Redrawing Quebec’s contours

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 16 1985

Redrawing Quebec’s contours

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 16 1985

Redrawing Quebec’s contours


Robert Bourassa said that his first visit in nine years to the beige-carpeted corner office of the Quebec premier in Montreal on the 17th floor of the midtown Hydro-Québec building last week “provoked a certain sense of déjà vu.” But once inside, Bourassa and his host, departing Premier Pierre Marc Johnson, swiftly got down to business. Three days after Bourassa’s Liberals won a landslide general election victory over Johnson’s Parti Québécois—marred by Bourassa’s personal defeat in his own riding—the political adversaries spent two hours poring over a 10-inch stack of manila folders dealing with government business. The most important item: arranging the formal transition of power, which was scheduled to take place this week in Quebec City. Said Bourassa after the meeting, with a broad smile that was more eloquent than his words: “I feel very, very well about being back.”

That night the premier-elect, celebrating a remarkable return to power after his humiliating defeat in November, 1976, hosted a dinner at the elegant Beaver Club restaurant. His guest was Ontario Liberal Premier David Peterson, who came to power himself in June after four decades of Conservative rule. For the first time in 42 years the two most populous provinces are headed by Liberals, both of whom are committed to a new era of collaboration. Declared a smiling Bourassa at a joint news conference with Peterson: “This should not be interpreted too rigidly. But it is true that the fact we are both Liberals gives us a certain shared ground.”

Although the Liberals had been widely expected to win the Dec. 2 election, the scale of the victory—99 of the 122 national assembly seats, with the Parti Québécois reduced to 23—indicated a transformation in the political attitudes of Quebecers that will ultimately be felt across the country. Most analysts agreed that voters had turned away from the emotional nationalism of the 1970s and showed a renewed concern with bread-and-butter issues, a desire for real change and the hope that a Liberal government would produce an economic revival.

For the first time in nine years the province will be governed by an unabashedly pro-federalist party that is eager to sign a constitutional accord with Ottawa. As well, the fact that Canada’s two most populous provinces will be governed by Liberals leaves the federal branch of the party in a posi-

tion to rebuild its traditional power base in Central Canada.

Although the provincial Liberals zealously guard against any interference from their Ottawa “cousins,” Bourassa and federal Liberal Leader John Turner have established a telephone relationship in recent months that one friend of both men said “is much warmer in tone now than in the past.” One possible reason: although Prime Minister Brian Mulroney insisted that his Conservative government

displayed “impeccable neutrality” during the Quebec election campaign, many federal Tories from Quebec favored the Parti Québécois, partly because the Péquistes had helped them campaign in the 1984 federal election.

Liberal feathers were also ruffled when Johnson announced a joint federal and provincial aid plan to establish a $300-million Hyundai car plant in Quebec. As a result, and despite Mulroney’s long-standing friendship with Bourassa—he telephoned the Liberal leader twice last week—relations between the two governments will not be as warm as was once expected. One top Bourassa adviser told Maclean's: “We are prepared to work with the Tories where we stand to gain. But they will wait a long bloody time before they can expect any favors from us.”

One potential early sticking point between Quebec City and Ottawa is the z question of free trade § with the United I States. Bourassa says

1 he favors “freer, but $ not free,” trade. Last s week he added that

2 while Quebec wants freer exchanges with international markets, it will take a firm stand on being part of any trade agreement “when Quebec interests are involved.” That statement is in accord with Peterson’s calls for an integral provincial role in any future trade talks.

