Changing course in Quebec

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 21 1985

Changing course in Quebec

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 21 1985

Changing course in Quebec


Anthony Wilson-Smith

The one-sentence statement was broadcast throughout Quebec within minutes of its midmorning release last Friday. Premier René Lévesque, according to an announcement from his office, had returned “earlier than scheduled” from a Caribbean vacation and was undergoing medical tests at Quebec City’s Enfant-Jésus hospital. Within hours more than 50 journalists jammed the lobby of the aging yellow-brick hospital building as rumors spread that the chain-smoking 62-year-old premier was suffering from lung cancer, a severe nervous disorder—or both. Then, there were reports that Lévesque’s son, Pierre, his daughter, Suzanne, and Quebec Vice-Premier Marc-André Bédard were rushing to his side. Suddenly, only a week before his badly divided Parti Québécois was scheduled to meet in a crucially important convention, PQ members—and thousands of other Quebecers—shared a common concern for the future of the controversial man many call Le Vieux.

Dramatic: In fact, although gossipfuelled reports suggested Lévesque had been rushed to hospital Thursday night from a government jet dispatched to bring him home, the facts were less dramatic. The premier, who has had trouble sleeping recently because of recurring back problems, complained of dizziness while on vacation with his wife, Corinne, in a two-room suite at the 15-acre Silver Sands Resort in Christchurch, Barbados. Last Tuesday Lévesque took a regularly scheduled Wardair flight home, and in the next two days he attended several meetings. By Thursday night the dizziness had become such a problem that Lévesque

—who loathes hospitals—checked into the Enfant-Jésus for tests, telling doctors, “I want to leave here as soon as possible.” He then submitted to his first rigorous checkup in almost 50 years, including a brain scan, blood tests, an electrocardiogram and lung X-rays.

Less than 24 hours later hospital doctors Pierre Langelier and Jean-Pierre Bouchard said that the premier was i suffering from “overwork.” The premier, said the doctors, had “no serious diseases ... we detected no pathology.” Bouchard said Lévesque’s health for a I man over 60 was “in the upper 10 per \ cent,” while Langelier admitted that he

“did not have the nerve” to suggest to the premier that he quit smoking. The doctors’ prescription was simply “two or three days of complete rest.” Skepticism: Yet that clean bill of health did not remove all doubts. The air of drama created by Lévesque’s sudden return from Barbados and by the fact that family members had gone to his bedside fed concern that something more might be wrong with the premier. “Without putting into doubt the quality and exactitude of the medical bulletin,” noted the Montreal newspaper La Presse in a lead editorial, “citizens and journalists cannot help having a

feeling of skepticism.”

As that uncertainty lingered, officials resumed preparations for a bitter battle that is expected this weekend when the party meets for a historic convention at Montreal’s Palais des Congrès—at which Lévesque is likely to be the principal target. At Lévesque’s urging, about 70 per cent of the more than 1,500 delegates from across the province who are expected at the convention are likely to vote on Saturday, Jan. 19, to jettison any mention of independence in the next provincial election, which could be held as early as April. Even some loyal Pequistes acknowledge that if the next election becomes the third consecutive one in which the PQ has chosen not to discuss independence, it could mean the end of the party as an authentic representative of the province’s separatist forces.

Lévesque’s retreat from independence has already caused a damaging cleavage within the PQ. In November nine cabinet ministers and back-benchers split with Lévesque over the issue. At the same time, the premier’s own shifting posi-

tion on the issue, coupled with his erratic performance in the national assembly recently and the concerns about his health, have led some Pequistes to urge him to resign and avoid risking a disaster for the party at the polls. Not only that, some angry dissidents are discussing the possibility of forming a new party of “true” separatists that would seek the support of the 15 to 20 per cent of Quebec voters who traditionally espouse independence.

Proposing to shelve the independence option was a final painful admission by Lévesque and other party leaders that, after over eight years in power, the ideal

of building a new nation remains a distant dream. Instead, they appear intent on transforming the PQ into a moderate nationalist party whose primary goal is

to cling to power. The _

eclipse of separatism as Johnson: a new a mainstream political force in the province is a result of harsh economic realities, an aging Quebec population and — paradoxically—the achievements of the nationalist thrust in Quebec over the past 18 years. Those achievements appear to have convinced many Quebecers that they can advance their social and cultural causes within Confederation.

