With Claude Ryan
When Claude Ryan announced in early January that he would seek the leadership of the Quebec Liberal party, he was not so much entering public life as leaving one public position and running for another. As publisher of the influential daily Le Devoir, he had been an important political voice in Quebec for 14 years. Following the victory of the Parti Québécois in November, 1976, with the Liberal party in disarray, he emerged as the principal voice of opposition to the government in Quebec. Some felt that his austere manner and his often dry, intellectual style would be a handicap for a politician; however, after a three-month campaign, he defeated former Liberal finance minister Raymond Garneau by a decisive 2-to-1 margin. Although Quebec Liberal Bryce Mackasey resigned his seat in NotreDame-de-Grâce, ostensibly to make way for the new leader, Ryan chose not to run in the July 5 byelection, but to spend his time working on party reorganization. Last month he spent an evening in the book-lined study of his Outremont home talking with Maclean’s Montreal bureau chief Graham Fraser.
Maclean’s: How do you find the adjustment from journalism to politics?
Ryan: Well, it’s still not finished. I was dictating letters yesterday and I surprised myself by being inclined to sign “Claude Ryan, directeur du Devoir.” I suddenly had to remind myself that I am now leader of the Quebec Liberal party. It’s a very, very big transition.
Maclean’s: How would you describe that difference?
Ryan: You come across people all the time who recognize you and express opinions which they hope you will heed and remember. But you are inclined to think, “How can I meet all those expectations?” and you suddenly realize that almost any time you could be in the premier’s chair and be called upon to make the big decisions regarding industrial development or economic policy and you wonder if you will have all the qualifications and support you need to make the right decisions and see that they are implemented in the same spirit in which they were made. That is frightening when you think of it. Maclean’s: Did you find the decision not to run in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce difficult? Ryan: It was difficult because I was receiving contradictory advice. At the end you’re alone. Adose adviser says you should go; an equally close adviser says you shouldn’t go. And you’ve got to make one decision.
Maclean’s: If debates in the house are televised, starting in the fall, isn’t there a danger you’re going to be seriously cut offfrom the public if you don’t have a seat?
Ryan: I’m not too much afraid of that, to be frank. I get a lot more coverage if I give a press conference in Montreal than if I were
People forget that parliament has been cut off from a lot of very vital areas of society
making a speech in Quebec City. In Quebec City it’s always the press gallery with its biases, preferences, prejudices. It’s a broader pond in Montreal, you know. But it inevitably creates strains. There were strains during Mr. Lesage’s absence from the house, there were strains between Mr. Lévesque and the parliamentary wing of the PQ when Mr. Lévesque was outside of the house. There are bound to be some strains between myself, Or my leadership, and the contribution made by the parliamentary wing in Quebec City. I think I would have been a shoc-in in N-D-G. but the work I want to do in the next few months can better be accomplished outside of the house. One morning, for instance, I want to be able to go and talk with the Quebec Federation of Labor. Another morning with the leaders of the Quebec Farmers’ Union or the Montreal Chamber of Commerce. If I were captive in the house, that would have to be ruled out. Some people have a curious theory about parliament. They say parliament is the heart of our political system and if you’re not in parliament you cannot make the contribution expected of a leader. They forget that parliament has been cut off
from a lot of very vital areas in our society. Parliament has become lost in its procedural wrangles. It has a grammar, a language of its own, which is misunderstood by the ordinary people.
Maclean’s: Did the ethnic makeup of the N-D-G riding (a relatively high concentration of English-speaking voters) play a role in your decision?
Ryan: If I had not been leader of the party,
I would have been delighted to accept the invitation to serve. But when you are the leader of a party, you’ve got to think in bigger terms, in terms of your entire constituency which in my case is the whole of Quebec. Nobody can blame me for hoping to be given the chance to run in a riding which will be a fair reflection of the general makeup of the population of Quebec. Mr. [René] Lévesque tried to label me as the man who had been elected by the Anglos, and then he added the Federáis because he realized that suggesting I’d been elected by the Anglos was completely stupid. But it changed nothing. If he had been close to that race he would have known that the Federáis were rather passive bystanders. Then, when he realized that the convention was very little influenced by anglophone delegates —too little by the way; they had only 153 delegates out of 2,610, he tried to insinuate that I had drawn my financial contributions from anglophone sources. He’s completely wrong. Of more than 8,000 donors, about 77 per cent were French-speaking, which means that we were extremely close to the makeup of the population.
