Canada

Power player

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH July 6 1998
Canada

Power player

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH July 6 1998

William Johnson’s many detractors do not mince words. “Radical, racist, provocateur” are a few of the angry epithets tossed his way in the month since Johnson took over the helm of Alliance Quebec, the province’s English-rights lobby group. But rather than cowering under the criticism, Johnson last week waded into more controversy—and outright hostility— by marching in Montreal’s Fête Nationale parade. Held to mark the St-Jean-Baptiste holiday, the parade has long been a celebration of Quebec nationalism, and some francophone participants were incensed by the presence of the 67-year-old anglophone activist. One man shoved a pie in Johnson’s face while others hurled insults, beer and water before police escorted him away. An hour later, a cheerful Johnson appeared unfazed. The incident, he told reporters, simply revealed the “anglophobia” that underlies the separatist movement. “The only way in which I’m radical,” says Johnson, “is I believe in going to the roots of things. And we today exposed some roots.”

Johnson also grabbed headlines, which he has done frequently since his election in May. The attention has centred on the more militant course the former Montreal Gazette columnist, who currently writes for the Sun newspaper chain, plans to chart for the 4,000-member lobby group. “Alliance Quebec has always been reactive," says Johnson. “I want to be proactive.” Dubbed “Pit Bill" by former media colleagues for his aggressive federalist stance, Johnson wants to push forward with an agenda popular among those who propelled him to the presidency. One key element is a controversial court challenge of Quebec’s restrictions on access to English public schools, a key part of the province’s language laws.

He may face some hurdles. None of his supporters sit on Alliance Quebec’s executive committee. And Johnson has prominent opponents in the anglophone community. Robert Keaton, a former head of Alliance Quebec, worries that Johnson will alienate francophones and ultimately hurt the lobby group. “Politics is the art of the possible," says Keaton. “If you don’t have a grasp on that reality, then you become irrelevant at best.” But others are reserving judgment. Eric Maldoff, a Montreal lawyer and founding president of Alliance Quebec, believes Johnson has the potential to be effective—provided he brings all anglophones into the fold. Judging from some anglophone reactions, though, Johnson has yet to do that. “I have mixed feelings,” says Tina Verni, 40, a Montreal business manager. She supports challenging Bill 101, but is skeptical about an overall aggressive approach to Anglo rights. “I think it’s a bit too late for that kind of tactic,” she says.

Some Alliance Quebec members and affiliate groups have even publicly mused about pulling out because of Johnson’s confrontational style, but only the English farmers organization has left so far. And Johnson clearly disagrees that it is too late for anglophones to demand greater language rights. “We need another language dispute,” he asserts, “because we as a community have been allowing blackmail to reign on the question.” Johnson believes anglophones have stayed quiescent in the face of Quebec’s language laws for fear of a francophone backlash—a fear he does not share. “Let’s pursue justice. Let’s pursue our rights,” says Johnson. “And I don’t for a minute believe that the heavens will fall.”