The effects of separatism’s eclipse are already reverberating across Canada, creating a notable improvement in relations be-

tween Ottawa and Quebec City and subtly altering the political realities facing francophone minorities in other provinces. But for Quebec sovereigntists, it is a time to mourn the passing of an era. Declared Montreal playwright Michel Tremblay: “It took us 200 years to wake up, and now we seem to be going back to sleep. I don’t even dare consider the future, things are so bad. We had promised our children a country, and we haven’t delivered.”

The convention seemed likely to form the climax to a bitter debate over sovereignty that has raged within the party since the last election in 1981. In June delegates at a PQ convention approved a motion declaring that in the next election a vote for the PQ would be taken as a vote for Quebec sovereignty. But when public opinion polls showed that the party would be crushed at the polls in that event, some caucus members argued that the motion should be rejected. With the caucus split, Lévesque declared in November, “Sovereignty must not be at stake, neither wholly nor in parts that are more or less disguised” in the next election, required by April, 1986. The party then scheduled the “extraordinary” national convention meeting this weekend to debate Lévesque’s stand.

Steamroller: The premier will almost certainly win support for his position —but not before facing powerful and determined opposition. Since the meeting was announced, a group of key Pequistes—including former cabinet ministers Camille Laurin, Denise Leblanc-Bantey and Jacques Léonard —have accused party officials of manipulating convention regulations in Lévesque’s favor. Leblanc-Bantey has severely criticized plans to limit discussion on the sovereignty question to 90 minutes, while she and Léonard both

_ condemned a party de-

direction cisión to vote on the is-

sue with a show of hands, rather than by secret ballot. Declared Leblanc-Bantey last week: “I cannot believe it. They [the convention organizers] have adopted a steamroller strategy.”

The immediate problem facing Lévesque is whether he can emerge from the meeting still able to effectively govern the province. Declared opposition Liberal Leader Robert Bourassa: “Before he can take care of the province, René has to show us he is capable of

minding his own house.” That will be difficult. Although the PQ won 80 of the national assembly’s 122 seats in the election of April 13, 1981, resignations and byelection losses have reduced the party’s total to 65 seats—leaving it a 10seat majority over the combined opposition of 49 Liberals and six independents, with two seats vacant. At the same time, several back-bench Pequistes have declared privately that they would resign from the party after the convention if the independence issue is shelved. Alarmed by his government’s growing vulnerability in the assembly, Lévesque could be forced to call a spring election, which Bourassa’s resurgent Liberals might win.

Even if there are no further defections, Lévesque’s government—and the PQ itself—retains little of the energy and political weight it once possessed. Without the unifying belief in Quebec sovereignty that united its members in the past, the party is only an uneasy coalition of conservatives and social democrats with little in common. As well, the defections from Lévesque’s cabinet robbed his government of two of its most popular and capable figures —Laurin and former finance minister Jacques Parizeau. As author of Quebec’s controversial Bill 101, which in 1977 made French the sole official language of Quebec, Laurin emerged for many Quebecers as a symbol of change.

Veiled: Laurin remains a party member—although he has indicated that he may leave the PQ after the convention. For his part, Parizeau, who in the past was regarded as a likely successor to Lévesque, appears to have abandoned politics completely. Now, the most likely heir to Lévesque is the bearded minister of justice and intergovernmental affairs, Pierre Marc Johnson, who is regarded as Lévesque’s personal choice —but who sovereigntists in the party suspect of being a thinly veiled federalist (page 19).

Apart from the independence option, a second crucial issue preoccupies Pequistes: when will Lévesque step down? Until last year most insiders assumed that the premier could stay on as leader of the party he cofounded for as long as he wished. Now, for the first time, Lévesque faces open opposition to his leadership. Last week Constance Mainville, a member of the party’s executive council, in a letter to the Montreal newspaper La Presse compared Lévesque to France’s autocratic 17th-century “Sun King,” Louis xiv. Officials in several PQ riding associations have suggested that Lévesque should resign. Even some Pequistes who support the premier on the independence issue privately agree.

As a result, there is widespread specu-

lation in Quebec City that regardless of the outcome of the convention Lévesque may step down soon, leaving Johnson to lead the party into a spring election. The premier’s recent erratic behavior and health problems have added credibility to the rumor. But paradoxically, Lévesque appeared to be well during his Barbadian holiday. “He was very funny and amusing,” reported Aubrey Gomes, manager of the Silver Sands Resort. “He swam quite a lot, dined around and went on island tours. He enjoyed watching the windsurfers. At

no time did he ever have to see a doctor. He enjoyed himself and I thought that he was totally relaxed.”

