CANADA

QUALIFIED VICTORY

QUEBEC RE-ELECTS THE LIBERALS, BUT ANGLOPHONE ANGER AND PQ GAINS COMPLICATE BOURASSA’S PLANS

MICHAEL ROSE October 9 1989
CANADA

QUALIFIED VICTORY

QUEBEC RE-ELECTS THE LIBERALS, BUT ANGLOPHONE ANGER AND PQ GAINS COMPLICATE BOURASSA’S PLANS

MICHAEL ROSE October 9 1989

QUALIFIED VICTORY

CANADA

For the victors, it was a celebration with little joy. In the hours after Quebec’s voters returned Premier Robert Bourassa’s Liberals to power on Sept. 25 with a second consecutive majority government, party supporters gathered in a downtown Montreal discotheque to congratulate one another and await the leader's traditional victory speech. But the atmosphere was remarkably subdued when Bourassa arrived at about 10 p.m. He delivered the customary thanks to his supporters with no display of emotion, and the cheers were restrained. The main reasons: an undeniable demonstration of strength by the separatist Parti Québécois and a surprisingly strong performance by an upstart anglophone party formed only five months earlier to protest against Liberal language policies.

tion that would produce few surprises, the Quebec campaign quickly turned into a test for Bourassa on a number of fronts. But when the ballots were counted, the most serious jolt came in the form of the fledgling Equality

QUEBEC RE-ELECTS THE LIBERALS, BUT ANGLOPHONE ANGER AND PQ GAINS COMPLICATE BOURASSA’S PLANS

party’s theft of four seats from traditional Liberal strongholds in anglophone neighborhoods of Montreal. For its part, the Parti Québécois fought the election on a platform of unequivocal Quebec independence and increased its seat count from the last election by six to 29. The Liberals, who emerged with 92 seats, lost seven from their previous total and watched their share of the popular vote tumble

from 56 per cent in the 1985 election to 49.9 per cent last week—compared with 40.2 per cent for the PQ, up from 38.6 per cent.

The new balance of forces in the national assembly left Bourassa to play out his political agenda for the next four years on a complex and mine-strewn stage. His most difficult task: to counter the pressure from Quebec’s increasingly vocal nationalists—certain to be inflamed by the PQ’s gains at the polls—without enraging English-speaking critics, both inside and outside Quebec, with his own brand of nationalism. At the same time, the electoral success of the two opposition parties clearly reduced Bourassa’s room for manoeuvring towards his declared goal: ratification of the Meech Lake constitutional accord by all 10 provinces before the deadline of June, 1990 (page 18).

For its part, the Equality party is determined to roll back the government’s restrictions on the use of English in the province. Its pursuit of

that goal is likely to emphasize concerns among some critics of Meech Lake that the pact offers inadequate protection for linguistic minorities.

At the same time, Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau demonstrated a shrewd ability during the campaign to seize on frictions between Quebec and the rest of the country as evidence that federalism is basically flawed. His attention is now likely to turn to opposing Quebec’s constitutional reconciliation with the rest of the country under the terms of the accord. If Meech Lake fails, both Parizeau and Bourassa have predicted a further increase in nationalist sentiment in Quebec—with a corresponding growth in support for the PQ. In fact, Parizeau wasted little time in moving to the attack. Two days after the election, the PQ

leader described fears that the accord may limit minority rights as “perfectly legitimate.” He also served notice of the tone he is likely to set in the assembly when he described Quebecers who voted Liberal, rather than embrace either the separatist PQ or the federalist Equality party, as “mutants.”

Still, Bourassa called the election results “truly decisive.” And he insisted that they vindicated his campaign message that economic growth and stability offer Quebec its best defence in Canada and the world at large. Said Bourassa: “The economic strength of Quebec is still the first priority of Quebecers.” But the substantial decline in the Liberal vote was clearly a concern to party organizers.

One senior Bourassa aide attributed the slide in part to the unexpected troubles that plagued the Liberal campaign, particularly controversy over the government’s environmental policies and widespread walkouts by public-sector workers. The aide also acknowledged that the Liberal campaign planners had not anticipated the extent of anger in English Quebec.