In the wake of the Liberal election victory, Quebecers for the most part were coolly accepting. Commented La Presse columnist Lysiane Gagnon: “Quebecers changed governments the way one changes banks—without passion, as a business decision. There are

neither dreams nor exultation nor broken hopes.” Still, the scale of the victory caused jubilation among Quebec Liberals. John Ciaccia, a member of the national assembly who was first elected in 1973, happily proclaimed the end of the long Liberal stint in opposition: “It has been nine years, 16 days, 23 hours, 21 minutes. This feels great.” With the Liberals’ enormous caucus —second in size only to the 102-members the party elected in 1973—Bourassa will have a plentiful pool of talent from which to draw in building the cabinet he planned to announce this week. Among those expected to fill key posts are former federal constitutional adviser Gil Rémillard, who will be made responsible for intergovernmen-

tal affairs; Daniel Johnson Jr., brother of the defeated premier, who was expected to get the finance portfolio; Pierre MacDonald, a former Bank of Montreal vice-president who was in line to be named energy or external trade minister; and former journalist and Liberal leader Claude Ryan, who has been promised the education portfolio. As well, Bourassa was considering the appointment of five nonfrancophones—including three anglophones and two members of other ethnic com-

munities—to the cabinet, which may be reduced from 29 to as few as 25 members.

But party members are aware that the size of the majority also means that, as in the period from 1973 to 1976, Bourassa’s government will be subjected to particularly close media scrutiny. As well, he faces potential opposition from the province’s powerful trade unions, which clashed bitterly with him in his six years as premier, and the anglophone and ethnic communities, who remember him as the man who introduced the province’s first restrictive language legislation, Bill 22. Bourassa already faces problems in the English community because of his apparent backtracking on

an earlier Liberal promise to restore the right to have English along with French on commercial signs. Bourassa now says he will not make a decision on the matter until a court ruling, due next June, on the legality of the present law, which bans languages other than French on commercial signs.

Adding to those problems is Bourassa’s surprising personal defeat in the South Shore Montreal riding of Bertrand, where he lost by 209 votes to Jean-Guy Parent, mayor of the suburb

of Boucherville. The loss was the one sour note in Bourassa’s remarkable comeback from political oblivion, and it is being interpreted by some Liberals as proof of enduring problems with his personal image. Said a defeated candidate: “Bourassa will have to be careful. Some people in caucus are already starting to say we won despite him, not because of him.”

Despite Bourassa’s 5,273-vote victory in the riding in a byelection last June, some Liberals pointed out that the riding has a history of supporting the PQ. It was one of only 16 ridings to have a majority of “yes” voters in the 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association. “It’s a disappointment but it’s not a great surprise to me,” said Bourassa. '“These things happen.” Later in the week Bourassa aides indicated that he would run for a new seat in the west Montreal riding of MargueriteBourgeoys, where elected back-bencher Gilles Fortin, who won by more than 13,000 votes, said he would step aside.

Bourassa marked the Liberal victory —and his Bertrand defeat—with the same outward calm with which he accepted his humiliating loss in 1976. He received a telephone call from Mulroney at home at 6:30 p.m. on election night, during which the two men discussed the campaign and Bourassa’s immediate plans. Then, he was driven several blocks to the University of Montreal pool to swim his daily 30 laps. In 1976 he learned of his defeat while swimming, and last week Bourassa was still in the pool when an aide told him of the first official indications of a Liberal sweep.

Later, Bourassa returned home briefly, then joined several of his top organizers in a suite at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Shortly before 10 p.m. he was driven in his government-issue Pontiac Parisienne to the Liberal election headquarters at the east-end Pierre Charbonneau Centre, where a curiously small crowd of about 300 supporters had gathered. Bourassa appeared stiff and uncomfortable during his 14-minute speech—largely, aides said later, because he was suffering from a bad cold. But, added one close friend: “there is no question he was badly shaken by his loss in Bertrand. It put him off his stride.” At 12:30 that evening he visited his riding headquarters in Bertrand.

