COVER

THE PATRIOT GAME

Lucien Bouchard is poised for victory-and another referendum

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 30 1998
COVER

THE PATRIOT GAME

Lucien Bouchard is poised for victory-and another referendum

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 30 1998

THE PATRIOT GAME

COVER

Lucien Bouchard is poised for victory-and another referendum

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Near the end of Robert Bourassa's life, he remarked that Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard would have been a “worthy adversary” for him—and that his great regret was that they never faced each other in an election. One afternoon, two months before his death from cancer in 1996, he spent more than an hour discussing Bouchard, often in admiring terms. Bourassa liked to sit at home, turn on the television, and watch Bouchard debate in the national assembly. The two men, who lived near each other in the upscale Montreal suburb of Outremont, often talked on the telephone. “He is,” Bourassa said with a laugh, “perhaps the only politician as capable as me of leaving every option open.”

Bourassa had found his alter ego—someone else who could turn a black-and-white decision over whether Quebec should stay in Canada into a grey, complex debate rife with ambiguities on all sides. As leader of the Quebec Liberals, Bourassa won four of five elections by downplaying his commitment to federalism enough to reel in soft nationalists and some sovereigntists who were uncomfortable with the Parti Québécois’s other electoral policies. Now, in Quebec’s Nov.

30 election, Bouchard appears poised to do the same from the other side of Quebec’s constitutional divide: he woos federalists by suggesting that despite his belief in sovereignty, he is the leader best able to win Quebec a better deal inside Canada. In last week’s televised leaders debate, Bouchard declared that “in the last 30 years, the only gains we made in Ottawa were made when there was a sovereigntist government in Quebec.” Talk about having things both ways. But that is precisely what Bouchard does—and with remarkable ability. In meetings with PQ activists, he talks about the need for Quebec to “join the family of na-

tions,” and emphasizes his wish to hold a third referendum. But in less partisan gatherings, he describes a constitutional accommodation that is a sort of sovereignty lite, in which Quebec remains in partnership with Canada, keeps economic ties, perhaps even joint citizenship. A referendum, he adds reassuringly, will happen only when—meaning //—victory seems certain.

Such promises are impossible to guarantee unilaterally, but in electoral terms, they work. One measure of Bouchard’s success: in every provincial and federal vote since 1990 (the year of the collapse of the Meech Lake constitutional accord), francophone voters have rallied to the sovereigntist option, with Bouchard playing a key role in each campaign. If present trends hold on Nov. 30, Bouchard’s PQ will easily win a majority of the national assembly’s 125 seats. But such a victory would be tainted by the fact that the Liberals will almost certainly maintain their dominance of Montreal, where they are bolstered by a heavy concentration of anglophones and other non-francophones. The island of Montreal, with almost 2.5 million people, holds about a third of Quebec’s population—but fewer than a quarter of the national assembly’s seats.

A PQ victory, if it comes, will mark a particularly devastating defeat for Liberal Leader Jean Charest—the first telegenic, charismatic leader the Liberals have had since Jean Lesage stepped down in 1970. Charest has been the best hope of federalists, who argue that their cause has lost ground in Quebec since Pierre Trudeau’s retirement in 1984 because they lacked a passionate, eloquent and unequivocal

federalist francophone to lead them. Now, they have one—but for how much longer? If the Liberals lose too badly—winning, say, less than 45 seats, some Charest friends muse that he may step down from a job in which he has seldom looked comfortable since he assumed it last spring. “And then,” says one veteran Liberal organizer in dispirited tones, “where will we find the next white knight to ride to our rescue?”

A resounding PQ victory would increase the likelihood of a referendum some time in 1999 to capitalize on the demoralization in the federalist camp. And near the end of a cranky, joyless campaign on all sides, the Liberals’ best hope is Bouchard’s refusal to back away from holding another vote, despite the dismay of many Quebecers at the prospect. One poll showed that even among people describing themselves as sovereigntist, 45 per cent do not want a referendum in the next mandate.

But this campaign has also highlighted how much the political mind-set in Quebec differs from that of the rest of the country. Outside Quebec, it is a given that there is no point trying to amend the Constitution with a sovereigntist government that has no interest in

doing so. And Bouchard will not attend any federal-provincial meetings related to the subject. That ensures that the Constitution remains unchanged while the PQ is in power. But even though polls show that a majority of Quebecers reject the status quo but consider “renewed federalism” favorable to sovereignty, other surveys indicate that most consider Bouchard the politician best able to represent their interests to the rest of the country. In short, even though they dislike their constitutional situation, the leader Quebecers trust most is the one least likely to try their preferred option for change.

That is only one reason why the Quebec debate seems increasingly alien to the rest of the country. Both federalists and sovereigntists have often complained that since 1982, when the federal government and nine other provinces signed an agreement to patriate the constitution from Great Britain without Quebec’s assent, the province is no longer a “full partner” within the federation. But these days, that situation arguably suits many Quebecers nicely, because it reflects their ambivalent relationship with the rest of the country. As long as the province is not a signatory to the Constitution, it keeps one foot in and one out of Canada. That puts Quebec in a constitutional no man’s land, where federalists and sovereigntists debate among themselves over how much to demand from the rest of the country. But Quebec federalists face two entirely different debates in and outside the province: they are accused by Canadians in other provinces of asking for too many new constitutional powers—and in their home province of being prepared to settle for too little. That is why it is so astonishing to many Canadians that Bouchard can tell

voters that an independent Quebec would quickly negotiate new, generous arrangements with what would remain of Canada.

Either way, the results on Nov. 30 will have effects that reverberate across the national political spectrum. Few people outside the province delude themselves about the negative fallout from another PQ victory. Renewed concern about Canada’s political stability would continue to drive down the value of the dollar on international markets, divert Ottawa’s energy from other projects, and focus attention on the policy area where Chrétien is weakest—his handling of the unity issue. As annoyance grows towards Quebec because of its sovereigntist stance, pressure would build to take a tough line against the province. That would feed Bouchard’s popularity in Quebec, and put pressure on Chrétien—who is vilified by nationalists and many members of the media in his home province—to step down before another referendum. On the other hand, if Charest manages an upset, Bouchard would be likely to quit politics—and the sovereignty movement would lose its most compelling spokesman.

In fact, both sides are running out of saviors, and almost everyone shows signs of running out of patience with a debate that has dominated the nation’s political agenda since the PQ was first elected 22 years ago. Bouchard’s predecessor, Jacques Parizeau, once concluded that Quebec has, in effect, two national governments—one in Ottawa, the other in Quebec City—always in deadlock. It is, said Parizeau, like “a piece of paper torn halfway: either you patch it together, or you keep on tearing.” But either option demands a clear, definitive choice—and there is little evidence that Quebecers are prepared to make that. □