COVER

MAN WITH A MISSON

Lucien Bouchard is a potent mix of charm and temper

MARCI MCDONALD June 13 1994
COVER

MAN WITH A MISSON

Lucien Bouchard is a potent mix of charm and temper

MARCI MCDONALD June 13 1994

MAN WITH A MISSON

Lucien Bouchard is a potent mix of charm and temper

MARCI MCDONALD

The door is slightly ajar—a crack barely visible in the ancient, burnished wood panelling that lines the office of the leader of the official Opposition on Parliament Hill. Lucien Bouchard slips his long tapered fingers into the fissure and gives it a push. Silently, mysteriously, the wall swings open. A narrow secret door cut out of the apparently seamless pine materializes to reveal a tiny corridor and, beyond, the cluttered antechamber of a senior aide. “I use it all the time—it’s very convenient,” the leader of the Bloc Québécois chuckles with the delight of a boy showing off a new toy. But it seems no accident that when a reporter comes to call in search of the man behind the inflammatory headlines and public mask, that secret door is the first stop on an office tour led by Bouchard, a former speech writer with a canny eye for symbolism.

The first federal party leader in history with a mission to orchestrate Quebec’s departure from Canada has exits on his mind. And now, thanks to his travels across the country in recent weeks, so does the entire nation. Outside his serene fourth-floor corner office, where Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King once plotted the country’s course, The Debate rages—The Debate that Canadians, glazed-eyed with constitutional fatigue, thought they had put behind them two years ago in an acrid national referendum. Now, it has suddenly burst into flame again, igniting passions, sparking apocalyptic predictions—and raising once more a dark cloud of uncertainty over the nation’s future.

Only an hour earlier, during Question Period, Finance Minister Paul Martin had accused Bouchard, though not by name, of making statements that were “destroying jobs . . . taking food out of the mouths of Canadians.” And after assuring Acadians in Shediac, N.B., that an independent Quebec would defend their rights, the Bloc Québécois leader found himself back in the Commons, where Transport Minister Doug Young warned them not to trust him and branded him a “Judas.” Protesting Bouchard’s appearance before a meeting of the French-Canadian Association of Ontario late last week in Toronto, Liberal MP Don Boudria slammed him for “playing Russian roulette with the country.”

From coast to coast, the political temperature is rising—rising so fast that Jean Lapierre, Bouchard’s close friend and former deputy who is now a Montreal talk-show host, went on the air two weeks ago and advised his friend to chill out. “It’s much too early for Lucien Bouchard to go across this country,” he worries. “If Lucien keeps on going out there, the next thing you’re going to have is a crackpot giving him one on the nose—and then they’d make a martyr out of him.”

At the centre of the fire storm is the tall, brooding figure who now strides around Mackenzie King’s old digs, looking benign in a charcoal double-breasted suit and subdued art deco tie. His trademark swoop of grey-flecked hair is newly shorn. His manners are almost courtly. And behind him stand two flags calculated to catch a visitor’s ¡2 eye—the blue Quebec Fleur-de-lys I neatly separated by a foot of space 5 from the red Canadian Maple Leaf, g Lucien Bouchard displays the fed| eral banner because, as he once put it: “We have to respect institu“ tions. And it is also an act of courtesy. I don’t want to provoke anyone.” Bouchard marvels at his public image as provocation incarnate—cold, calculating, the raving rabble-rouser who would destroy Canada. “You know, I am a moderate man,” he says. “I am a rather conservative man in my private life.” In person, he is the antithesis of his public image. As friends confirm, Bouchard is capable of great warmth and empathy—and a flash-fire temper, which he generally keeps contained in public. He shuns the cocktail circuit, spending his evenings buried in his beloved books in the unassuming hotel where he stays on Hull’s Rue Montcalm. But relaxed over dinner with friends in Montreal, he can be a rivetting raconteur with an eye for the telling detail and a laugh that bubbles up straight from the gut, even occasionally when the joke is at his own expense. “If things are going well,” Bouchard laughs, “I could be, I guess, a charmer.”

Shy in private, he is charismatic on a podium, one of Quebec’s most spellbinding speakers and popular political figures—much to the chagrin of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Parti Québécois (PQ) Leader Jacques Parizeau, both of whom he outpolls on home ground. Last week, Chrétien took an uncharacteristic potshot at him for his zigzagging political course, which began as a brief student supporter of the New Democrats, detoured through the camps of the Quiet Revolution of Liberal Jean Lesage and later Pierre Trudeau, then leaped onto the bandwagon of Lévesque and his PQ before joining up with his old pal Mulroney for their abortive attempt at national reconciliation. But one reason for Bouchard’s popularity in Quebec is that his shifting political allegiances—so curious to English-Canadians—reflect the same ideological drifts of the vast bloc of swing voters who will decide the province’s fate. Says Jean-François Lisée, author of the newly published biography of Robert Bourassa, Le Tricheur (The Trickster): “His itinerary is the exact course of the undecided voter in Quebec.”

