Return from the depths

Robert Lewis October 24 1983

Return from the depths

Robert Lewis October 24 1983

Return from the depths


Robert Lewis

Six years after he became the youngest premier in Quebec history, Robert Bourassa lost his own Montreal seat and his majority government to the Parti Québécois—a stunning humiliation for even the oldest and toughest of politicians. “I was a dead man,” he confessed recently. Just 10 days after the bruising defeat, Bourassa left Quebec to heal his wounds in Europe and later in the United States. In the words of a colleague, he was “the most hated man in Quebec.” But as he travelled and lectured abroad, coming home periodically, Bourassa never relinquished the singular ambition to return as premier. And last Saturday, at the age of 50, he took a major step toward that longcherished goal: the Quebec Liberal Party anointed him as leader to replace his old foe, Claude Ryan.

Striking: Bourassa does not plan immediately to seek a seat in Quebec’s National Assembly. Instead, with an election probably two years away, he wants to continue his personal campaign to build a base among ordinary voters. As well, he wants to re-establish tattered contacts with the English-speaking community and promote conservative-

minded policies on unions, the size of government and language laws (page 19). Bourassa’s victory was one of the most striking political resurrections in Canadian history. His supporters called him “Rocky III,” but Bourassa likened himself to Winston Churchill.

The margin of his victory was towering. On the first and only ballot he claimed 75 per cent of the 2,834 votes

Bourassa will now try to force the Parti Québécois to make a clear choice: independence—yes or no

over his two rivals. He got 2,138 votes, compared to 353 for 33-year-old Eastern Townships lawyer Pierre Paradis and 343 for Liberal National Assembly member Daniel Johnson, 38, the older brother of PQ Social Affairs Minister Pierre-Marc Johnson—both sons of the late Union Nationale premier of Quebec, Daniel Johnson. Bourassa left no doubt about his next target—René Lév-

esque’s Parti Québécois. “That party,” the Liberal leader told jubilant followers in the Quebec Coliseum, “is the one that has pushed us back the most in 200 years.”

For all the drama, the outcome was not a surprise. Bourassa had locked up the votes he needed to win by mid-September, because of a unique, winnertake-all series of delegate slate-selection meetings prior to the actual convention. It was not so much that the man himself had changed—and he claimed that he had—but that Quebec Liberals were ready for a familiar message. “Today people are immune to the PQ rhetoric,” he said. “They want solutions. The people do not want any more linguistic or constitutional debates.” Underlining that fact, the PQ government struggled with limited success throughout the week to put down a popular uprising in the Gaspé community of Grande-Vallée, where the central issue was jobs, not sovereignty (page 18).

In an age of acute cynicism about the political process, Bourassa’s return was a triumph of calculation and cunning. A remote and driven man, with no interests in the arts or sports, Bourassa returned from an extended exile abroad to work the parish halls and the rubber chicken circuit. In the manner of the

early Joe Clark, Bourassa assessed all opportunities through the prism of his burning ambition. Instead of the aloof leader surrounded by confidants in a bunker, he became a man of small talk in the towns and villages throughout Quebec. Even his enthusiastic defence of federalism during the Quebec referendum in 1980, he later admitted, provided a personally sought-after opportunity to rebuild a following in a province that overwhelmingly rejected him in 1976.

Mortality: Bourassa’s victory also could have major implications for the nation as a whole. If Pierre Trudeau indeed is contemplating retirement, Bourassa’s election in Quebec might encourage the prime minister to relax his grip. For one thing, Bourassa has vowed to “get along with Ottawa” and he heads a party that has a 55 to 22 per cent lead over the Parti Québécois. Last week Trudeau received further reminders of his own political mortality: the Gallup poll gave the Tories an unprecedented 62 to 23 per cent lead and it indicated that the Tories are running even with the federal Liberals in Quebec. Not only that, almost half of those polled for the Quebec City daily, Le Soleil, wanted both Trudeau and Lévesque to retire. Polls may be for dogs, as John Diefenbaker liked to say, but for now they suggest that Bourassa could emerge as the only Liberal head of government in the country.

Still, Bourassa has a great deal of political organizing to do before that happens. One thing is certain: he will attempt to campaign on issues designed to cast the Liberals in glaring contrast to the Parti Québécois. First, he will take a more moderate approach to language policies. On Bill 101, Bourassa believes that English-speaking children whose families move to Quebec should be allowed to attend English schools. As well, he would allow English signs where appropriate, as long as French is “obligatory.”

On the economic front, Bourassa wants to commit Quebec to a massive expansion of his pet James Bay hydroelectric project and sell the new power to the United States. He also wants to open up trade with the Americans, ban strikes in essential services and promote high-technology industry. At the same time, in the manner of Tory leader Brian Mulroney, Bourassa wants to reduce the size of government. Above all, the new Liberal leader plans to take the fight directly to the PQ. Stressing his experience in France, Bourassa told an approving Canadian Club audience in Montreal last month: “The separatists there are in jail. Here, they are in power.”

