Robert Bourassa has always been among the most private of Canada’s public figures. In a political career spanning a quarter of a century, the 59-year-old Quebec premier has rarely offered more than a glimpse of the man behind the carefully controlled image. But on his return to Quebec from Florida last week, seven days after a surgeon removed a cancerous tumor from his chest, Bourassa finally let the mask slip. His remarks, and his grave bearing, revealed an individual determined to battle for his life—but profoundly shaken by his prospects. “The sword of Damocles hanging over my head has moved closer,” he told reporters after his first cabinet meeting since discovering the spread of a malignant melanoma that was diagnosed in 1990. “With this kind of sickness you never know what could happen,” he said. “This is the most difficult thing because we all want to live as long as possible, but here you don’t know what will happen in a month, in two months, in three months.”
Despite his clouded personal future, Bourassa said that he has no plans—for the moment, at least—to abandon politics. “I want to go back to work,” he declared. He brushed aside questions about his ability to continue as premier, maintaining that talk about a possible successor was “premature.” At the same time, he pointedly declined to say whether he intended to lead the Liberals into the next election, which must be held by the fall of 1994. And even Bourassa conceded that doubts about his health would fuel speculation that his long career at the forefront of Canadian politics is drawing to a close.
That speculation began almost as soon as Bourassa’s office issued a statement disclosing that his skin cancer, thought to have been excised two years ago, had reappeared shortly before Christmas. And while no one in the party acknowledges it openly, many concede privately that it will take nothing short of a medical miracle to keep Bourassa in power much past the coming summer.
“The pressure is not going to come from his cabinet or his caucus but, rather, from his family,” said one Liberal organizer. Faced with that pressure, most Liberals expect the premier to announce plans to step aside by the spring, followed by a summer leadership convention. At
BATTLING SKIN CANCER, ROBERT BOURASSA TRIES TO DAMPEN TALK ABOUT QUEBEC’S POLITICAL FUTURE
that time, many Liberals and Bourassa’s political opponents believe, the leadership of the Liberals will pass to one of five members of the premier’s current inner cabinet: Treasury Board President Daniel Johnson, Industry Minister Gérald Tremblay, Environment Minister Pierre Paradis, Justice Minister Gil Rémilliard or—a longer shot—Energy Minister and deputy premier Lise Bacon.
None of the five possible successors has declared his or her intentions. To do so at this delicate stage would be tantamount to committing political suicide, as Health Minister Marc Yvan Coté bluntly reminded Liberals last week.
But that is likely to change by mid-February, when Bourassa is scheduled to return to the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. After tests, Bourassa and his doctor, Steven Rosenberg, will decide whether he will undergo an experimental treatment using interleukin-2, a natural substance that boosts the body’s immune system.
Rosenberg pioneered the technique in the mid-1980s and has experienced some success with it, although the treatment has proved harmful to some people. In most cases, patients spend seven to 10 days in hospital receiving injections of special immune cells that have been removed from the tumor itself and treated with interleukin-2 to increase their potency. Every three months or so, they return for additional treatment. Forty per cent of the patients that have undergone the procedure, all of whom were considered terminal, have experienced full or partial remissions of their tumors. Five to 10 per cent have seen their tumors disappear.
Bourassa’s personal—and political—future is riding on the outcome of those tests in Bethesda, one of the leading cancer research centres in the world. Malignant melanoma is by far the most lethal form of skin cancer, and the outlook for patients whose cancer has spread to several other parts of the body is usually grim. Even if he receives the interleukin-2 treatment, and responds well, the accompanying side effects—which include nausea, diarrhea, fever and fatigue—may make it impossible for him to do his job. Either way, the race to succeed him will move into the open. “That’s the moment when he will step aside,” confided one associate. “I know the man well.”
If Bourassa does indeed resign, the future shape and direction of the Quebec Liberal party are not likely to change radically. All five of the leading contenders for the leadership are federalists of the Bourassa school—committed to enhancing Quebec’s powers within Confederation. Treasury Board President Johnson, the 48-year-old son of former Union Nationale Premier Daniel Johnson and brother of former Parti Québécois premier Pierre-Marc Johnson, is widely regarded—like Bourassa himself—as an able but uncharismatic administrator. The same holds true for Harvard-educated Industry Minister Tremblay, 50. Environment Minister Paradis, a 42-year-old rural lawyer, has disappointed some Liberals with his lacklustre performance, but he has deeper party roots than any of his competitors with the exception of deputy premier Lise Bacon. Bacon, 59, a selfeducated entrepreneur, is the firebrand of the
HOW MELANOMA SPREADS
More than 500 Canadians a year die from malignant melanoma, which appears on the skin as a lightbrown to black mole with irregular borders, often larger than a quarter-inch across. The most lethal form of skin cancer, it starts when excessive sun exposure damages the melanocyte cells, which create the skin’s pigment. The cells then turn cancerous and multiply rapidly. If it is not detected early enough, the resulting tumor can release deadly cells that spread through the blood to other parts of the body. In 1990, surgeons removed a melanoma from Bourassa’s lower back that had migrated to lymph nodes in the area. His doctor now says that the cancer has spread to an unspecified number of other sites.
group and a fierce Bourassa loyalist. Rémilliard, Bourassa’s scholarly point man on constitutional issues, is far more restrained, a cool, calm 48-year-old former law professor.
But Quebec’s Liberals likely will face another challenge if Bourassa departs, emanating from the party’s disgruntled nationalist wing. Loosely grouped around dissident Jean Allaire, the nationalists were soundly defeated by Bourassa’s forces during a showdown in advance of last fall’s referendum on the Charlottetown constitutional package, which Bourassa and his followers supported. After losing the referendum battle, Bourassa loyalists ousted Allaire and his allies, many of them members of the Liberal youth organization, from positions of power—prompting Allaire and others to quit the party. The group has been meeting informally over the past two
months with a view to fielding some kind of nationalist challenge in the next provincial election. If Bourassa left, the Allaire nationalists might coalesce around a like-minded candidate, hoping to steer the Liberals away from federalism. “It’s too early to predict that, but I have to admit that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility,” said Jean-Guy St. Roch, the Independent Drummond MNA who quit the Liberal caucus to protest against the party’s support of the Charlottetown constitutional accord.
All of these potential developments, however, depend on the outcome of Bourassa’s struggle with cancer. And none will come to pass if, as his friends and supporters dearly hope, the Quebec premier manages to surmount his latest—and certainly most trying—challenge.
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