Maclean’s: When you made the decision to seek the Liberal leadership, did there seem to be a large element of risk involved?
Ryan: Yes, there was. Even the people insisting that I run did not know how I would perform in that arena. I had to prove myself to my people. Especially during those public meetings with Mr. Raymond Garneau. They had strong hopes that I would do well in personal contacts, but they didn’t know how the public side would go. They had to see how I would adjust to the pressure of situations which require immediate intervention by the prospective leader.
Maclean’s: What made you realize it was going so well?
Ryan: I went to eastern Montreal one night for a meeting with militants from five ridings. It was attended by 500 or 600 people. I got a standing ovation upon arriving, a standing ovation after I had spoken. Questions were addressed to me in a very sympathetic tone. These signs do not lie. When
it was repeated night after night, and we had reports about the kind of reception Mr. Garneau was getting in the same places, it was pretty easy to see that the trend was favorable.
Maclean’s: What kind of pressure do you feel from the expectations that the rest of Canada has for you?
Ryan: I think the overall reaction was summed up well by Gerald Clark in The Montreal Star a few days ago. He said the rest of Canada realizes that Ryan, if he’s ever responsible for political affairs in Quebec, will be a tough bargainer. What he wants to get may not be totally different from what Lévesque wants to get, but the difference is that Ryan is constructive, while Lévesque is destructive. Let’s take the retail sales tax dispute. My position is the same as that of Mr. Lévesque. I’m against the way the federal government approached that matter, but while Lévesque uses the most somber words to describe the so-called federal plot, I consider their position as reflecting a lack of judgment, a lack of realism. But it does not put the whole system in jeopardy, in my judgment. You can still get a lot out of the present system, while keeping all the advantages that go with it.
Maclean’s: What kind of effect have your family and your upbringing had on your development?
Ryan: Well. I think I derived my fundamental principles from my family upbringing, my mother in particular. My general approach to work, for instance, to the role of the individual in the community, to the assumption of responsibility in life, came from her. I went to collège classique, like a lot of French Canadians. That also had a great influence on my philosophy. Maclean’s: Was there a teacher or an author who had a particular influence on you? Ryan: The authors who had the greatest influence on me were the so-called neoThomists: Jacques Maritain, who was a great political philosopher; Etienne Gilson. Then I was initiated to the fathers of the church and the great religious writers: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and John Henry (Cardinal) Newman in the 19th century. At the School of Industrial Relations and Social Work, I got in touch with the social democratic movement, the British labor movement. I read the Webbs, the Fabians and then more modern authors like Harold Laski. At the same time, about the middle ’40s, I got in touch with the leaders of the CCF party here: the Coldwells, the Lewises, the Scotts, the Douglases, and I was impressed because the leaders were so close to ordinary people like myself. Then I became involved in the Catholic Action Organization. I had to give up my affiliation with the CCF. Maclean’s: Some 20 or 30 years before dropping out of school came in vogue, you decided not to complete your degree. Why was that?
Ryan: Well look, I was involved in practical work at the time. Part of our training was called field work and I was asked to
serve in the Catholic Action Organization. I became deeply involved and the intellectual standards at the school were not as high as I hoped they would be, so I felt that degree would be more or less an intellectual fraud. Our papers were often read by a secretary, not by the teachers themselves, so I thought to myself, “I won’t be a party to that.” I wanted to be involved in the more militant way of life. I never regretted
Events have taught me that Lévesque and his nationalism could also produce intolerance
that. I must have written hundreds and hundreds of pages during those years, some of which I am still very proud of. For example, I wrote a booklet on the intellectual life of the Christian militant. 1 felt that in order to be a good witness to the Christian religion, you have to have strong intellectual content in your religious experience. The really beautiful moments in the life of the church have always been moments where genuine piety went along with thorough, intellectual deepening of the message. There was nothing as beautiful as seeing the mind of a young worker develop with the help of all those intellectual instruments which we were placing at their disposal. I’ve read all kinds of silly things about the work of Catholic Action, especially when Protestant journalists try to explain what we were doing. It’s all part of that false dogma of the great darkness which is supposed to have reigned over Quebec until the blessed year of God, 1960, as if we had all been a bunch of fools before 1960 and the light had appeared after Mr. Lesage took power. That’s a completely distorted view of our history. You had a lot of intelligent, free-minded people working seriously, before 1960, and you’ve had a lot of foolish people after 1960 proclaiming themselves apostles of enlight-
enment, who are the stupidest minds that I’ve seen at work.
