A new book accuses Robert Bourassa of fooling Quebecers
An ambivalent legacy
A new book accuses Robert Bourassa of fooling Quebecers
If Robert Bourassa were forced to decide between two glasses of milk, according to an old joke in Quebec political circles, he would probably die of thirst because of his unwillingness to make a choice. In a political career spanning more than 25 years, the former Quebec premier aroused both admiration and exasperation for his ability to speak ambiguously and avoid firm decisions until the last possible moment. “If Robert wants to,” says one of his former advisers, “he can talk to five people in such a manner that they will have five different impressions of what he means.”
But Bourassa’s trademark ambivalence, suggests Quebec journalist JeanFrançois Lisée, was only superficial when it came to the question of the province’s place within Canada: beneath that cool exterior beat the heart of a devout federalist who almost single-handedly prevented Quebec’s secession from the country in the early 1990s. That is the conclusion unhappily drawn by Lisée, a self-described “skeptical sovereigntist” and reporter with the biweekly newsmagazine L’actualité (published, as is Maclean’s, by Maclean Hunter Publishing Ltd.), in his new book Le Tricheur (The Trickster). At 529 pages, the book is a prodigiously researched account of political events in Quebec after the tumultuous death
of the Meech Lake constitutional accord in 1990. But it is flawed by its alternately smug and sulky tone, and draws curious conclusions that betray the author’s impatience with others who do not share his appetite for sovereignty. One of those is the melodramatic accusation that Bourassa, by refusing to cede to pressure to hold a referendum on sovereignty in 1990, committed “the theft of a historic moment, wasted by a man petrified by his own dream.”
When it was published last week, the book caused an immediate controversy in Quebec political circles.
Lisée suggests that Bourassa decided to buy time by publicly riding the nationalist wave while privately calculating ways to diminish its strength. (In the year after the death of the Meech Lake accord, polls repeatedly showed that more than 60 per cent of Quebecers supported sovereignty; a poll last week found that 51 per cent of Quebecers favored sovereignty.) As a result, Lisée writes that Bourassa, among other things, covertly supported the creation of the Bloc Québécois, persuaded Lucien Bouchard to remain in Ottawa as the Bloc’s leader rather than leave politics, and stoked prosovereignty passions in Quebec while privately telling other premiers not to worry. The author suggests that many of Bourassa’s senior ministers—with the notable exception of his successor, Daniel Johnson— would have supported sovereignty in a referendum. Bourassa, who
said he will respond in detailed fashion this week to the book’s allegations, briefly described it as “hundreds of pages of bavardage (idle chatter).”
That is too facile a dismissal of a work that contains interviews with most of Quebec’s political principals. At its best, the book illustrates the tortuous logic and emotional traumas of both federalists and sovereigntists. There is a compelling image of former federal Conservative cabinet minister Gilles Loiselle agonizing over whether to march side by side with Bouchard— who had just left the Tories—in the Fête Nationale parade on June 24,1990. At the same time, some self-described federalists argued that the government should hold a referendum on sovereignty—in order to give itself the clout to negotiate a better constitutional deal with the rest of the country. A despairing John Parisella, Bourassa’s chief of staff and a soft-spoken but devout federalist, recalls that he sarcastically asked Fernand Lalonde, a Bourassa intimate supporting that idea: “Have you fallen on your head?”
In fact, Bourassa’s deepest sin in the author’s eyes appears to be that he maintained his trademark ambiguity in public and spoke more clearly in private. That is hardly new behavior: one of Lisée’s declared political idols, Franklin Roosevelt, paid lip service to isolationists in the United States at the start of the Second World War, while privately working with heads of Allied governments. But even sovereigntists might concede that Bourassa, by refusing to bow to pressures to hold a referendum, created a cooling-off period that ensured that Quebecers were not obliged to make such a crucial decision in a time of bitterness and high emotion. If the will for sovereignty is strong enough, it will survive less turbulent times. Lisée acknowledges that he has been skeptical about sovereignty in the past because of worries whether the “the nationalist pulse” would be “sufficiently strong.” That worry appears to feed the anger that propels the book.
At its worst, Le Tricheur reads suspiciously like a cautionary morality play for Quebec sovereigntists, in which they have a near-monopoly on virtue but are undone by devious federalists driven almost entirely by greed or cowardice. Federal Tory ministers from Quebec such as Benoit Bouchard—who stayed on after Bouchard quit the party—remained, Lisée suggests, only because they were too self-important to forsake the power and prestige of their positions. One unnamed Tory MP who was about to jump to the Bloc Québécois changed his mind, Lisée writes, when he learned that the Bloc would not let him bring with him the funds in his riding association bank account. Not surprisingly, such stories are related by sovereigntists—and apparently accepted at face value. Lisée dismisses one journalist as a writer who “never gives the benefit of doubt to the slightest nationalist argument but gives it, always, to Robert Bourassa.” That description, in reverse, fits himself.
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