Closeup / Politics

A straw in the wind

Where does Rod Biron stand? On both sides of the fence

David Thomas March 20 1978
Closeup / Politics

A straw in the wind

Where does Rod Biron stand? On both sides of the fence

David Thomas March 20 1978

A straw in the wind

Closeup / Politics

Where does Rod Biron stand? On both sides of the fence

David Thomas

The rural folk of Lotbinière County are stable, down-to-earth sorts who reject the fashionable label québécois, preferring canadien to mark their identity. These are the French Canadians who conjure up among their English-speaking countrymen those nostalgic images of steaming sugar cabins in springtime, bootleg apple cider at fall and, in the deep of winter, Saturday nights of fiddle music and stiff shots of gros gin. In Lotbinière, squeezed between the St. Lawrence River and the Appalachian foothills southwest of Quebec City, that old Quebec seems deceptively undisturbed by the anxieties of language and separatism. Its in-

habitants worry more about milk quotas and the state of the roads meshing the richest dairy land in Canada, roads busy with traffic only once a week: Sunday morning when farmers and their families drive past wayside crosses, patates frites stands and century-old houses, capped by curving, normanesque roofs, as they converge on one of the silver-steepled churches that still anchor rural Quebec to the faiths of race and religion. The political decisions that these steady, unostentatious people reach in the coming months could tip the balance in Quebec’s referendum, for or against Confederation.

In the November, 1976 election that brought René Lévesque to power, Lotbinière and nine other country ridings ignored the savage fight between Liberals and Péquistes, choosing the past over the future by voting Union Nationale, a party created by the late but hardly forgotten autocrat Maurice Duplessis, who died as premier in 1959. Its new and politically slippery leader Rodrigue Biron easily won the seat of Lotbinière and seized for the Union o Nationale the allegiance of one in five voters across Quebec.

It was a return to normality in the band of rural ridings between Montreal and Quebec City which, after a well orchestrated scare campaign by the Liberals in 1974, forsook the UN to stave olf the PQ. In fact, the current Liberal leadership fight between Claude Ryan and Raymond Garneau, though a focus of urban attention, holds little interest for many unionistes and is not considered much of a threat to the party. Ironically Ryan may be better known outside Quebec than deep within the province. An editor endorsing Ryan began his editorial in the rural weekly Rive-Sud Express by conceding: “I’m not sure that even half our readers have heard of (Ryan).” In any case, no matter whom the Liberals choose as leader, Biron and his Union Nationale voters have yet to commit themselves on the approaching referendum on detachment from Canada. It is perilous to assume they will vote for unity.

Words, here, cannot be accepted at face value: canadien, for example, is a term used in Quebec’s rustic countryside since well before Confederation and means a direct descendant of the French colonists. An English-speaking Ontarian is not a canadien: he is simply an anglais.

Politically, rural Quebeckers are formidably independent. In 1942, they rebelled against the combined will of federal and provincial governments and the Church by voting, virtually to a man, against military conscription. That wartime, federal referendum proclaimed French Quebec’s disdain for English Canada’s attachment to Britain. And it is important to bear in mind that in rural counties (like Lotbinière) politicians (like Rodrigue Biron) do not lead, they follow.

That is why Biron’s evolution as party leader—a steady slide from adamant federalist to shifty nationalist—is so intriguing. Biron, elegant tailoring draped over his tall, thin frame and a substantial black beard framing his craggy features, is determinedly undecided on the issue of Quebec’s independence referendum. “It would be premature and in bad faith to side with the ‘yeses’ or the ‘noes’ before the question is known.” His indecision is calculated and reflects the ambiguous mood of his voters. Biron wants to be with the winners and it is still too soon to take sides.

His formal education petered out early, but Biron’s wiliness and audacity more than compensated. Having acquired a taste for roast chicken and green peas during his rise to the highest ranking député d’Etat of the Knights of Columbus service club for Roman Catholic men, Biron chose two years ago to turn his glad-handing charm to the resuscitation of the Union Nationale. Now 43, Biron has achieved a respectable success by applying to politics the obsessive energies and businessman’s eye for the promising deal he acquired

while managing the family sewer pipe foundry at Sainte-Croix de Lotbinière. Marketing is Biron’s strength and he is ready to switch product lines at the slightest shift in consumer vogue.

The first daring model change was Biron’s language policy. Just after winning the party leadership in 1976, his call for total bilingualism was sweet music to minority voters fearful of strengthening French dominance. Biron had insisted all Frenchspeaking children must learn English to succeed in the business world and his attachment to his own language was limited to its marketability: “Our anglophone friends must understand that French is im-

portant to our economy. The Americans come to Quebec to see something different than the United States—the French fact. That’s why we must replace English signs with French ones: simply because it is economically profitable for Quebec.”

Montreal’s English-speaking minority was embittered by Liberal language legislation of 1974 which established the outline for a unilingual Quebec subsequently colored in by the Parti Québécois. The English bloc was an obvious electoral orphan and when the election was called, Biron came on like Daddy Warbucks, tough and protective with a promise to restore official status to English. His English newspaper ads asserted: “This man speaks your language.”

