Robert Bourassa’s decision last week not to leave active politics despite his escalating illness was brave and entirely in character. But go he eventually must, and when he does, his departure will create a serious tear in the national fabric. During most of the three decades of his involvement he became the essential presence, the man who set the national agenda.
His moods, ideology and operational code decided the tone and contents of Quebec politics for a generation. In any crunch, Bourassa, 59, inevitably came down on the side of Canada, but he was neither a convinced federalist nor a dedicated separatist. He felt the essence of politics was power not law, and that Quebec could achieve more by challenging the reality than the legality of any situation. A disappointment to purists on both sides, he sees the political process not as a specific journey between two points but as an endless voyage, constantly in flux.
When he unexpectedly first took power in the spring of 1970,1 happened to be the first English-speaking journalist to interview him. It was only 11 years since the authoritarian Maurice Duplessis had ruled the province, and only four years since the charismatic (when sober) Jean Lesage had held the premiership. Quebec was still enthralled with la politique de grandeur, and I’ve never forgotten the scene outside Bourassa’s office.
Supplicants of all shapes and desires crowded the vestibule. Men with thin moustaches and large ambitions, hunching their shoulders against the burdens of office they soon hoped to assume, displayed their self-importance by exchanging whispered confidences and having themselves paged on telephones. The only relaxed presence amid the pandemonium was Bourassa himself, looking a lot younger than his 36 years, a man so gaunt his neck muscles were visibly taut, his Adam’s apple jutting out incongruously below a face whose eyes mirrored the calculated coolness of a computer. Not particularly impressed with himself, he
A disappointment to purists on both sides, he sees politics notas a specific journey but as an endless voyage, constantly in flux
seemed appropriately bored with rekindling the misty dreams that died on the Plains of Abraham. He was interested only in the now, in pushing Quebec into full technological partnership with the rest of Canada. (At the time, we still had some technology worth sharing.) “Separatism,” he told me then, “has at its base economic grievances.” He added: “If I make a good showing in the next five years, the independence threat will be over. During the campaign, I challenged the Parti Québécois, asking how they would solve unemployment. Lévesque kept saying that the independence of Quebec would bring prosperity. But this is an intellectual fraud.”
His fundamental position didn’t change a whole lot in the next 23 years. He remained the dedicated technocrat turned political boss and while his first government became corrupt, his second ranked among the best of any recent provincial administrations. Bourassa’s often misconstrued pronouncements that Quebec could be a nation without becoming an independent state simply meant that in his view the status quo was dead and that some better way had to be found to divide responsibilities for governing.
Because he became such a consummate
politician, it was often forgotten that he was really an academic, having spent a decade studying at the universities of Montreal, Oxford and Harvard, and while out of power, teaching at Yale and Johns Hopkins University’s Center of Advanced International Studies, as well as lecturing in Europe. Married to the daughter of Joseph Simard, a co-founder of the giant Marine Industries complex at Sorel, Que., he could easily have enjoyed a successful business career. But politics was his calling, and in the 1966 provincial election he won a Montreal seat, quickly becoming Lesage’s protégé. Within four years he was premier and immediately began to negotiate for greater provincial autonomy with Pierre Trudeau.
The two men were never friends, but the prime minister did not, as legend has it, call him a “hot dog eater.” (Trudeau saw a picture of him eating one and remarked that the premier “seemed to like hot dogs.”) In that first interview with me, Bourassa confided that in some ways he represented Quebec’s last chance. His analysis: “If I fail in my relationship with Ottawa, people will say Bourassa was well-prepared and rational; Trudeau was well-prepared and rational. If these two guys can’t make the system work, it’s impossible. And they could be right”
Humbled and defeated in 1976 by René Lévesque, Bourassa spent seven years in the political wilderness. But by October, 1983, he was back in contention as the freshly minted liberal leader (replacing a burned-out Claude Ryan), and two years later he was sworn in as Quebec’s 29th premier. Significantly, he promised at the time to dilute the impact of Bill 101, the PQ legislation that restricted the use of English in Quebec. “We must return to common sense,” he said. “On signs, French could be obligatory and all other languages could be discretionary. The law has to be made more flexible and applied with more understanding.”
Unfortunately, he didn’t follow his own advice. In 1988, when the Supreme Court ruled that Bill 101 violated the Charter of Rights, he invoked the notwithstanding clause to circumvent the decision and introduced the controversial Bill 178 that decimated English-language rights, setting the stage for Meech Lake’s rejection 18 months later.
Bourassa demonstrated uncharacteristic cowardice during the 1970 FLQ crisis and the 1990 Mohawk standoff, but in the 1980 and 1992 Quebec referendums, his burning beliefs were on show. He fought for the federalist cause “inch by inch, village by village, Rotary by Rotary,” for once endowing his appeals with as much passion as reason. By the spring of 1990, he had been diagnosed with melanoma and from then on there was an extra dimension to his crusade—the impatience that comes from serious illness.
During his time in politics, Robert Bourassa has managed to be a reformer without ever becoming a revolutionary. In a province of talkers and boasters, he has been a thinker and a doer, a rare politician who followed the advice of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French savant who wrote that “it behooves moderate men to ensure the success of a moderate republic.”
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