statements that an independent Quebec would want to conduct business as usual in free trade and defence agreements, maintaining in particular the St. Lawrence Seaway and exporting electrical power to New York state without disruptions. Bouchard, McHugh added, “did an excellent job” assuring congressmen that Quebec’s independence “would make little if any difference in how we treat' each other.” For many Canadians and Quebecers, if not for Americans, that may seem an improbable prospect.

CARL MOLLINS