MACLEAN’S REPORTS

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

If Lesage wins friends out west, will he wind up in federal politics?

Blair Fraser October 2 1965
MACLEAN’S REPORTS

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

If Lesage wins friends out west, will he wind up in federal politics?

Blair Fraser October 2 1965

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

If Lesage wins friends out west, will he wind up in federal politics?

Blair Fraser

PREMIER JEAN LESAGE’S western tour is being watched with almost as much attention from Ottawa as from Quebec City. For two entirely different sets of reasons, the federal Liberals are as anxious as Lesage’s own provincial party that his trip should be a triumphant success.

One is their worry about western feelings toward Quebec. They know very well that theirs is the “FrenchCanadian Party” in the eyes of many voters. What they don’t know and would like to find out is whether this is a liability in western Canada and if so, how serious.

During Prime Minister Pearson’s visit to B.C. and Alberta last month, he departed from his prepared text at one meeting to make a passing reference to the Lucien Rivard scandal. Afterward a local Liberal came up to ask, rather hesitantly, if he might offer a bit of advice. “Don’t talk about the Rivard thing at all, sir,” he suggested. “It’s not an issue out here any more. People are ready to forget about it. If you mention it you’ll only stir the whole thing up again.”

But even if this counsel was correct it left the major question unanswered: does the Liberal strength in Quebec still carry an odor of scandal in other provinces, something to be ignored as much as possible, or does it mean (as it once did) a valuable assurance of national unity? Federal Liberals hope to find a clue to the answer in the reception of Premier Lesage in the west. A warm welcome for him would be a great comfort to Ottawa.

The other reason for Ottawa’s interest in the tour relates to Premier Lesage himself. Is he thinking of a return to the federal field? And if so, how much of an asset would he be?

Even though he has tried their patience pretty severely at federalprovincial conferences, most federal Liberals would welcome Lesage back. They are painfully aware that their vaunted strength in Quebec is held by default. True, they have fortyseven Quebec MPs and hope to get more on November 8. But even if they swept all seventy-five ridings they would still fall short of real grassroots strength there. In a province that sets great store by leadership they have nobody in the federal field who is accepted as the authentic leader and voice of Quebec. Lesage, they hope, would be such a man.

This of course might be true w'hether he does well or badly in the west, but popularity in Quebec alone is not enough. He must enjoy at least a benevolent neutrality in the other provinces. A Quebec spokesman like, for example, René Lévesque would lose more votes elsewhere than he would win for the party in his own territory.

There are some w'ho fear the same may be true of Lesage. His angry statement at the last federal-provincial conference, that he would not accept a Supreme Court decision in the dispute about offshore mineral rights, went down very badly with the English Canadians of his own as well as other parties, and the opposition won’t allow it to be forgotten.

But Lesage has considerable charm, and even the pessimists are hopeful that his personal impact on the western tour will wipe out the bad effect of his petulance toward the Supreme Court. He will also have a chance, if he wants to take it, to explain or water down the statement itself. Whether or not he mentions it in any prepared address, he is certain to be questioned about it at press conferences and broadcast interviews, and while these encounters present dangers they also present opportunities.

The most important result of the tour, though, will be its effect on Lesage himself. He is unlikely to give up a pre-eminent position in Quebec unless he has at least a fair chance, in his own mind, of winning a preeminent position in Ottawa eventually. He must know that he could become the Quebec federal leader merely by re-entering the federal field, but whether he could become a national leader would depend on the support of other regions.

Nobody can promise him the national Liberal leadership. Men like Mitchell Sharp and Paul Hellyer and Paul Martin are not about to abdicate their ambitions in favor of Jean Lesage or anyone else. Moreover, there is a growing body of Liberal opinion (including French-Canadian opinion)

which is opposed to the accepted tradition of alternation between Frenchspeaking and English-speaking party leaders, and wants the succession to be determined on judgment of the man’s merit alone.

Lesage would know this. He would know he was not being offered a sure thing, but he would want to know at least that he had a reasonable chance. His western tour may give him the answer.