Maclean’s: One interestingfacet of Quebec politics is the length of time that people in positions of power have known each other. Does this add a dimension of venom to the current debate?
Ryan: No, I think those encounters have rather little to do with what’s going on today. Catholic Action provided the most active intellectual milieu at that time, so it was natural that intellectual leaders-to-be should come together under that umbrella. But then each one went his own way. Mr. Trudeau went to teach at the University of Montreal, Mr. Lévesque went his own way, I went my own way. We were all more or less formed by ensuing experiences. Maclean’s: Was the 1970 October Crisis a turning point in your political thinking? Ryan: Not as much as I thought at the time. Objectively, I haven’t changed my attitude. The articles I wrote during that period I would write again today. But two things I would perceive differently today. First, I suggested at the time that English Canada had reacted in a certain manner and French Canada in another manner; I think I was wrong, because in Quebec there was also a strong minority of French Canadians in favor of the government line.
A conservative in both Canadas, so to speak, was rather inclined to support a government line. Second, when I said I felt closer to the fundamental position of Lévesque, I meant that in terms of individual liberties; Lévesque had shown an attachment to some values that was closer to my own position than to that of Trudeau. But subsequent events taught me that Lévesque and his nationalism could also produce a brand of intolerance unacceptable to me.
Maclean’s: If you are elected premier, and the exiles in Paris ask that they be allowed to return, what would your response be?
Ryan: Well, I would stick to the agreement that was made: that if they ever returned they would have to undergo trial under our criminal laws. I would expect that justice would prove to be human and understanding, but the principle must be preserved here that a person who has presumably committed a criminal action must be answerable for his actions before the courts.
Maclean’s: A lthough you did endorse Bourassa’s Liberals in 1973 you reversed your position in a memorable editorial three years later. Do you have any regrets?
Ryan: No, not at all. In November, 1976, it appeared to me that there had been a tragic collapse of the leadership of the then premier (Bourassa); that the party which rested content with that kind of leadership did not deserve to be returned. And since the PQ had decided to put between brackets the independence aspect of its platform, I felt it was the right time to test them in power. I felt there were lessons to be drawn from the experience which they would undergo in power, and I think events have proven me right. We got a chance to know them
better. We could appreciate that they are not at all the miracle workers they appeared to be in the eyes of a lot of people. There’s a matter of history which I would like to clear up once and for all. I was reading the other day that in the crisis of 1970 I had discussed with Lévesque, Laberge and other people the possibility of forming a national unity government in Quebec. That’s completely untrue. I never discussed such a matter with Lévesque or Laberge or anyone else, outside of Le Devoir. We had had an editorial conference at Le Devoir and we examined all possible hypotheses that might develop.
Maclean’s: One person you had discussed this with was Lucien Saulnier, who was then Jean Drapeau’s right hand man.
Ryan: Yes, Saulnier. He was an old friend of mine and after we had discussed three leading hypotheses, we felt we had to test them with someone, just for the sake of clarity. So I went to see Mr. Saulnier. That’s all that occurred. I never discussed this matter with Lévesque or with anyone else.
Maclean’s: But the hypothesis you discussed with Saulnier was of a national government?
Ryan: No, we had to consider three possible situations. First, a situation in which the governments would stick to a hard line. Two, a situation in which they would opt for a flexible line, in which case we would support them. And thirdly, a situation in which their authority would more or less collapse. In this case, we said what could they do? Well, they would have to talk of forming a national unity government for a while. They would have to do that, not us. Maclean’s: When was the disillusion? Ryan: The day after I .apurte’s kidnapping. It was a Sunday. We must have had a twoor three-hour discussion. It was a tragic situation and we felt we had to examine it thoroughly from all possible angles. Maclean’s: And yet the story seems to have had a certain durability.
Ryan: Well, it’s part of the legend of that period, you know. I have refuted those stories perhaps 50 times, but the legend persists, and you’ve got to get reconciled to that fact. It never left any acrimony with me.
