Waiting for Lucien

LISA VAN DUSEN February 22 1988

Waiting for Lucien

LISA VAN DUSEN February 22 1988

Waiting for Lucien


He is at once a superbly qualified and highly unlikely candidate for federal office. Until his appointment in 1985 as Canada's ambassa-

dor to France, Lucien Bouchard had devoted most of his political life to the fight for Quebec independence. He has never run for elected office. But among beleaguered Quebec Conservatives, Bouchard, 49, now finds himself hailed as a possible savior. Following the latest controversies to rock the Tories in Quebec, he is under intense pressure to run for Parliament in the next federal election. While he maintained last week in an interview with Maclean's that he may not make up his mind for two months, senior Conservatives are already portraying Bouchard as a major asset. “Bouchard is star material,” said Gary Ouellet, an Ottawa consultant and Tory recruiter in Quebec. “He could work some magic for us.”

The Conservatives—particularly in Quebec—badly need that kind of magic. Five of the eight ministers who have left Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s cabinet under a cloud have been Quebecers. And in some cases, publicity surrounding their behavior in office continues to reflect badly on a government that is anxious to improve its standing with the electorate. Last week Energy Minister Marcel Masse, who returned to the cabinet in December, 1985, after an RCMP investigation into alleged election spending irregularities, appeared before a House of Commons committee to answer new questions about his spending in the 1984 election campaign. And evidence was introduced in a Quebec Superior Court alleging that former junior transport minister André Bissonnette profited from a January, 1986, land flip in the so-called Oerlikon affair. Meanwhile, the opposition parties continued to question the government about former supply and services minister Michel Côté, who was forced to resign two weeks ago after disclosure that he had breached the government’s conflict-of-interest guidelines.

Those controversies have eroded Conservative support in Quebec—a province key to the party’s chances for re-election. A Gallup poll conducted from Feb. 3 to 6, immediately fol-

lowing Côté’s departure from cabinet, gave the party the support of 27 per cent of decided voters nationally— down three points from a month earlier-compared with 41 per cent for the Liberals and 31 per cent for the NDP. But the survey’s results, published last week, were particularly striking in Quebec. They showed Tory strength there at just 21 per cent—six points behind the NDP and fully 30 points behind the first-place Liberals. In the 1984 election the Tories took 50 per cent of the vote in Quebec, compared with 35 per cent for the Liberals and nine per cent for the NDP.

In an attempt to recover, the Tories have been searching for a powerful cabinet minister able to demonstrate that the party’s Quebec caucus has influence and integrity. And despite Bouchard’s separatist roots and his low profile in English Canada, senior Tory advisers maintain that he could re-establish their credibility in the province. “Lucien’s integrity is unimpeachable,” said Michael Meighen, a former Conservative party president and a classmate of both Bouchard and Mulroney at Laval University in Quebec City in the early 1960s. Added Bernard Roy, Mulroney’s principal secretary and another Laval classmate: “He would be a formidable opponent in any challenge he tackles.” Bouchard also possesses some obviously marketable qualities. With his charm and dark good looks, he has been linked with a number of eligible women in Paris and Canada since he and his wife, Jocelyne, separated two years ago. Among them is Denise Bombardier, a prominent Quebec broadcaster who was Bouchard’s frequent companion at receptions and other public events in Paris. Said Roy of Bouchard’s effect on women: “He won’t like me saying this, but they all find him charming. I think it’s the dark hair and the dark eyes. And his way with words.” Added Louise Beaudoin, former Quebec delegate general in Paris: “Lucien’s charm

comes from a mix of attractive qualities. He is very sincere and very intense. And he’s very handsome.” Party strategists recognize Bouchard’s straightforward manner as a valuable commodity at a time when public confidence in politicians has eroded. Said former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Claude Morin: “He is at once honest, sincere and superintelligent.”

But opponents say that even those virtues may not make up for his lack of experience in government. Raymond Garneau, a Liberal MP and the party’s Quebec lieutenant, said that Bouchard has “never been on the ice before, so I don’t know if he can score goals.” Garneau said that Bouchard also is not very well-known even in Quebec, except among the media and the political elite.

A native of the Saguenay region, north of Quebec City, Bouchard became a prominent NDP activist and editor-inchief of the student newspaper at Laval during a year when competition among students was fierce. Said Meighen: “Lucien was far and away the smartest guy in our class.” Added Roy: “He was the one who impressed us all as someone who would be a great success in any career he chose. He is blessed with a superior intellect.”

Despite their political differences, Mulroney and Bouchard remained friends. In 1974, as a member of the Cliche Commission investigating corruption in Quebec’s construction industry, Mulroney asked Premier Robert Bourassa to call Bouchard away from his law practice in Chicoutimi to be the commission’s chief counsel. At the time Bouchard was struggling in his new practice, having left an established Liberal law firm after joining the PQ in 1971.

Bouchard continued to work for the party during the 1970s, becoming the Lévesque government’s chief negotiator with the province’s public-service unions from 1978 to 1981. He remained close to Lévesque until the former premier’s death last November.

Bouchard’s appointment as ambassador in 1985 caused some initial concern among external affairs department officials because of his background as a Quebec nationalist. “When I went to Paris,” said Bouchard, “everyone said, ‘How will you be able to reconcile the interests of Quebec and Canada?’ I knew I could do it. If we have differences, and we do, we must settle them here, not in Paris. It’s just common sense.” Insiders now say that the concerns about Bouchard soon ebbed at external affairs. His reputation grew after his adept performance at last September’s francophone summit in Quebec City.

If he decides to run, Bouchard will have to consider the advantages and disadvantages of several ridings. His home constituency of Chicoutimi is already represented by Tory André Harvey, and friends say that they doubt that Bouchard would want to make the adjustment from sophisticated Paris to the mainly rural riding. Joliette, which is just 35 km northeast of Montreal, is now held by former minister Roch Lasalle, who has said that he will not run again. Bouchard has few connections there, but some Tories say that he

would enjoy the advantage of a strong Conservative riding organization. Another possibility is Langelier in Quebec City, now represented by former minister Côté. Bouchard worked and went to university in that city.

Bouchard has said that he intends to leave his post as ambassador and return to Canada in July. And although he has received lucrative offers to practise law in Montreal, few of his friends believe that he will be able to resist the pressure to go to Ottawa. Said Meighen: “His candidacy is not signed and sealed, but I wouldn’t bet against it because of one thing and one thing alone:

his loyalty to Brian.” On his trip to Ottawa last week, Bouchard had a meeting with the Prime Minister.

Bouchard objects to being labelled as a savior for the Quebec Tories. “Nothing is more dangerous. People say you’re a savior, and when the cameras focus on you they say, ‘He’s no savior, he’s human.’ I’m not taken in by that. In politics, modesty is crucial.” Bouchard’s modesty, said Roy, is genuine. “Lucien has never, despite all his obvious attributes, been infatuated with himself.” But like it or not, his party comrades in Quebec are enthralled with Bouchard. If he decides to run, living up to their expectations will be a challenge that even he may find almost impossible.