COVER

A MYTHIC FIGURE

The sovereignty movement has temporarily lost its most credible political figure

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 12 1994
COVER

A MYTHIC FIGURE

The sovereignty movement has temporarily lost its most credible political figure

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 12 1994

A MYTHIC FIGURE

COVER

The sovereignty movement has temporarily lost its most credible political figure

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

In the second half of the 20th century, Quebec’s political leaders have often demonstrated their ability to control much of the nation’s political agenda as well as that of their own province. Too often, at the same time, they have been unable to do the same with their personal lives. Of 11 Quebec premiers to serve since 1950, three have died and three more have faced debilitating, potentially life-threatening health problems while in office. One was René Lévesque, who died within two years of resigning from public life in 1985. Another was Robert Bourassa, who almost certainly would still be in public life if not for his 1990 bout with the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Of the four premiers to lead the Quebec government from 1970 until last September’s election, only the two who served most briefly—

mirers were hailing a note scribbled to his doctors, saying, “Que l’on continue” (“Carry on”), as an exhortation by a man near death to carry on his life’s mission in his absence.

For now, Bouchard’s ordeal appears to have struck Canadians of all political stripes with an intensity of emotion—and sympathy— that few outside Quebec might have imagined. The most important sense is the horror evoked by the fact that a vibrant, healthy, relatively young (55) man with a wife and two young children could have his life threatened and then dramatically changed in such swift and unforgiving fashion. A less-expressed but unavoidable fact is that Lucien Bouchard will now no longer be the Man that EnglishCanadians Love to Hate. That will become too difficult in the wake of his sudden plight, his apparent courage throughout it, and the lengthy and complex rehabilitation process he will need to adjust to life without his left leg.

And then there are the more pragmatic elements of daily political

Pierre-Marc Johnson and his brother,

Daniel—have escaped such difficulties.

And now, Lucien Bouchard. True, he is not Quebec’s political leader, in the strict sense of the definition. But he is arguably Canada’s second most important political figure (after Prime Minister Jean Chrétien) because of his combined roles as leader of the official Opposition, emotional soul of the sovereigntist movement and spiritual heir to a line of charismatic Quebec nationalist leaders that extends from Henri Bourassa through to Lévesque.

In the six years since Bouchard first entered electoral politics, he has evolved considerably himself, from a shy, quasi-federalist Progressive Conservative cabinet minister into the devout sovereigntist and impassioned orator who now is seen in Quebec as a natural leader, and almost mythic figure. Although Bouchard is likely to be sidelined for several months as a result of last week’s illness, amputation and shockingly sudden brush with death, those qualities, and his future impact on Canadian political life, are unlikely to change— unless they are enhanced. Already last week, his sovereigntist ad-

Québécois—on those relatively few occasions when it has looked at issues beyond Quebec’s borders—has been the only large party to counter the increasingly right-wing drift of the House of Commons. Bouchard has made several thoughtful and eloquent speeches defending, among other things, the role of Canada’s peacekeepers in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, the need for the country to have a strong web of social programs and—although he missed last week’s debate—the importance of tightened gun-control legislation. When the Quebec government complained that a federal decision to implement environmental assessment tests was an “intrusion” on provincial rights, Bouchard, who drafted the original legislation on the subject, stayed quiet.

‘We have to respect institutions,” Bouchard has often said. And paradoxically, he appears more attached to Canadian parliamentary traditions than to the country that developed them. That is the opposite of the other opposition party, Reform, which defends Canadian unity even as it criticizes those traditions. It is probably no coincidence that Bloc MPs do their utmost to push the limits of traditional parliamentary behavior—through name| calling and shouted insults—on those occasions when he I is not present. And despite the fact that Bouchard is reS membered by most English-speaking Canadians for his u betrayal of his then-close friend Brian Mulroney at the

time of the Meech Lake constitutional accord, he has his 5 own rigidly defined code of behavior towards political opI ponents. Through mutual friends, he has made several

overtures towards reconciliation with Mulroney, which have been rebuffed. Although Bouchard once said that Mulroney was more harsh to Quebec than Pierre Trudeau was, he speaks warmly of him in his 1992 autobiography, On the Record.

Similarly, Bouchard—who keeps a Canadian flag alongside the Quebec flag in his Parliament Hill office because of that regard for tradition—has sometimes shown a willingness to break with conventional partisan politics. When the Reform party accused Chrétien of patronage in appointing his nephew, Raymond, ambassador to Washington in December, 1993, Bouchard—who served with Raymond Chrétien at Canada’s Embassy in Paris—praised his appointment effusively. Then, when the Parti Québécois called for Chrétien’s recall from Washington for not disavowing remarks made against the Quebec government by Cree leader Matthew CoonCome in a recent speech there, Bouchard stayed silent. Similarly, when the Reform party criticized the appointment of Roméo LeBlanc as governor general, Bouchard called them “cheap” and expressed delight at the appointment of LeBlanc, an Acadian, as “someone who has spent a lifetime working for francophone rights.” That praise came despite the fact that LeBlanc vehemently opposed Meech Lake, which Bouchard strongly supported.

In his recovery period in coming months, Bouchard will have a chance to become what he often says he enjoys being the most: a private figure. But that unplanned respite from public life will be temporary, painful, and surrounded by some of the greatest expectations ever heaped on a political figure in Canada’s 127-year history. As Bouchard fought the ravages of a terrible disease last week, politicians from all parties were unanimous in agreeing that it was no time to debate such important but unseemly topics as the timing of the Quebec referendum and whether Reform would replace the Bloc as the official Opposition if Bouchard was unable to retain his seat. But even as the news of Bouchard’s recovery became known on Parliament Hill last week, the expressions of public delight were already mixed with those other, more private and less proper concerns. Said one Liberal minister in an informal conversation: “You could see the expressions change” on the faces of MPs from the different parties as they began to look ahead to the battle again. Bouchard, it seems likely, will be back in public life: diminished in some ways physically but, in others, larger than life. □

life. Lor sovereigntists, the elements of loss are obvious. The Bloc Québécois, although it has several strong MPs, does not even have any mechanism to provide for a temporary replacement for Bouchard—and, even if it did, has no one who can come close to replacing him. The two best-known MPs after him, party whip Gilles I Duceppe and House leader Michel z Gauthier, share Bouchard’s talent § for expressing simmering rage at u all humiliations—real or imagined—inflicted on Quebec. But they lack his soaring oratorical ability and the sheer range and scope of his intellect. The entire sovereignty movement, more to the point, is temporarily bereft of its most compelling and credible spokesman. Even the newly defined notions of Quebec nationalism—based on the premise it is “territorial” rather than ethnic-based—will suffer. Bouchard has come to be seen as the symbol of francophone Quebec’s openness to other linguistic and ethnic groups. Premier Jacques Parizeau, despite making similar statements, is regarded as a much more traditional nationalist. And no one else can properly take advantage of Bouchard’s ability, as Opposition leader, to sell the case for Quebec independence to foreign leaders.

But while Bouchard recuperates, some Canadians who dislike his sovereigntist convictions will also have reason to miss his powerful presence in the House of Commons. With the near destruction of the New Democratic Party, which has only nine seats, the Bloc