It took a swing of only 3.7 per cent of the provincial vote to carry the fledgling Equality party to the national assembly. The ragtag group of political amateurs who founded the party only last April fielded candidates in 19 ridings. But most of its support came from disgruntled anglophone voters in previous Liberal strongholds like the Montreal neighborhoods of Beaconsfield and Westmount, which have been predominantly English-speaking for decades. There, anger over Bourassa’s failure to ease controls on the language of outdoor commercial signs boiled over at the ballot box.

With a budget of approximately $200,000 and little campaign experience, the party overran the Liberals’ well-financed so-called Big Red Machine in four ridings. In Westmount, Equality’s Richard Holden, 58, a lawyer and longtime federal Conservative, handily defeated Liberal William Cosgrove, 56, a former vice-president of the World Bank whom Bourassa had enticed back to Quebec to run in the election after a 16-year absence. Said Equality party Leader Robert Libman, a 28-year-old architect and political neophyte who won in the riding of D’Arcy-McGee: “The premier will never take the anglophone community for granted again.”

How the party will fare in the national assembly, however, is open to question. Holden and Libman are bilingual, but the two other Equality MNAS, history professor Neil Cameron, 50, and former broadcaster Gordon Atkinson, 75, speak little French. They will have difficulty participating in assembly debates, which are conducted almost exclusively in French. But Atkinson, who is known for his outspokenly conservative radio editorials, insisted that his lack of French would not impair his performance in Quebec City. Said Atkinson: “There is some kind of myth going around that in Quebec you must speak only French.” Still, Libman told Maclean ’s that Atkinson plans to take an intensive six-week French course before the assembly reconvenes next month.

But the inability to speak French may not be the new party’s only handicap in the assembly. Last week, Bourassa said that he would be “surprised” if a special committee of the assembly, which will study the issue, grants official party standing to the Equality party. At stake are extra staff, offices and research resources for Equality MNAs. Party status would also improve Equality MNAs’ opportuni-

ties for asking questions in the assembly and increase their presence on key committees. Such standing is technically reserved for parties with at least 12 seats or 20 per cent of the popular vote. But Parizeau—evidently eager to underscore the differences between the anglophone MNAs’ support for federalism and his own separatist agenda—said that the PQ will try to have Equality recognized as a party. And, no matter what its status, Equality will wield some influence in the assembly. Its agreement will be necessary, for instance, whenever the government requires unanimous assent to speed up passage of a bill or the progress of debate.

For its part, the Parti Québécois stood to gain substantially from the election outcome— and not only by its own strong showing. At a news conference last week, PQ Leader Parizeau was obviously elated by the Equality party’s unexpected breakthrough. The separatist leader called the anglophone federalists, with whom his party will share the opposition benches in Quebec City, “our objective allies.” Parizeau noted that if the Equality party increased its strength over the next four years, it would help the PQ in the next provincial election. “A shift of three or four points to the Parti Québécois,” he observed, “and another of one to two points to the Equality party, and that’s it.” In the meantime, he added, “if they [the Equality members] insist on speaking English, we’ll listen to them respectfully.”

Parizeau himself had gambled heavily by waging a campaign based on a clear call for independence. When he took over the party in 1988, it was in serious trouble after the resignation of founding leader René Lévesque in 1985, and a round of bitter policy battles between hard-line separatists and Lévesque’s moderate successor, Pierre-Marc Johnson. But the PQ’S strong performance in last week’s balloting confirmed other indications—that support for Quebec sovereignty is again on the rise. One poll, conducted in July by Gallup Canada Inc., found that 34 per cent of the Quebecers questioned supported independence. The PQ’s 40-per-cent showing last week was roughly equal to the level achieved by the defeated “Yes” side in the 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association. But, as the PQ leader pointed out, “This time it is 40 per cent behind a clear idea”—straightforward separatism.

And as Bourassa assessed the campaign, the prospect of increased tension over the potent issues of language and independence clearly left him disturbed. The premier told a news conference in Quebec City the day after the vote that he hoped the new Equality members would not “trouble the serenity and linguistic peace of Quebec.” He added, “I hope this does not polarize even more the linguistic debate, which can become very emotional.” With a tough fight looming over ratification of the troubled Meech Lake accord, the prospects for serenity appeared anything but certain.

MICHAEL ROSE

BRENDA O’FARRELL