CANADA

THE MAN TO BEAT

A SOVEREIGNTIST CANDIDATE LEADS THE FIELD IN A CRITICAL FEDERAL BYELECTION IN QUEBEC

BARRY CAME August 13 1990
CANADA

THE MAN TO BEAT

A SOVEREIGNTIST CANDIDATE LEADS THE FIELD IN A CRITICAL FEDERAL BYELECTION IN QUEBEC

BARRY CAME August 13 1990

THE MAN TO BEAT

CANADA

A SOVEREIGNTIST CANDIDATE LEADS THE FIELD IN A CRITICAL FEDERAL BYELECTION IN QUEBEC

Beach Day at Montreal’s east-end Médéric Martin park is an annual event, offering the residents of the surrounding sea of red-brick tenements a brief midsummer respite from the inner-city heat. It is not normally the kind of event that draws a big crowd. But with the people of the surrounding riding of Laurier/Ste-Marie preparing to vote in an Aug. 13 federal byelection, there were several politicians on hand last week, dancing fiery lambadas with rotund matrons, serving free hotdogs and frolicking with children on the margins of the park’s tiny wading pool. The most prominent among them was Lucien Bouchard, the former federal environment minister who resigned from the Conservative party in May. He now leads the seven-member pro-sovereignty Bloc Québécois in Parliament, and he is looking forward to the byelection as an opportunity to gain an eighth member. “I’m here because this place is obviously very important right now,” said Bouchard as he strolled in shirt-sleeves among the greenery, accompanied by his wife, Audrey, and carrying his infant son. “We are asking these people a lot. We want them to help decide the future of our nation.”

For Bouchard, that nation is Quebec. And when the 53,000 voters in the working-class riding go to the polls next Monday to elect an MP to replace Jean Claude Malépart, the populist Liberal who lost a long and courageous battle with cancer last November, they will provide a clear indication of the current sentiment in the province. It appeared to be in Bouchard’s favor. Under the banner of the newly formed Bloc Québécois, a coalition of one former Liberal and six former Tory MPs, sovereigntist Gilles Duceppe enjoys a strong opinion-poll lead among the field of seven byelection candidates. A Bloc Québécois victory would clearly send shock waves through the established parties,

especially Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives and the avowedly federalist Liberals under new leader Jean Chrétien. And it could well prove critical for the Bouchard group’s influence on the continuing debate to shape the Canadian confederation and define Quebec’s future in the aftermath of Meech Lake’s failure. As Bouchard himself said, “If we lose here, it will be a blow.”

Still, even many of Duceppe’s rivals conceded that he was the man to beat. While the estimates vary, almost all the polls put him in first place. Last week, a survey published in a local riding newspaper found Duceppe favored by 39 per cent of voters polled. He was followed by the Liberals’ Denis Coderre with 14 per cent and New Democrat Louise O’Neill with 11 per cent. Conservative Christian Fortin trailed far behind with a mere three per cent—a clear measure of the challenge facing Mulroney in Quebec in the wake of the Meech Lake accord’s failure. “I have been going door to door for the last week, and I can find hardly anyone who is not going to vote for Duceppe,”

claimed François Gérin, the MP for Megantic/ Compton/Stanstead and former Tory who now sits with Bouchard’s sovereigntists in Ottawa.

If successful, Duceppe would be the first member of Bouchard’s group to be specifically elected to the House of Commons on a clear sovereignty ticket. The 43-year-old union organizer is the son of Jean Duceppe, a leading figure in Quebec theatre and a member of the cast of The Plouffe Family, a hugely popular CBC TV program in the 1950s, and himself an outspoken nationalist. The slim, prematurely greying younger Duceppe is an official with the nationalist Confédération des syndicats nationaux—a Quebec labor umbrella organization—and chief negotiator for Montreal’s hotel workers. Widely labelled as “Lucien Bouchard’s candidate” in the province’s Frenchlanguage media, he was handpicked by Bouchard after two former Parti Québécois provincial cabinet ministers—Denise LeblancBantey and Marcel Léger—decided not to run in the byelection.

But Duceppe is not the only candidate

running on a sovereigntist platform. In fact, five others—the Tories’ Fortin, New Democrat O’Neill, the Green Party’s Michel Szabo and independents Réjean Robidoux and Daniel Perreault—espouse some form of independence. That overwhelmingly nationalist slate has raised hopes among Liberals that the sovereigntist vote could be split—enabling Coderre to squeak to victory on his federalist ticket.

A portly 27-year-old, Coderre was one of the organizational mainstays of Chrétien’s successful campaign to win the party’s federal leadership. Although he campaigned in favor of Quebec sovereignty in the 1980 referendum, he claims since then to have gradually evolved into a federalist and describes himself as a “provincialist federalist.” A former president of the province’s young Liberals, he ran—and lost—in his native Joliette riding in the 1988 federal election that saw Mulroney’s Conservatives virtually sweep the province.

Now, almost two years later, many observers predicted that Coderre was again destined to lose. For one thing, they argue that the old-style federalism of former Trudeau cabinet minister Chrétien has lost favor in Quebec—and nowhere more so than in Laurier/

Ste-Marie. The riding,

Montreal’s poorest, has always been prone to nationalist sentiment. Malépart himself, who held the riding from 1979 until his death, was an avowed sovereigntist who said that his continued support for the federal cause depended on the successful outcome of Meech Lake. And his constituency, which lies just east of Montreal’s downtown core, was among the first to elect Parti Québécois members to the provincial National Assembly.

At the same time, though, the riding includes concentrations of nonfrancophone ethnic voters who do not normally favor the sovereigntist cause. Montreal’s Chinatown lies in Laurier/ Ste-Marie, as does a large part of the city’s Portuguese community. There are also pockets of Polish, Ukrainian and Italian residents. “I think it would be a mistake to write off Coderre,” said Alfonso Gagliano, Liberal MP for the neighboring riding of St-Léonard, the

stronghold of Montreal’s Italian community. “We have almost all the ethnic vote. And we are better placed to appeal to the majority of the people here, who are poor and not as much interested in political sovereignty as they are in bread-and-butter issues.”

For his part, Bouchard acknowledged that issues other than sovereignty may indeed prove to be important in deciding the election outcome in Laurier/Ste-Marie. “It would be very dangerous for us to assume that we can win here without paying close attention to all of the other legitimate concerns of these people,”

said the former environment minister. As a result, although the Bloc Québécois campaign has focused primarily on the need for Quebec independence, it has not completely ignored pressing local concerns such as adequate housing, employment and welfare. But in the end, the nationalistic message remained the same: only with sovereignty could Quebecers achieve their just rewards.

BARRY CAME in Montreal