When Claude Ryan walked through a room filled with applauding admirers in Montreal’s Meridien Hotel and announced his candidacy for the Quebec Liberal leadership earlier this month, he instantly became the front runner to head the battered party. Although he had made “a firm and irrevocable decision” in November not to seek the leadership, he now grinned down at his supporters and said an “appeal procedure” had been launched against his first decision—so he was taking le plongeon.
The day before, Raymond Garneau, a 43-year-old economist and Ryan’s principal rival so far, had launched his campaign with a packet of glossy photographs, buttons and posters—and, hearing that Ryan was announcing, insisted that he was pleased at the news. “The more prominent my opponents, the stronger I will be when I win,” said the former finance minister in the Robert Bourassa government that René Lévesque defeated 14 months ago.
Ryan will be the moving target for all subsequent candidates, and the extent to which he can endure the slings and arrows between now and the April 15 leadership vote will be a prime indication of how he could handle opposition from the Parti Québécois. Garneau gave a hint of what one of the lines of attack may be when he was told that many people considered Ryan would automatically be the leading candidate. “It’s above all the English press which has said that,” Garneau quietly corrected. “I will be the candidate of the
francophones.” He left unsaid the suggestion that Ryan would be the candidate of the anglophones.
It was Ryan’s feeling that he could not trust the Liberal Party organizers that made him decide to say no to a leadership try back in November, and it was the confirmation of those feelings that brought him to the brink of saying no again. But the uplifting ovation that Ryan received from delegates to a Liberal policy convention in November made him realize that the possibility was still open, and he commented that his door was “closed, but not locked.” Then Liberal kingmaker and éminence grise Paul Desrochers held a meeting of Liberal organizers in December, which also indicated strong support for Ryan.
Over the holidays, Ryan reached the conclusion that he would run, provided some “ifs” could be resolved. On the evening of January 4, he met with a group of 35 people who form the basis of his campaign, and agreement was reached on his conditions. They included a “campaign salary” equivalent to what he was making as publisher of Le Devoir (reportedly $32,000) and a promise that he would not be bound by the economic policies passed by the party in November, which he found too right-wing and doctrinaire in their opposition to state intervention in the economy. Finally, he insisted on loyalty: the people present could have no connection with any other group or figure in the party, and must stick with him until the convention.
Late that Wednesday night, it seemed settled. Ryan was going to go for it. But by the January 6-8 weekend, he had come within a hair of calling off the whole adventure. On Friday, he learned that exactly the kind of serpehtine manoeuvring he had been most afraid of had been going on: “I was worried that I might be drawn in with promises of support, and then have the rug pulled out from under me by people who would say ‘We needed a nonLiberal to give credibility to the campaign.’ ” Even by the previous Wednesday, he had learned that some of the members of the National Assembly who had promised support were backing off. Then, on Friday morning, Ryan learned that one of the organizers he was counting on was close to Paul Desrochers, and that in addition information was leaking regularly to the Garneau campaign.
What was almost the last straw came after Friday lunch. A friend had dined at the St. Denis Club and had heard Desrochers attacking Ryan, saying, “He’s the one to beat; he never was a Liberal. We don’t need a guy like him.” When Michel Roy, editor-in-chief (and now Ryan’s successor) at Le Devoir, came back from lunch, he was surprised to find that Ryan, furious, had written an article saying why he would not run, which he wanted published in Saturday’s paper. “Look, Mr. Ryan, thousands of people are counting on you,” Roy protested. “At least take the weekend to think it over.”
Deeply depressed, Ryan went to Quebec City for a family function, and also telephoned an old friend, Julien Giasson—a former Liberal cabinet minister now in the Liberal caucus. Giasson assured him that Desrochers’ power was waning in the party, and warned him not to make any rash decisions until the two of them could talk. Ryan returned to MontJÉ real Saturday night—and the next day,
Giasson made his
way to Montreal through a snowstorm. They talked for four hours, and Giasson agreed to become principal organizer of the campaign. Then, Ryan’s older brother, Gerald, a judge, and his younger brother, Yves, mayor of Montreal North, went to the house and, with a few close advisers, the decision was sealed shortly after midnight Sunday.
On Monday, Ryan told his colleagues at Le Devoir, and wrote his letter of resignation as publisher which he presented to the board of directors Monday night. And, as the final cord was cut with the newspaper he had served for more than 15 years, Claude Ryan wept.
