CANADA

The Bloc’s new face

Michel Gauthier takes over from Lucien Bouchard

PEETER KOPVILLEM March 4 1996
CANADA

The Bloc’s new face

Michel Gauthier takes over from Lucien Bouchard

PEETER KOPVILLEM March 4 1996

The Bloc’s new face

Michel Gauthier takes over from Lucien Bouchard

He cites former Quebec premier René Lévesque as his main political influence. Now, Michel Gauthier faces what many consider an almost impossible challenge: filling the shoes of another giant of the Quebec independence movement, Lucien Bouchard, as head of the federal Bloc Québécois and—at least for the moment—leader of the official Opposition. Gauthier brings previous political experience to the job: in the 1980s, he sat for two terms as a Parti Québécois member of the Quebec national assembly. Since his election in 1993, the 46-year-old MP for Roberval has also served as the Bloc’s House leader and intergovernmental affairs critic. But the man who won the leadership on Feb. 17 acknowledges the enormity of the task ahead—and the need for establishing an independent profile. “I don’t want to put on Lucien Bouchard’s boots,” he told delegates. “I am going to put on my own— and we will march in the same direction.”

That direction, though, has already been dictated by Quebec City. Although Gauthier is viewed as an effective parliamentarian, especially on social issues, he has promised that Quebec independence will remain at the heart of the Bloc’s parliamentary agenda. But with Bouchard and his PQ putting the sovereignty question on the back burner for now, Gauthier has no choice but to play federal politics. Not that he will face a shortage of targets—a new session of Parliament opens this week with the gov-

ernment’s speech from the throne. But with the possibility of a general election next year, there are signs that the Liberals intend to adopt a play-it-safe approach, which may limit Gauthier’s options. “If the Liberals back off some of their pension plan thrusts, unemployment insurance thrusts—those are the issues that Gauthier has hung his hat on,” notes Reform party House Leader Ray Speaker. “They will try and take away his issues.”

Other, purely political questions will also test Gauthier, who speaks little English and is not well known—even in Quebec. Although, for now, his party remains the official Opposition, Bouchard’s departure left the Bloc and Reform in a dead heat with 52 seats each—and the future riding on six byelections set for March 25. With projections that the Bloc will win one and Reform may make a breakthrough in another, the Montreal riding of Papineau/StMichel has emerged as the focal point for a possible Bloc tie-breaking upset over new International Co-operation Minister Pierre Pettigrew. Last week, Daniel Turp, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Montreal, announced that he will seek the party’s nomination. And Turp, a senior Bloc policy adviser, signalled that bread-and-butter issues—and not independence—will be at the heart of his campaign. “It’s not a ques-

tion that preoccupies the citizens of St-Michel,” he said of sovereignty. More crucial, he noted, is the riding’s 17-percent unemployment rate—and the Liberals’ failure to solve such problems.

In Ottawa, though, the Bloc is hobbled by the widespread perception that Bouchard’s departure has left the party marginalized—and the new Quebec premier pulling all the strings. And whether Gauthier is up to the challenges ahead is a matter of some conjecture. In the House, the former teacher and school administrator has developed a reputation for seriousness. Behind that facade is, however, a politician well-liked by many of his peers. “He is much less intense than Bouchard,” notes Reform’s intergovernmental affairs critic, Stephen Harper. “I have always found him to be very reasonable.”

Gauthier’s initial test will come this week with his reaction to the government’s throne speech. While Liberal insiders say the speech will focus on broad issues such as unity, jobs, security and social programs, it will contain few new initiatives. “The throne speech is not like the Magna Carta,” said one senior adviser. “It’s not a road map—it’s more of a signpost, a directional.” That positioning is likely to be middle of the road. Last week, for example, Justice Minister Allan Rock said that the government may back down from its previous promise to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation with an amendment of the Canadian Human Rights Code—a sign, as Rock acknowledged, that the Liberals wish to avoid controversy.

But as far as former Bloc MP Jean Lapierre is concerned, there will be targets for Gauthier, no matter how careful the Liberals are. “There is always a crisis here and there that you can exploit,” says Lapierre, who served for 11 years as a Liberal MP before defecting to the Bloc in 1990. Of greater concern, he says, is the fact that the new leader remains virtually unknown. “Ottawa plays very much to the political aquarium only,” notes Lapierre, who left politics in 1992 and now hosts a Montreal open-line radio show. “I think he’s an unknown quantity for the public.” Little doubt, then, that Gauthier faces scrutiny in the weeks ahead—and the need to prove that he is more than a minor appendage of a movement whose heart beats in Quebec City.

PEETER KOPVILLEM

LUKE FISHER