The Nation’s Business

A historic battle between two titans

Peter C. Newman April 13 1998
The Nation’s Business

A historic battle between two titans

Peter C. Newman April 13 1998

A historic battle between two titans

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

As Quebec’s Liberal party prepares for its coronation of Jean Charest at month’s end, its members are beginning to realize their new leader is much more than just a guy with chutzpah and curly hair. And he didn’t move into the provincial arena just because he is a Canadian patriot.

Charest may not admit it, but the main reason he switched to Quebec politics, even at the expense of having to become a Liberal, is to get back at Lucien Bouchard, who betrayed him eight years ago. The ill feeling is mutual; the Quebec separatist leader feels equally bitter about Charest. The stage is set for one of the fiercest personal feuds in Canada’s political history. It will be played out over the next six months, culminating in a provincial election this fall. The victor will be premier of Quebec, armed with a new and powerful mandate. The loser will be history. Neither side will be taking prisoners.

The Lucien Bouchard-Jean Charest feud in the next Quebec election will go far beyond the usual partisan sparring

It all goes back to the late winter of 1988, when Charest, then minister of state for youth in the Mulroney government, invited Bouchard to a private dinner at his home in Hull, Que., to meet the younger francophone ministers: Pierre Blais, Pierre Cadieux and Bernard Valcourt. They jointly told Bouchard, who was then Canadian ambassador to France, that the government badly needed a Quebec lieutenant and that he was their choice. Bouchard resigned his diplomatic post at the end of March and returned to Canada to be sworn in as secretary of state, even before his byelection victory that June.

On Feb. 23, 1990, Mulroney shuffled his cabinet and, in the process, named Bouchard, by then environment minister, as his political minister for Quebec. This was a crucial move because the Meech Lake accord ratification deadline was only four months away, and the prime minister was depending on Bouchard to keep his Quebec members in line. Two weeks later, Charest noted in his private diary that at a meeting of the Quebec caucus, “Bouchard made a precise speech to emphasize the need to offer full support to the PM’s initiatives to save the accord.”

On March 21, Frank McKenna, then New Brunswick premier, made a proposal to break the logjam over Meech. The next day, Mulroney went on national TV to announce that a special Commons committee would study this proposal to see how it could be brought into the ratification process.

On March 25, during a dinner at the residence of Camille Guilbault, deputy chief of staff of the PM’s office, Bouchard urged Charest to become chairman of this new committee, reiterating several times that he would give “his friend Jean” full support. Charest reluctantly agreed to the appointment.

On April 27, Guilbault warned Charest that Bouchard was “beginning to behave like a yo-yo, constantly changing his mind”

about the Meech accord. On May 8, at a Quebec caucus, Bouchard formally approved Charest’s draft proposals, but privately expressed his doubts about a recommendation that Ottawa promote linguistic duality across the country. Two days later, Bouchard left for Norway to attend an environmental conference.

There then followed two weeks of accelerating tension between the two men, which climaxed with Bouchard sending a telegram to a Parti Québécois meeting in his home constituency, ostensibly to celebrate the 10th anniversary of René Lévesque’s 1980 referendum, but in reality expressing support for the separatist cause. In Ottawa, meanwhile, Charest’s committee had approved the draft report, but Bouchard refused to take any of a worried Charest’s many telephone calls to discuss the issue.

Guilbault did get through to him in Paris and faxed him the draft.

It was at this point that Bouchard sent the offending telegram. It became public and Mulroney asked him to disown it, clearly because he couldn’t have one of his Quebec lieutenants supporting the separatist cause. Charest had meanwhile been hung out to dry. Bouchard had cut him loose and was now attacking Charest in the Quebec media as a “vendu”—a politician who had sold out and as someone who had “allowed himself to be manipulated by Jean Chrétien.” On May 22, Bouchard resigned from the cabinet and blamed Charest for selling out Quebec, one of the charges that will haunt him in his new incarnation. “The Charest report screwed Quebec!” Bouchard told consumer and corporate affairs minister Pierre Blais at the time. Charest’s answer to such accusations has always been the same: that he believes Quebec’s interests can best be served within Confederation.

To most of us who live outside Quebec, the roots and reasons for the Charest-Bouchard feud are ancient history. Any mention of the Meech Lake accord mainly produces eyes rolled towards the ceiling. But inside the blast furnace of Quebec politics, it might have happened yesterday. (The Meech Lake accord was aborted on June 23,1990, when it wasn’t brought to a vote in the Newfoundland and Manitoba legislatures as the deadline expired.)

These events will be revived and relived, as the duel between Quebec’s two political giants heats up. The public feud between them goes far beyond the usual partisan sparring. They are both out for blood. In the bear pit of all that infighting about Meech Lake, Luc Lavoie, one of Bouchard’s best friends, told the departing minister that he felt “duped and betrayed” by his actions. As Lavoie left Bouchard’s office for the last time, he said: “Ah, Lucien, politics clearly is not made for tender hearts.”

That sentiment will be echoed on Quebec’s hustings in the weeks and months to come.