Robert Bourassa is the invisible man in the national debate over Canada's future. As the constitutional clock ticks relentlessly towards a deadline that Bourassa himself helped to establish, the 58-year-old Quebec premier appears curiously removed from the process. In recent weeks, he has rarely ventured from his Quebec City office, leaving Public Security Minister Claude Ryan to run most of the government’s day-to-day affairs and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Gil Rémillard to manage the constitutional file. Bourassa’s vanishing act is an odd role for a figure widely recognized as a pivotal participant in the great national debate—and it has led some observers to question his grip on events. As one friend and former colleague remarked last week: "A year and a half ago, it would have been
unthinkable to question Bourassa’s control of the situation. Now you have to.”
Bourassa’s political problems are legion, and some analysts say that he is keeping his distance from the evolving constitutional battle until the final stages in order to maximize his flexibility. He faces serious divisions within his Liberal caucus between nationalists and federalists, a resurgent opposition Parti Québécois and an increasingly surly electorate weary of both economic recession and the seemingly endless constitutional debate. But his most daunting challenge is a looming referendum on sovereignty, which must be held no later than Oct. 26 under the terms of Quebec’s Bill 150. Armed with a clean bill of health after his treatment for skin cancer in the fall of 1990, Bourassa agreed reluctantly to the referendum legislation last June to quell unrest within his own party. He had hoped to avoid an inevitably divisive referendum—possibly by calling an early provincial election. But the premier appeared to abandon any such plans after the PQ scored its first-ever byelection victory in the
Quebec City-area riding of Montmorency on Aug. 12. A January poll gave the PQ the support of 49 per cent of decided voters, compared with 44 per cent for the Liberals.
Bourassa may have no choice but to proceed with the referendum. But to wage a successful anti-sovereignty campaign, he has told federal officials that he needs specific commitments on a long list of powers to be transferred from Ottawa to Quebec City. Until then, he is likely to maintain his distance from the national turmoil of constitutional politics. Last week, spokesmen for Bourassa and Rémillard said that both men will continue to boycott federal-provincial meetings. “It is premature for Quebec to attend until we see whether the rest of the country wants to bargain in good faith,” said a Quebec government adviser. It was a clear signal that, at least for the time being, Robert Bourassa will remain, out of character, on the sidelines.
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.