With two years to chart a revival, the PQ’s strength cannot be discounted.

Pierre-Marc Johnson, the favorite to succeed Lévesque according to the latest polls, has assembled a brain trust to study alternative policies. Johnson, and Education Minister Camille Laurin— like Bourassa—are examining ways to reduce the role of government in the lives of Quebecers. As Laurin told Montreal Gazette columnist Graham Fraser last week: “The basic question is much

more important than language and culture. It involves earning a living.”

‘Yes or no’: Bourassa is convinced that the next Quebec election will be fought on three key issues: the economy, labor relations and the Constitution. And on the constitutional issue he declares that while the PQ allowed Trudeau to patriate the Constitution without Quebec’s consent, he called the 1976 election to fight the prime minister’s unilateral patriation plan. If nothing else, says Bourassa, he will try to sign the Constitution by 1986

and ask Ottawa to restore the recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society” with a veto on immigration policy. Said Bourassa: “On the economy, my credibility is good, the PQ’s is undermined. On labor relations, I have a clear and precise solution to propose. On the Constitution, the PQ can no longer finesse the issue. My strategy will be to make the party clarify its position: independence, yes or no.”

The question has been a staple of Quebec politics since the days of Daniel Johnson and his pat campaign slogan, “Equality or independence.” Bourassa’s triumphant return—and the lingering uncertainty about Quebec’s future course—has depressed several influential analysts. Wrote La Presse columnist Lysianne Gagnon: “At best, one gets the impression of becoming younger by 13 years. At worst, it is the sensation of having gotten nowhere all this time; that our political life is like a loop, a closed

circle, a dead end. The disenchantment and the pessimism are overwhelming.”

Against that grey canvas, Bourassa’s comeback last week was remarkable. When Lévesque ousted him from office, the Liberals tumbled from 102 seats to 26, compared to the PQ’s 71. Poet-journalist Gerald Godin whipped the premier in the working-class riding of Mercier—one of the larger political ironies, because authorities arrested Godin under the War Measures Act of 1970, a measure which Bourassa had encouraged Ottawa to proclaim.

The FLQ kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross took place five months after Bourassa took office, when he was only 37. Although he returned in 1973— the first premier since Duplessis to be re-elected—the storm clouds were

building. Fed by his opponents in Ottawa, the portrait emerged of a vacillating leader with a bunker mentality. Led by Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, the federal Liberals never forgave Bourassa for vetoing the 1971 agreement in Victoria on a new constitutional charter. In the late 1970s, as Bourassa resisted Trudeau’s patriation plans, the prime minister went to Quebec City and dismissed the premier as “a little hot dog eater.” With a hairdresser to lacquer his nettlesome locks and a penchant for slick news management, Bourassa came to be known as a politician several beats removed from reality.

Corruption: Then the many scandals erupted. The premier’s éminence grise, the late Paul Desrochers, who committed suicide last July, tried to negotiate a no-strike contract over 10 years with the Quebec Federation of Labor at the James Bay site. The deal would have given the union a hiring monopoly and coincided with reports that several Que-

bee Liberal candidates received QFL funds during the 1973 election.

There also were allegations that members of the Simard family, the shipbuilding dynasty in Sorel to which Bourassa is related through marriage, received government contracts for business equipment during his first three years in office. As well, corruption was widespread during the spending spree on the 1976 Olympic Games which produced a staggering bill of $1.6 billion. And many Quebecers believed that Bourassa’s government had mishandled the James Bay project.

In an interview in the current issue of L'actualité, the Maclean Hunter-owned monthly in Montreal, Bourassa recounted his agony after the defeat in 1976: “That night they told me not to go home, because a crowd was celebrating the Parti Québécois victory outside my

residence.” He added: “In the policeescorted car, I told my wife that I wanted to go and study the European Economic Community and forms of supra-national independence. The mists of Brussels were less tempting than the sun of Florida, but I told her: ‘I’ll be back for the PQ referendum.’ Ten days later, I left.”

Bourassa came home briefly in 1977 to see if the leaderless Liberals wanted him again. The answer was no. “There are people after my head, even though it has been chopped off,” Bourassa told Maclean ’s at the time. He went back to Brussels and the Liberals elected Claude Ryan in 1978. Bourassa was not even invited to the convention. He went anyway, as the self-styled “pariah of 1976.” In February, 1979, according to Bourassa, Ryan told him: “You should keep quiet for another 10 years.”

