Canada

A fine mess Bourassa’s got himself into

GRAHAM FRASER November 15 1976
Canada

A fine mess Bourassa’s got himself into

GRAHAM FRASER November 15 1976

A fine mess Bourassa’s got himself into

Canada

On the hustings, Quebec’s Premier Robert Bourassa tried to make one of the key events of the provincial election campaign—his decision to modify the educational requirements of his government’s controversial Bill 22—sound like a smooth administrative adjustment. “Without negotiating, and respecting the fundamental principle of the law, we were able to listen to justifiable representations,” he told a Montreal audience. But to many increasingly skeptical voters, the announcement looked suspiciously like a deathbed conversion—a desperation move to defuse the clamor from immigrants and Englishspeaking Quebeckers over Bill 22 that had placed in jeopardy scores of Liberal seats.

Moreover, Bourassa’s conversion came after two former members of Pierre Trudeau’s federal cabinet—Jean Marchand and Bryce Mackasey—plunged into the Quebec fray (see accompanying box) after denouncing aspects of the bill that made French the province’s sole official language. Just moments before Bourassa offered an explanation of his turnabout, Mackasey, the self-styled champion of

Quebec’s anxious English minority, had crowed: “We’ve moved the bureaucrats and we’ll have a say over what goes back in [to Bill 22] when we’re elected.”

Ostensibly. Bourassa had called the November 15 election to strengthen his hand against Trudeau’s threat to patriate the Canadian Constitution unilaterally. He also made it clear he was going to attack the power of the unions. But in opting for an election, two full years before he had to, Bourassa also clearly hoped to take advantage of the weaknesses of the opposition parties. When he began hinting this summer that there might be a fall election, the opposition Parti Québécois had just suffered the embarrassment of having its newspaper, Le Jour, collapse, while the revived Union Nationale had only recently elected an unknown foundry owner, Rodrigue Biron, as its leader. Former justice minister Jérome Choquette, as leader of the fledgling Popular National Party, was sliding into obscurity in a manner reminiscent of Paul Hellyer’s leap to nowhere with Action Canada.

With the Liberals holding 96 seats in the

110-seat National Assembly, the call for a strengthened mandate rang false. And the campaign soon showed that Bourassa was in trouble. The Premier was jostled and booed in Chicoutimi, where Alcan workers had been on strike since July, and booed again in Thetford Mines the night after his announcement of changes in Bill 22. An independent poll taken late in October showed the Parti Québécois, which had only six seats in the last National Assembly, with the support of 313% of those polled, compared to only 22.8% for the Liberals and 29.7% either undecided, not saying or not favoring any party.

Bill 22 seemed to be the issue that would not go away. Yet in a face-to-face debate, neither Bourassa nor PQ leader René Lévesque mentioned it, and, in vigorously attacking the PQ’S separatist position, the Liberals obviously hoped to win back disenchanted English and immigrant voters, while keeping the support of the French majority. Yet somehow as the campaign progressed, the Liberals seemed to display a knack for pleasing almost no one. Wide divisions persisted over Bill 22 and the lan-

guage of instruction issue. While Bourassa’s volte face over Bill 22—softening but not abolishing the tests for immigrant children who want to attend English schools, allowing children with older brothers or sisters in English schools to enter the English school system without tests, and introducing the teaching of English in French schools in grade three instead of grade five—was greeted with distrust, it at least silenced some of the voices of dissent within his own party, which have ranged from anglophone George Springate’s demand for a return to freedom of choice in the language of education to Thérèse Lavoie-Roux’s demand that the existing provisions of the bill be extended to private schools. Even on an issue as fundamental as separation, there were wide variations within the Liberal Party. Cultural Affairs Minister Jean-Paul L’Allier said that if conditions did not improve within Confederation, Quebec would separate— ‘T mean we, the Liberals, would take Quebec out of Confederation. We wouldn’t wait for anyone else to do it.” He was echoed by Liberal Party president Ben Payeur.

As the going got increasingly tough, Bourassa began playing on visceral fears of financial instability under a PQ government. “What would happen to the value of your homes?” he asked. “What will happen with investments? This is no ordinary election—the political system is at stake. We have a chance, once and for all, to crush separatism.” That theme—the source

of Bourassa’s 1970 and 1973 victories— could prove a potent weapon. Yet there was clearly enormous dissatisfaction and distrust of the Liberals, and some voters might have been inclined to feel Bourassa had cried wolf once too often.

On the other hand, the Parti Québécois was all too aware of the fears of separatism. They pledged a referendum on independence, but ran solely on the issues of competent government, with slogans such as “On a besoin d’un vrai gouvernement” (We need a real government). It was a campaign similar to Stephen Lewis’ highly successful Ontario New Democratic campaign in 1975 (which won the party 38 seats), stressing bread-and-butter or humanitarian issues such as industrial health, inadequate ambulance services and the need for more subsidized housing. In English TV ads, Lévesque stressed that “this election is not about independence”—trying to reassure English voters about the commitment to a referendum. As he noted in an interview: “We’d sweep Quebec completely if we didn’t have this idea [of independence]—this leap into the future.”

The major question mark in the campaign was how disenchanted Liberals would resolve their dilemma, and another unknown quantity was the Union Nationale. Still not well known, and irritatingly ambiguous in his language policy (the Union Nationale urged that English and French both be “official” languages in Quebec, but that French be the “national”

language), Rodrigue Biron made a few serious mistakes but seemed to have won considerable support in the predominantly English-speaking West Island of Montreal. And for the first time since the Diefenbaker years, federal Conservatives were working solidly behind the UN.

Much was also likely to depend on how voters perceived the Liberals’ last-minute shuffle on Bill 22. While immigrant organizations denounced the changes as insignificant, the immigrant voter himself may have been somewhat reassured. The French-language press reacted vigorously against the increased introduction of English, but studies have also shown a keen desire on the part of francophone parents for improved instruction in English.

Given the long list of electoral imponderables, some observers wondered whether the Quebec election result might not bear some strong similarities to the fate of John Diefenbaker’s federal Conservatives in 1962. The Tories then, like Bourassa’s Liberals, went into the campaign with a sizable majority, but knowing that they were certain to lose seats—the only question being how many. What the Tories hardly considered was what actually happened: a massive loss that cast them into minority government. As election day in Quebec neared, that kind of outcome loomed as a possibility—unless the wily Bourassa could win the toss once more by staking all on ordinary Quebeckers’ deep-seated fears of the upheaval of separation.

GRAHAM FRASER