Maclean’s: A re you going to be able to draw back people who had been attracted toward the Parti Québécois?
Ryan: Well, several PQ supporters have already moved to our side, pragmatic people who are not particularly addicted to ideological activities. But the real challenge will be with the new generation. They are more inclined to see two sides of the story, rather than one side, the separatist side, which has been the case in the last 10 years. I look at my kids, for instance. I have five kids in the house. Three have reached an age where they can understand these problems and their approach is exemplary. They look at the two sides. They want to know about the separatist version of history, the separatist view of the future, but
they also want to look at the other side and I think they will end up on the side which offers the most promising interpretation and challenges. That’s as things should be. Maclean’s: How will the referendum fight be fought?
Ryan: Well, I have the impression that they will try and come up with a biased question which must work in their favor, regardless of the answer given by the people. Mr. Lé-
The referendum must be a fundamental choice, a question of A or B; it can’t be A plusB
vesque has said one part of the referendum should deal with the attitude of Quebeckers on the question of independence. And another question would ask them if they were in favor of some new economic association or deal with the rest of Canada. Let’s suppose Quebeckers answer “no” to the question on independence and “yes” to the question about a new economic deal with Canada. The government can say they rejected federalism implicitly. Then they bargain to obtain a new economic association; if the reply of the rest of the country is negative, they come back and say we’ve tried to obtain that, they’ve said no; look at all the times they said no in the past 100 years; give us a mandate to do whatever is good in your best interest. That’s what I expect-some distorted question which would give them an apparent right to claim they had received a mandate to negotiate with the rest of Canada. Maclean’s: If the referendum proposal were defeated, English Canada might say: The problem’s solved, we don’t have to worry about it anymore. Does this concern you? Ryan: Yes, if the question is put in very direct terms and the answer is negative, the temptation would be strong in the rest of Canada to say; Well now you had your say, you want to stay in Confederation, here are the terms. The only way to escape that risk
is for those who favor the federal option t make it clear before the referendum thi they want to maintain the federal systen but they also want the federal system to b modified and to put forward some specifi proposals. But I do hope the referendur finally boils down to a clearcut demar« tion between yes and no. It’s a fundamen tal choice. It’s got to be A or B. It can’t be , plus B.
Maclean’s: Ten years ago you spoke of tw nations. Recently, you said that you foresaw a distinct status for Quebec in Cor. federation. What do you mean by a distint status?
Ryan: Oh, I used that expression 10 yeai ago. It’s nothing new. I wrote 10 years ag that Quebec forms a distinct society o many accounts, that it has a distinct m tional identity which must be recognized i the constitutional arrangements for the fi ture, and I haven’t changed my mind. M position is fundamentally the same. Eve at that time, I wrote that we were not after distinct status as such but that because ( the differences in Quebec there woul have to be in practice different cor stitutional and administrative arrange ments regarding Quebec in several areas c governmental intervention. I still speak c a national identity which is typical of Que bec. I say let the rest of Canada define i self. Let Quebeckers stop applying an at jective or a description to the rest e Canada which they may not want to se applied to themselves. They want to coi ceive of themselves as one, two or thre distinct communities, it’s their problem. Maclean’s: One final question. Since yoi election, I’ve seen you described variously c an ultra-nationalist, a nationalist and a anti-nationalist. Are you a nationalist? Ryan: Well, look, everything depends o the definition of that word. If you ask th St. Jean Baptiste Society of Montreal c the typical Parti Québécois militant the would say no; he is the anti-nationalist pi excellence. If you ask the superficial Enj lish-Canadian observer from Westei Canada or even Toronto, he will say Rya is the typical Quebec nationalist. I think must stand somewhere between these e: treme positions. I am attached primarily 1 fundamental liberties. Those liberties aí superior to any feeling of national identi or religious or party affiliation or unie loyalty. In this sense I am not a nationali because I prefer my freedom of though for instance, my freedom of expression, I the freedom of the French-Canadian n, tion. A nation cannot give those things, has to respect them because they are pa of basic human nature. But liberty has i prosper in a national context and in tl case of a person who was born in Quebe the proper context is Quebec. In this sense am a Quebec nationalist. I think I am a tached to our institutions, our philosoph of life, habits, etc. I want to preserve th way of life. I think there’s got to be enouj room for it to prosper in the broader Can dian framework.^