CANADA

Bourassa’s long climb back

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 20 1984
CANADA

Bourassa’s long climb back

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 20 1984

Bourassa’s long climb back

CANADA

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Ten years ago Robert Bourassa, then Quebec premier, gave a speech in the Montreal riding of Westmount shortly after introducing legislation that made French the province’s only official language. Bodyguards surrounded him that night, and when he tried to speak the angry, predominantly anglophone audience booed him for curtailing their language rights. Last week Bourassa returned to Westmount to a much warmer welcome. Quebec’s resurrected Liberal leader drew a friendly overflow crowd of 800 people to Westmount’s Victoria Hall. They even applauded Bourassa when he mentioned his contentious language law, Bill 22. Declared Bourassa: “It [the law] allowed us to tell Quebecers that we have no lessons to learn from the Parti Québécois when it comes to protecting French Canadians.”

The success of the Westmount meeting delighted Liberal supporters, but Bourassa calmly accepted his newfound popularity. “Time changes nearly everything in politics,” he said. Indeed, four months after regaining the leadership of the Quebec Liberal party, the 50year-old Bourassa is still proving his political adroitness. He has won over opponents in his party and helped to give the Liberals a big lead in popular support over the Parti Québécois. The PQ government may delay the election until 1986, but recent polls show that

voters prefer Bourassa to Premier René Lévesque by a 3-to-l margin. As a result, Bourassa’s once-improbable dream of becoming premier again appears increasingly realistic.

Bourassa does not have a seat in Quebec’s national assembly, although he has promised to seek election “if the opportunity presents itself.” But he is clearly not anxious to run for office quickly. Since October he has passed up the chance to contest two byelections. He prefers to increase the party’s membership and funds. “I cannot think of a single one of my advisers who wants me in the assembly right now,” he told Maclean's. Instead, he leaves control of the Liberal caucus to House Leader Gérard D. Lévesque and spends much of his time travelling around the province, visiting at least four different ridings each week to promote the Liberals as the next government.

Parti Québécois members have criticized Bourassa’s campaigning. “Quebecers expect their political leaders to sit in parliament,” declared Gérald Godin, the minister of cultural communities and immigration. “If he keeps ducking [reelection], he will be written off soon as a chicken.”

But even the Parti Québécois’ renewed

pledge to fight the next election on the issue of independence has helped Bourassa, because it draws attention to his role as leader of the province’s federalist forces. His social engagements confirm that status. In the past five weeks alone, Bourassa has dined with both John Turner, a potential contender for the federal Liberal leadership, and Alberta Conservative Premier Peter

Lougheed. He has also had several telephone conversations with Brian Mulroney, the federal Tory leader and a close friend. Still, one significant name is missing from the list of Bourassa’s recent meetings and discussions: Pierre Trudeau. He has not talked with the Prime Minister since last June, The two men dislike each other, and it has been years since Bourassa spoke at length with the man who once dismissed him as a low-class “mangeur de hotdogs,,” (hotdog eater).

Bourassa’s second attempt to become premier is a remarkably low-budget affair. When he held power from 1970 to 1976, his large entourage even included a personal hairdresser. Now, he has only one employee working directly for him—an executive assistant. Bourassa’s office at Liberal headquarters in Montreal also reflects his spartan style. It has so few personal touches that a friend once declared: “God, Robert, you missed your calling. You should have been a designer for a low-budget hotel.”

Bourassa insists that “for better or worse” he has not changed a great deal in the seven years that he has been out of power. Indeed, many of his habits remain the same. He still swims 20 lengths in the nearest available pool each day, sleeps exactly seven hours each night and has no consuming interests outside work. Even Bourassa’s public speaking style, stiff and curiously lacking in emotion, remains the same.

Despite the honeymoon-like atmosphere that Bourassa has enjoyed since regaining the leadership, some federalists, including a few Quebec MPs, privately question his commitment to their cause. Bourassa flirted with the idea of separatism in the 1960s but since then he has proven where his allegiance lies. “I paid my dues many times over in the [1980 Quebec] referendum on sovereignty when I debated anybody, anywhere on this issue,” he said. But he also wants voters to realize that he is a strong Quebec nationalist who would negotiate with Ottawa to regain the province’s right to veto constitutional changes. “Every Liberal leader in the past has been accused of being either a hostage of the English community, a tool of the federal Liberals or both,” he declared. “I dare say not even the PQ would have the nerve to accuse me of either.”

The PQ recently released a list of past Liberal statements, hoping to remind Quebecers of Bourassa’s past unpopularity. But the former premier defended his record, contending that it can stand the test of time and any comparison with PQ achievements. For one thing, he claimed, Bill 22 is evidence of that. When the bill was passed in 1974, Bourassa became the object of scorn among anglophones. But that language legislation now appears moderate in tone and objectives compared to Bill 101, the PQ’s much stricter law that replaced it. “A week is a long time in politics, and a year is an eternity,” Bourassa says repeatedly. Seven years after losing power, Bourassa believes that it is the province—and not he—that has

changed, and that Quebec is ready to welcome him back.