Still, Lévesque’s political decline mirrors the descent of his party’s fortunes —and the fact that the PQ’s internal debate may well be irrelevant to large numbers of Quebecers. When a meeting was called to discuss the independence issue in Lévesque’s own Taillon riding on Montreal’s South Shore last month, only about 100 of the riding’s 1,330 registered party members turned up. But the most telling sign of the PQ’s decline is the fact that party membership has dropped from a high of almost 300,000 three years ago to a current official total

of 113,000. In the meantime, the Liberals have been gaining in popularity while the PQ, through most of its current term of office, has remained at between 20 and 30 per cent of support in public opinion polls, down from a high of 49 per cent in the 1981 election.

Much of that drop was a result of the PQ’s economic strategies. In the past 2 ¥2 years the party passed a series of severe austerity measures that rolled back the salaries of provincial civil servants, halted labor negotiations in the public sector and suspended guarantees in both the Quebec and federal charters of rights for anyone defying the legislation. Those legislative blows eroded the party’s image as a social democratic movement and alienated the province’s powerful, and once staunchly pro-Pequiste, labor movement.

Changes: To an even greater extent, the Parti Québécois has been a victim of political, social and economic changes — many fostered by the party itself —that have overtaken Quebec. The 1960s had witnessed the birth of militant Quebec separatism in the Front de Libération du Québec, which launched a series of sporadic bombing and terrorist incidents that culminated in political kidnappings and murder in the 1970 FLQ crisis. Then, in 1967 Lévesque, an opposition Liberal back-bencher, led a group of moderate separatist supporters out of the party and formed the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association (MSA), which espoused political independence for Quebec, coupled with economic association with the rest of Canada. A year later the MSA, with Lévesque as leader, merged with a smaller right-wing party to form the PQ. In the ensuing years the PQ has increased its share of the popular vote in each general election, winning 24 per cent in 1970, 33 per cent in 1973, 41 per cent in 1976, and 49 per cent in 1981.

But the political event that set in train the party’s decline took place in May, 1980. After a bitterly fought referendum campaign in which former prime minister Pierre Trudeau lent his personal leadership to the federalist cause, Quebecers rejected Lévesque’s independentist position. Fully 59.6 per cent of voters said no to the premier’s request for a mandate to negotiate with Ottawa for political sovereignty coupled with a continuing economic association with Canada.

In the wake of the defeat, an almost palpable change in political attitudes could be felt in Quebec. Bourassa, who campaigned for the federalist side in the referendum, noted: “After it was over, it was almost like letting the air out of a tire.”

To that end, the deep economic recession of 1982-83, combined with the more materialistic goals of Quebec youth, loosened the PQ grip on young, urban,

college-educated voters. Explained 27-year-old Gilles Baril, a PQ member of the national assembly: “The preoccupations of people my age are different than they were a few years ago. We have had that recession, and we must worry about work before anything else. And we must also worry about the state of the whole world—and if we will still have a world to live in several years from now. The feeling among many is that independence is something for another day.” As a result, with virtually no young politicians taking up the separatist cause, it is now the older generation that makes up the party. Noted Laval university sociologist Fernand Dumont: “Right now, I do not think there are many people under 50 years of age who are ready to fight for independence.”

Initiative: Increasingly, Quebecers are satisfying their nationalist aspirations by taking greater control of the province’s economy. “Nationalism is not in a state of decline,” said Rodrigue Tremblay, a former minister of industry and commerce under Lévesque and now a University of Montreal economics professor. “It is now taking the shape of individual initiative.” The introduction of Bill 101, which established French as the language of work in Quebec, caused scores of English-speaking firms to leave the province—but that created new opportunities for francophones. Businessmen say that the new francophone entrepreneurs are increasingly confident and eager to expand—in any language.

Private language schools across the province report that record numbers of francophones are signing up for English lessons. Said François Paradis, presi-

dent of the Quebec Chamber of Commerce: “The involvement of French-Canadians in the business world has helped bring about this mature behavior: they gained confidence in themselves and saw that their performance was equivalent, or even superior at times, to that of the anglophones.” Many young francophones now seek to emulate such figures as Paul Desmarais, chairman of the mighty Montrealbased Power Corp., and Pierre Lortie, president of the Montreal Stock Exchange. “For many young people, these

are the new heroes,” said Robert Bourassa, who spends much of his time visiting college campuses. Bourassa says that he has also noticed a darker side to the phenomenon: “Many young people appear so disillusioned they seem to have little interest in anything.”