For his part, Johnson spent the evening in his home riding of Anjou watching the results with about 20 close friends and associates. Said Guy Versailles, one of Johnson’s top political aides: “The mood was calm. The results came in and we just took them as they came.” In fact, top Parti Qué-

bécois organizers, sensing the impending defeat, initially made arrangements for Johnson to call Bourassa at a special hotline number at 8:45 p.m. to concede defeat, but later decided not to make the call. At 10:30 p.m. Johnson was driven the short distance to the Polyvalente d’Anjou, the local high school that served as party headquarters for the evening. Said the smiling PQ leader in his short but gracious speech: “The people have spoken and they wanted change. I accept their verdict without bitterness.” Neither he

nor Bourassa referred to each other in their speeches.

Two days before the vote a series of public opinion polls showed the Liberals with a lead of between eight and 15 percentage points. Johnson, for the first time, admitted privately that he hoped the party would be able to hold between 30 and 40 seats. Even that finally proved to be overly optimistic: the Liberals, with 58 per cent of the vote compared to 37 per cent for the PQ, two per cent for the New Democratic Party and one per cent for the Conservatives, swept through every area of the province with the exception of the traditionally nationalist bastion of Saguenay-Lac St. Jean, where all five PQ candidates won.

Along the way the

Liberals defeated 19 of 29 PQ cabinet ministers, including Finance Minister Bernard Landry, Manpower Minister Pauline Marois—both former leadership candidates —Communications Minister Jean-Francois Bertrand and Transport Minister Guy Tardif. Even Johnson, who was expected to win the east Montreal riding of Anjou easily, squeaked by Liberal challenger Denis Ricard with a slim 344-vote majority.

The party members now face a key decision about the direction of their party: whether to return the PQ to its

sovereigntist, social-democratic roots or to continue along the conservative, quasifederalist course that the 39 year-old Johnson has charted since becoming leader last September. Although both federal Tories and Johnson reject the suggestion, many analysts have suggested that the PQ is evolving in a direction that could ultimately see it serve as the unofficial provincial wing of the federal Conservatives.

Since a majority of party members voted at a special convention last January to shelve temporarily the issue of political independence, the PQ has lost thousands of its original supporters.

Although some hardline sovereigntists

stayed in the party, they are unlikely to remain

unless Johnson takes a

firm stand soon to restore independence as an electoral issue. This he is unlikely to do. Asked last week if he regretted the decision to drop the sovereignty issue, Johnson said bluntly: “No.” Some Péquistes, however, want the issue reopened. Said Landry: “The bottom line is that provincial status for Quebec is already outmoded. Quebec is not a province but a country and a country that does not have the legal status it must have.” The PQ must also decide what position to take when the new Liberal government holds constitutional discussions with Ottawa, probably next year.

Johnson admitted last week that his party needs time for “reflection and discussion.” But the PQ leader is unlikely to face much opposition from his 22 remaining colleagues in caucus, most of whom are considered loyal. Pointing to polls showing that the PQ trailed the Liberals by 33 points last May, his supporters say his campaign performance saved the party from obliteration. Said defeated Industry and Commerce Minister Rodrigue Biron, in Quebec City for the final PQ cabinet meeting last week: “Because of Mr. Johnson, we have 23 members. Without him, we would have won only four or five seats.” Johnson himself agreed with that assessment. Asked by a reporter whether he felt he had “rescued the party from a wipeout,” he replied with a smile: “Oh, yes. I am certain of that.”

In the short term, Johnson’s first task is to prepare the party for a brief but crucial sitting of the national assembly beginning next week. Bourassa has committed himself to passing a series of financial measures before Christmas, including the abolition of a nine-per-cent sales tax on life insurance introduced by the PQ last spring and reductions of gasoline and personal income tax rates. Then, Bourassa will adjourn the assembly until at least mid-March, when the first regular session will begin.

Bourassa, who spent most of last week contacting prospective cabinet members, said his sole interest now is to “show Quebecers that what we promised can come true very quickly—and that means fast action before Christmas.” For his part, Johnson reacted calmly to the prospect of giving control of the government back to the man from whom his party took it nine years ago. “It is his for four years, maybe just three,” declared a smiling Johnson. “Then we will be back—for a much longer time.”