No longer as thin and gaunt as his craggy features and caricatures of him would suggest, at 52 (he will turn 53 on January 26) Ryan has kept the austere frugal style and
the pungent earthiness of the parish priest his mother hoped he would become. Beforejoining Le Devoir, Ryan had spent 17 years as secretary-general of L’Action Catholique Canadienne, a group coordinating Catholic lay activist groups, and he is still a deeply religious man. “He is in the tradition of spiritual advisers to men of power,” one colleague commented.
Pierre Trudeau is one man who received such counsel from Ryan long before he achieved power. In the early 1950s, Trudeau passed through Rome on his way to the -Far East, while Ryan was taking a sabbatical year studying church history. Friends, they had a long lunch together, and Ryan urged Trudeau to rid himself of his worldly possessions. It was not the last time Trudeau would disregard Ryan’s advice.
By coincidence, Ryan, Trudeau and René Lévesque all have one personal experience in common. All of their fathers died at an early age, and the sons were raised by strong, forceful women. Mme
Blandine Ryan, still a vigorous and forthright woman at 78, was left alone to raise three boys in 1928, when Claude was three (Trudeau and Lévesque both lost their fathers when they were in their early teens).
When he was 33, Ryan decided to get married, and with a directness that characterizes the man, picked Madeleine Guay, a woman he had worked with for several years in L’Action Catholique Canadienne. “Claude invited me to dinner, said that we had worked together well, and that we should continue to work together in another fashion,” recalls Mme Ryan with a fond chuckle. Six months later, they were married. They now have five children, ranging in age from 10 to 18.
Joining Le Devoir in 1962 as-an editorial
writer, Ryan became publisher two years later. Continuing as an editorial writer in the extraordinary Montreal daily with a prestige that towers far above its circulation of 40,000, he quickly became a powerful voice in Quebec, with an impressive reputation that rapidly spread across Canada as he crisscrossed the country explaining his province’s aspirations to English Canadians.
The reputation he brings to the Liberal Party is a complex one: an extraordinarily frugal man, he is renowned for his tightfisted ways. The newspaper could not afford to be lavish, and it was a point of pride with Ryan that politicians would visit him in his hotel room no matter how cheap the hotel. His capacity for work is legendary— reporters recall with awe the time the paper was having trouble getting translated into French a large government report of which they had acquired a leaked copy. Ryan took it home and did it himself. An omnivorous reader, he would devour government reports and studies and then, with surprising speed, would bang out his editorials weighing arguments and statistics
with excruciating care and the ponderous deliberation of a mathematician.
The presence and moral authority of the man who is now on the hustings seeking delegates suddenly alters the balance of power in Quebec—not only between the Parti Québécois and the federalist opposition forces, but between Ottawa and Quebec. For Ryan has been for years as bitter a critic of Pierre Trudeau as he has been of René Lévesque, and Ryan as Liberal leader in direct opposition to Lévesque could soften Trudeau’s anti-Lévesque thunder in this year’s federal election campaign. Ryan has preached the need for special status for Quebec ever since he joined Le Devoir, a position Trudeau has always attacked. Ryan backed Stanfield against Trudeau in the 1968 election, and the animosity between the two men peaked during the October Crisis, when Le Devoir attacked the imposition of the War Measures Act. In the period that followed, it
seemed that Ryan might be rethinking his commitment to Canada. “Everyone thought that Claude Ryan was converting,” recalls Jean Francoeur, a senior editor at Le Devoir, and an old friend. “But that didn’t last.”
The belief that Ryan was moving away from federalism was such that at the beginning of the 1973 election campaign René Lévesque personally asked Ryan to run as a candidate for the Parti Québécois. When Ryan not only refused but endorsed Bourassa’s Liberals, the Parti Québécois felt betrayed, and that resentment led to the establishment of the daily Le Jour in a futile attempt to wreak revenge on Le Devoir.
In his fight for the leadership, Ryan will be attacked not only as an outsider, but as someone who actually endorsed the PQ two days before the last election. Liberal organizers are worried that in a party where resentment of Montreal is strong he may be too urban, too abstract, too intellectual, too cold. But there are two styles to Claude Ryan. In writing, reading a text and speaking English, he can appear formal, didactic, obscure and ponderous. But in conversation' he can be blunt, funny, earthy, almost brutally frank—punctuating his stories with a raucous laugh that bites the air like a chain saw.
Now the Liberals can have both Claude Ryans. His eccentric style may capture the public’s imagination, as did Pierre Trudeau’s 10 years ago. Or, like another politician that he admires, Robert Stanfield, Ryan may fail. But if he wins the leadership, as now seems a distinct possibility, the intraprovincial debate takes a radical shift toward special status for Quebec. GRAHAM FRASER
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.