Vulnerable: Bourassa himself will have to contend with other political 1 problems if the PQ decides to make a final retreat from independence. For one thing, a poll late last year by Montreal’s Sorecom Inc. showed the Liberals with a comfortable 53-to-31-per-cent lead over the PQ, but that lead dropped to only nine points when respondents were asked how they would vote if the PQ put independence aside. Liberal organizers insist that their own polls indicate that most Quebecers respect Bourassa’s abilities as a politician, but they also admit that he is not personally popular—and that he could be vulnerable in a campaign against a newly anointed PQ leader.

The provincial Liberals are also concerned by the fact that Quebec voters massively abandoned their long-standing support of the federal Liberal party to return 58 Conservative MPS to Parliament in the Sept. 4 federal election. Although Bourassa is a close friend of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, some observers contend that the federal Tories might prefer to deal with the PQ in negotiations to bring Quebec into accord with Canada’s 1982 Constitution. The reason: Lévesque has indicated that he would not push for a Quebec veto over future Constitutional amendments before signing the constitution. Bourassa is on record as arguing that a veto right

is essential. Moreover, some Mulroney advisers say that they would suffer less political damage if they fail to come to an agreement with the PQ than with the federalist Liberals. As a result, even though Mulroney favors Bourassa as the next premier of Quebec, the Tories will almost certainly stay neutral during the province’s next election.

The mere possibility of an accord between the PQ and Ottawa is indicative of another striking change that has taken place in Quebec politics. By last year relations between Lévesque and Pierre Trudeau and their respective governments had deteriorated to the point where they were often unable to even agree to meet. But Mulroney recognized that Quebecers no longer had a taste for continued confrontation and he capitalized on the desire for reconciliation. His overtures have been returned by the PQ. Said Pierre Harvey, a former party program adviser and Lévesque confidant: “It takes two to make a war. If Ottawa seems conciliatory, there is no reason why Quebec should not respond.” By contrast, said Harvey, Trudeau was “a political gangster.”

Blackmail power: The decline of the separatist movement is likely to be welcomed by most Canadians, but francophones outside of Quebec have had mixed reactions. On the one hand, some francophone leaders in Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick contend that as long as the PQ pushed its independence option, Ottawa was more likely to encourage bilingualism across the country to placate restive francophones. André Cloutier, past president of the Association Canadienne-Française de l’Ontario, claimed that Quebec separatism has served as “a strong awakening instrument for francophones within the framework of Canada. Without it, we are now worried that Quebec may lose its blackmail power.” Still, other francophones see the decline of the nationalist movement as a positive development. Gilbert Proteau, president of the Société Franco-Manitobaine, for one, says that the evolution of the PQ “from a really separatist trend to a position of a more distinctive status within Confederation is far more palatable to us. ”

In the end, Lévesque’s desire to purge the PQ of its separatist leaning may only reflect the fact that the premier himself has always displayed a profound ambivalence on the prospects of separating Quebec from Canada. In the past, hardline sovereigntists have recognized Lévesque as the only man capable of winning over Quebecers to their dream. But they consistently questioned his own commitment to independence. According to novelist Yves Beauchemin, Lévesque has given the independence

movement “features of his own personality: moderate, compromising. By

transforming it into a political party, he turned the last page of the romantic and idealistic phase.” But, added Beauchemin: “Lévesque has an extraordinary quality to feel the feelings of the Québécois. It is unfair to judge him too severely. I think he was perhaps the only political figure Quebec could produce under the circumstances.”

Lingering loyalty: Indeed, Lévesque carried his ambivalence into what will

likely be his last great battle on the independence question. But it is a measure of his political strength that even some of the sovereigntists who feel that the premier has betrayed them still feel a lingering loyalty. “I still have respect, even affection for Lévesque,” said Andre d’Allemagne, a veteran Quebec separatist. “But he did not understand the necessity to fight our opponents.” Others are less forgiving. Said political writer Raoul Roy: “Everything has to be done all over again, because the idea of independence was captured by a brilliant impostor.”

If convention delegates agree to shelve the separatist plank, that could mark the beginning of the PQ’s evolution into a nationalist party that will begin pushing for a special status for Quebec within Confederation, while hard-liners break away to form a new separatist party. Cultural Communities Minister Gérald Godin, a prominent Lévesque supporter, told Maclean’s: “It would not be the end of the world if we ended up staying in Canada with a new deal.” For many Canadians, the idea that a tiring, aging Lévesque might push the province in that direction by pulling his party away from independence as one of his last political acts may appear as a superb political irony. But even after next weekend the hundreds of thousands of Quebecers who continue to believe in sovereignty will still aspire to their dream—with or without Lévesque to lead them.

Catherine Cook

Patricia Pleszczynska

Michael Clugston

Terry Hargreaves

Ann Walmsley

Garry Moir