The crowd was jubilant at Chao Wong’s, a modest Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of St-Basile-le-Grand, Que. They stood and cheered when consumer advocate Phillip Edmonston, the first New Democrat ever elected in the province, raised his hands in victory to celebrate his lopsided win in last week’s byelection in the federal riding of Chambly, just southeast of Montreal. Speaking less than immaculate French, he told his audience that his triumph was a testament to the “great tolerance” of the voters in the overwhelmingly francophone nationalist riding. As the throng burst into Gens du pays, the anthem of Quebec’s nationalists, Edmonston said: “I’m an English-speaking Quebecer, born in the United States, but elected in a French-speaking constituency. It is proof that there is space in Quebec for anglophones, francophones and others, as long as it is remembered that the French culture and language are essential.” That is precisely what his supporters, crammed into the large restaurant, wanted to hear. An ill-matched assortment of Canadian federalists and independence-minded Quebec-
ers, they were the heart of the campaign team that produced a landslide victory for the 45year-old Edmonston. And while there may be lingering questions about the long-term durability of their unlikely alliance, there were no doubts about their success last week. Not only did they allow Edmonston to lead the NDP to its historic breakthrough in Quebec, they also humiliated Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives, who had held the riding since 1984. In the process, they dealt a crippling, probably fatal, blow to the national leadership aspirations of former Quebec environment minister Clifford Lincoln, Edmonston’s Liberal opponent in Chambly.
Surpassing even the most optimistic preelection projections, Edmonston won 26,998 votes, 66 per cent of the ballots cast. Lincoln, who had staked much of his leadership bid on a triumph in Chambly, attracted only 7,000 votes (17 per cent). Still, that put him ahead of Conservative contender Serge Bégin, a retired director of a Montreal police station, who finished with just 3,819 votes (9.4 per cent)— so far behind that he lost his $200 deposit.
For Lincoln, the outcome was devastating. Wandering around his hushed and sombre campaign headquarters, an unused warehouse along the street from the scene of Edmonston’s victory celebration, Lincoln looked tired and dejected. “The people are always right,” he said once the results were known. “As a democrat, I accept the result openly, loyally and without any rancor.” At the same time, he said that he had not decided whether to remain in the Liberal leadership. “By and by, we’ll talk about it,” he said, munching on a slice of the red-and-white iced cake that was originally destined to celebrate his victory. But even his closest advisers conceded privately that it was likely he would step out of the race.
As for Tory contender Bégin, a political newcomer, even his respectable image could not overcome the Chambly electorate’s antipathy towards the riding’s last Tory member, Richard Grisé. The byelection became necessary when Grisé had to resign his seat last May after pleading guilty to 11 counts of fraud and breach of trust involving public funds. He served a day in jail and was fined $20,000. The campaign assistance of Tory heavyweights including federal Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard, who visited the riding twice, and Mulroney himself was not enough to repair the damage. Said Bouchard, who was at Bégin’s side on election night at the Tory campaign headquarters in the town of Beloeil: “It was necessary to forget what happened during the Grisé period and that was not easy.”
Last week’s winner made sure of that. Edmonston, who ran second to Grisé in the 1988 general election, has maintained an office in the riding since that defeat. An American who took out Canadian citizenship in 1971, he established his reputation as a consumer activist as president of the Automobile Protection Association (APA), a nonprofit consumer organization that he founded in 1969. As head of the group,
Edmonston wrote the Lemon-Aid series of guidebooks giving advice on new and used cars. Then, in 1987, he left the organization to prepare a campaign for a federal seat. Since Grisé’s retirement, Edmonston has served as Chambly’s unofficial MP, helping constituents resolve problems such as disputes over unemployment insurance payments. The strategy worked, even when charges arose late in the
campaign that Edmonston had accepted $10,000 worth of kickbacks from an automobile garage owner in return for client referrals while Edmonston was head of the APA. Edmonston said that he assumed the money was proceeds from his books, which the garage owner sold on his behalf. That explanation was enough to satisfy the Chambly electorate.
For the NDP, meanwhile, Edmonston’s win is double-edged. He gives the party a Quebec base, but he is also a political maverick whose support of the Meech Lake accord during his campaign contradicted the party line, which holds that the agreement should be altered. But after attending his first caucus meeting in Ottawa last week, Edmonston told reporters that he now supports the party’s Meech Lake policy. Still, Nickel Belt MP John Rodriguez, another advocate of the accord, welcomed the prospect of having an ally in Ottawa. “Now we can speak to Quebec and hear from Quebec through a real Quebecer,” he said.
For his part, Claude Rompré, Quebec adviser to NDP Leader Audrey McLaughlin, echoed that view. “Having Phil here is going to shake people up,” he said. “The party operated for years as if Quebec did not exist. So we had no idea what the real Quebec was all about.” Now Edmonston must demonstrate that a transplanted English-speaking American can provide the Quebec voice that the NDP wants.
BARRY CAME in St-Basile-le-Grand with BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa
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