In the fall of 1979, however, Bourassa’s persistence—and fortune—paid dividends. At the last minute the PQ

government sent him an invitation to the ceremony marking the inauguration of the James Bay project. PQ Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau once derided the project as “a big balloon.” But now Quebecers—and even the governing party—swelled with new pride about the province’s huge reserves in energy. When Bourassa appeared before the James Bay workers, he got more applause than René Lévesque. Now he was known as “the father of James Bay.” ‘Churchill’: The referendum of 1980 provided Bourassa with the platform to pursue his secret agenda. He was teaching at Johns Hopkins University’s Washington campus, but he could not get Quebec—and the premiership—out of his mind. He plunged into the NON campaign with a vengeance. “I did not refuse anything,” Bourassa recalled. “I reconquered the ground inch by inch,

village by village, Rotary by Rotary. My strategy was to build myself wide appeal at the grassroots.”

When there were functions that leader Claude Ryan and Ottawa’s Jean Chrétien did not want to perform, Bourassa did them. He debated hard-line separatists like Pierre Bourgault and Jacques Parizeau in public. “It turned out,” he said, “that the militants called me Rocky III. But I don’t see any other example [than Churchill].” He added: “A return like that, after being replaced by someone else at the head of the party, is a first in politics.” What, then, did the referendum victory for the NON forces mean to Bourassa? “My launching pad.”

For all that, there was still Claude Ryan to contend with—and the former Le Devoir publisher, who helped persuade Bourassa to reject the Victoria Charter in 1971, was not in a mood for charity. He discouraged Bourassa from running as a Liberal in the 1981 election

by saying, according to Bourassa, “I would rather lose without you than win with you.” Concluded Bourassa: “If he had won in 1981, it would have been a totally different story.” Not surprisingly, after most of the party deserted Ryan, there was no official tribute for the former leader last weekend. At the first session Friday night, Ryan sat solemnly in isolation at the end of the arena with his wife and a few old friends. Only when interim leader Gérard D. Lévesque acknowledged Ryan did a round of polite applause signal the outgoing chiefs past efforts.

Rumors: Bourassa also fought his old Ottawa enemies during his return to the top. Several key Trudeau ministers—excluding Francis Fox, who endorsed Bourassa—actively lobbied other potential candidates. A favorite of the Ottawa Liberals was former Liberal finance minister Raymond Garneau, who lost the leadership to Ryan and became chairman of the Montreal and District Savings Bank. But politician Bourassa approached Garneau to persuade him not to join the race. Bourassa showed Garneau a poll, carried out by an American firm, which indicated that Bourassa would beat Garneau 3 to 1 among francophones. Facing an uphill fight, Garneau decided to stay out. Pundits now say that Bourassa has undertaken to help Garneau become mayor of Montreal when Jean Drapeau retires.

As Bourassa’s strength grew during his low-key march through the unofficial primaries in Quebec’s 122 ridings, he became bolder in defence of his record. He reminded Toronto Star correspondent Robert McKenzie that there had not been any evidence to indicate that his in-laws had received preferen-

tial treatment from his government and that, after the rumors, he brought in new conflict-of-interest guidelines. And, in a reference to the PQ’s Gilles Grégoire, sentenced to two years for having sex with juvenile girls, and Claude Charron, who pleaded guilty to shoplifting, Bourassa declared: “At least in my government we did not have any members sitting in jail.”

Accused of being the marionette of multinational corporations, Bourassa mocked the PQ for its obsession with its credit rating in New York. “Wall Street is calling the shots,” he said, “and they’re not even independent.” He also honed his attack on Lévesque for expressing envy last month that visiting Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe had obtained independence. “There is still starvation and civil war there,” Bourassa declared. “This is a

government which is obviously completely exhausted.”

Unity: As he looks forward to his future tasks as leader, Bourassa should have little trouble establishing party unity, once the leadership wounds have healed. Although Johnson’s defeat was a blow for the new generation of Montreal professionals—he was a senior official at Paul Desmarais’ Power Corp.— his philosophy is in line with Bourassa’s. “Our first priority,” Johnson said during the campaign, “is to stop discouraging investment.” As for populist Paradis, he favored reducing the z role of government and reining I in the “tongue troopers” who * have enforced the PQ’s language I law. And Bourassa himself, as 55 he draws close enough to slay the PQ, will have to demonstrate to Quebec voters that he

has, indeed, changed for the better. So far, according to a Le Soleil poll last week, 45 per cent of Quebecers want him to become Liberal leader—but 31 per cent favor Johnson. On the eve of the convention, Bourassa insisted that during his exile he had analysed his past errors, and that he realized that he had lost contact with ordinary citizens. He vowed to ensure that he will not again be trapped by the dominant influence of his immediate entourage. That should not be difficult as long as Bourassa stays out of the legislature and travels the province. But as the next Quebec election approaches, he may be tempted by his old desires. In one clear respect, seven years in the political wilderness have substantially altered the man. Said Bourassa: “I know what it’s like to have a knife in my back.”

Guy Deshaies