The investment earned a meagre return of only one anglophone member, Pointe Claire dentist William Shaw, who quickly demonstrated a mélange of naïveté and clumsiness. After his first few days in the National Assembly, Shaw accused fellow anglo members of selling out to the French: “It turns my stomach to hear people like [Liberal] Victor Goldbloom speaking French. His voters are English and he should represent them in English.” Shaw informed the assembly he would himself speak English because his own penurious French might cause him to be misunderstood in that language. His obvious assumption was that all his elected colleagues had an easy command of English. Most, in fact, do not.

Shaw embarrassed Biron and his party with quixotic attempts to organize the secession of English Montreal from Quebec. When Shaw finally quit the party last month to sit as an independent, the sigh of relief within the Union Nationale had the force of a monsoon and English-speaking Liberals quickly lobbied to block the dentist should he try to join them.

Shaw’s elimination was a matter of time once Biron, after writing off the anglo minority as a bad debt, marketed a radically new language policy which differed only in tone from the PQ legislation. “We are following the evolution of Quebec,” Biron explained. But it was his evolution on the issue of Quebec’s constitutional future that finally forced Shaw to depart. Biron refused to define himself as “an unconditional federalist” and Shaw decided his leader’s sales manager approach to politics was dangerous: “He’s looking for votes among Péquiste supporters and at the same time trying to retain the initial back-

ing he had. He’s trying to have his cake and eat it too.” A corresponding assessment comes from the UN leader’s brother PaulEmile, a committed Péquiste: “Rod has absolutely no sense of social responsibility. But he does have a real nose for the weaknesses of others.”

Biron does not disguise his marketing strategy and is proud he has turned the tactics of business to politics. The Union Nationale, he says, is “a moderate, nationalist party of the right” and its clientele, “moderate nationalists and anglophones who don’t panic.”

With Shaw now out of the way, the committed nationalists of Biron’s caucus will heat up their campaign to relight the party’s Duplessis-era patriotism—Quebec patriotism, that is. Duplessis paved the country roads, brought electricity to the farms and made “provincial autonomy” the popular creed. Biron is falling into line, helping turn the dead Union Nationale leader into a cult figure and reissuing the constitutional slogan of another late UN premier, Daniel Johnson, who demanded: égalité ou indépendance.

Biron now insists Quebec must have authority over immigration, communications, regional economic development and cultural affairs. He tells Quebeckers they are “a people whose right to self-determination cannot be denied.”

Independence still ranks below asphalt as an issue in rural Quebec but the PQ government is about to deluge farmers with a shower of measures designed to prove it can do a better job with agriculture than Ottawa. Federal control over milk production has turned the Ottawa government into the easily identified villain of a dairy economy suffering because of its efficiency. Producers encouraged to mechanize suddenly were told they were pumping too much into the stainless steel tank trucks which have made collectors’ items of the old, squat milk cans. Throughout the rural counties, farmers used their barn sides as billboards to express their rage at “Another achievement of the federal government—a 20% drop in farm income.” One of every four Quebec dairymen will be forced this year to default on loans used to increase production of milk the federal government now doesn’t want, Biron predicts.

If so, the UN leader will be hard put to mount a vigorous defense of federalism during the referendum campaign. The PQ strategy appears to be to get at Biron by pleasing his rural constituents and forcing the Union Nationale into the “yes” camp. At the very least, hopes the government, the Union Nationale can be openly split into opposing camps. Biron cannot safely slash at the PQ drive for sovereignty so, in his tireless tours, he digs at the government from another angle: “It’s the socialism of the PQ that’s destroying Quebec, not its independence stance.”

That’s the kind of language appreciated by the 75 parish politicos meeting in the reception hall of the Olivier truck stop at Laurier Station. Mostly middle-aged, these men and women are Biron’s electoral organizers in Lotbinière County and the UN leader uses them as his test market. His ears acutely tuned to the audience, Biron’s eyes glow like the digits of a pocket calculator as he coolly composes the most profitable response to a comment or question. Not once do party militants raise the referendum or Constitution and, when Biron does, their eyes glaze with bored incomprehension. So Biron drops the issue and goes back to listening to entreaties for more discipline in the schools and one man’s appeal that pupils be drilled in “love of province, love of flag and love of religion.” Says Georges Lemay. Biron’s chief riding electioneer: “Nobody talks about language or independence. Those things are far away from here.”

Soon, however, the issue will be forced by the government’s referendum campaign and rural Quebeckers will have to define their inherent nationalism in a way they never thought possible. Biron’s role will be less one of a leader than that of a barometer. His shifts over the coming months will indicate whether country conservatism will translate as a resistance to change or, alternatively, as the traditional loyalty to the government of Quebec whenever Ottawa is painted as the foe. Watch Rodrigue Biron. His ear is pressed to the ground, listening sharply for sudden spurts of growth down among the grass roots. When he announces which way his party is going on the Quebec referendum, he expects to be on the winning side. Ç