The reason one moves from being a sportswriter to a politics watcher is that these are the two main areas of life where there is suspense. Most of our existence and most of our lives are so predictable, so chartable, that those of us who are bored easily tend to drift into fields where the result is unpredictable, where the game isn’t over until it’s over, to quote that esteemed philosopher Yogi Berra.
It’s why quite the most intriguing animal on the Canadian political scene these days is a figure from the dead, a once-reviled and generally despised chap who has dug himself out and seems quite likely, either this spring or by the latest in the autumn, to be the premier of Quebec once again. Robert Bourassa is rather more fleshy around the jowls these days, a trifle puffy perhaps, due to too many plane flights and too many overheated motels. They are the hazards of the trade—if you want to be a premier of a province, when you don’t know when the other guy is going to call the election.
Bourassa was just 36—the youngest premier ever in Quebec—when he led his Liberals to power in 1970. His apprenticeship in the job happened to coincide with the October Crisis, and he never really seemed to recover from that experience—Pierre Trudeau treating him disdainfully from then on. He lasted six years, and when René Lévesque and the Péquistes toppled him, Bourassa went into what he calls his “political purgatory”—in self-imposed exile first in Europe, then at Harvard, gathering himself for his remarkable recovery.
So here he is in Washington, launching his new book in a foreign capital as a means of securing his election in Quebec. The tome is called Power From the North (stitched together by a Montreal public relations man) and essentially is an appeal for more jobs in Quebec.
Bourassa, as usual, comes superprepared. At a Washington breakfast at the Johns Hopkins University School of Ad-
Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.
vanced International Studies, there are some 200 academics and power nuts —who just happen to be bolstered by the entourage of 65 Quebecers who have accompanied Bourassa and who make sure he enjoys extended applause. The man who was reviled as premier because his bodyguard was also his hairdresser and who was called “Boo-Boo” by reporters has arranged for James Schlesinger, the former American secretary of energy, to do the foreword for the book. Coincidentally, of course, The Toronto Star next day just happens to have a major story supporting Bourassa’s
water export scheme, quoting powerful Ottawa operative Simon Reisman and Bill Davis, late of active politics.
Bourassa is surprisingly good-humored for a man who was hammered to his feet at the age of 42. Did he ever think he would make it back? “I’m a great reader of European history,” he says. “The pendulum always swings back.” He feels Lévesque’s only problem now is to figure out some way to leave with honor intact. One of the people who helped Bourassa survive his humiliation was a sly Irish Tory, who thinks that personal friendships are more valuable than partisan bitching.
When Brian Mulroney lost the Conservative leadership to Joe Clark in 1976 and was making his bitterness known rather too well around Montreal, Bourassa took him to lunch at the University Club and lent a shoulder to cry on. Eight months later Bourassa went crashing to defeat—and Mulroney invited him to lunch at the University Club. “He told
me, ‘Time makes miracles,’ ” says Bourassa, “and I’ve never forgotten his kindness. At that time, almost no one would speak to me.”
So we come to 1983, time working its wonders, and Bourassa appears miraculously as the leader of the Quebec Liberals once again. Come 1984 and Mulroney becomes leader of the country’s Tories. They are two boys from modest backgrounds across the two solitudes—one married into money, the other married to the Establishment —who have formed a friendship out of adversity. It is the reason, naturally, why Mulroney, who swept Quebec like Sherman going through Georgia, opposes a provincial Conservative party in Quebec. He wants Liberal Bourassa in power, thinking as he always does that personal links can overcome policy differences—as with his vaunted friendship with Ronnie Raygun (hello there, acid rain).
So here is the born-again boy wonder, with this magnificent dream of saving the United States from its nuclear power plant nervousness. With a plan o for the year 2000 to spend $100 billion turning James Bay into a freshwater lake by means of a sea-level dam and then exporting the water to make bloom the deserts of the U.S. southwest, which fears for the future. He relies on his friendship with George Shultz, Washington’s secretary of state, who as boss of the Bechtel construction giant was involved in James Bay.
The start of Lévesque’s downfall was when he peevishly did not invite Bourassa to a James Bay opening ceremony. When public disapproval forced him to reverse the decision, Bourassa was introduced and the horny-handed workers jumped on tables to cheer this fragile man who married into millions. By May 27 Lévesque must announce the date for four byelections. Bourassa, who has carefully stayed away from running so far, is going to stand in Bertrand, a former Parti Québécois stronghold on the South Shore. If the Liberals win all four, the national assembly with all the PQ defections will effectively be a stalemate, and an election must follow. Mulroney’s Tory friend waits confidently.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.