That itinerary began near the Sable River in the Saguenay, that remote landscape 220 km northeast of Quebec City, which is regarded as the heart of Quebec nationalism. Its steep riverbanks, rising to dense forests and a vast lake, were immortalized in the films Black Robe and Mon Oncle Antoine. At the turn of the century, Bouchard’s grandfather had carved the family homestead out of the spruce woods. But the harsh land was too unforgiving for his son, Philippe. Soon after his own firstborn, Lucien, arrived three days before Christmas, 1938, Philippe Bouchard moved the family 80 km east to working-class Jonquière.

There, in a modest clapboard bungalow, the family expanded to five, three more boys and a girl. The youngest, Gérard, now an award-winning Quebec academic who has pioneered genetic studies on the province’s francophone population, remembers his oldest brother rushing in to defend their familial honor, occasionally with his fists. As the eldest, Lucien spent the most time with their father, a lanky, emotional truck driver who would take him on his rounds, crooning favorite Paris hits. “My brother worshipped my father,” says Gérard. “It was probably the main factor that motivated him, from a very early age, to excel at just about every task he set himself.” Ask Bouchard today who has been the greatest influence on his career and he does not hesitate: “My father. There’s not a day still I don’t think about him.”

Philippe Bouchard, who never got past the fourth grade, sent his sons down the road to the yellow brick classical college run by the Oblate fathers, where they learned Latin, Greek and rigorous French. Bouchard remembers them chattering at the dinner table one night and “a little jouai was creeping into the language.” His father, he says, “threw his fork on the table. ‘I don’t understand anything of what you say,’ he said. ‘Speak well!’ He was wearing his blue shirt and his overalls, his hands covered with oil. And I was so impressed.” Now, as Bouchard carries his message to English Canada, he insists that “I try to be polite—to speak like my father would like me to speak.”

At 20, he left home for the first time, enrolling at Laval University in Quebec City. He was lonely and disoriented, too shy to speak to anyone but his chatty seatmate, Michel Cogger, later a controversial Tory senator. Cogger knew everyone in the class including André Ouellet, now the Liberals’ minister of foreign affairs, and the group’s social star, another workingman’s son named Brian Mulroney.

Bouchard and Mulroney did not become close until their fourth year, when both stayed in Quebec City to article for law firms. But years earlier, Mulroney had turned to Bouchard for help with his broken street-

French. According to one former Tory insider: “Their friendship was like a puzzle, each had pieces the other didn’t. I think Lucien was what Mulroney wished he could have been in terms of intellect and passion.” Bouchard’s sovereigntist sentiments were no secret to Mulroney. Bouchard says he signed a Parti Québécois membership card in 1971 or 1972, prompted largely by shock at how the War Measures Act was used to crush the Front de libération du Québec during the 1970 October Crisis. The two men twice stopped speaking when they found themselves on opposite sides of the independence debate—in 1973 when Bouchard campaigned openly for a PQ candidate, and in 1980 during Quebec’s referendum on sovereignty-association. But their personal ties were never broken: after Bouchard’s Péquiste sympathies forced him out of his Chicoutimi law firm, Mulroney had their former law professor, Robert Cliche, hire him as a fellow counsel for his celebrated 1973 commission investigating Quebec’s construction industry.

Despite their differences, a year after Mulroney won the Conservative leadership in 1983 he went to Chicoutimi to try to persuade Bouchard to run for the party there. Bouchard declined; instead, he settled for a role as Mulroney’s chief wordsmith, moving into a Montreal hotel to chum out speeches that even one of his current Tory enemies concedes were “masterful.” Bouchard, who gobbled up books on John F. Kennedy’s speech writers and still pens every word of his own addresses in longhand, marvels at “the relationship between the ghostwriter and the politician—it’s like a mystery.” But Bouchard was also putting ideas as well as words into his friend’s mouth. In fact, some observers find it ironic that, when Mulroney asked him for an economic address to deliver in the mining port of Sept-Iles that August, Bouchard instead wrote the call to arms that committed him to reopen the moribund constitutional debate. That campaign promise would ultimately lead to the divisive Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords—and to the final break between the two men.

But a month later, as they sat side by side in a hotel suite in Baie-Comeau watching the Conservative landslide roll in, Mulroney turned to Bouchard, ecstatic that he had at last

achieved his prime ministerial dream, and said: “I’d like you to go to Paris.” Bouchard was stunned, and put the decision off for eight months. “Writing speeches is one thing, especially when I believed every line of them,” he says. “But going to Paris as an ambassador for the federal government. . . . Paris was a battleground for separatists and federalists, you know. It was crossing the Rubicon.” When he finally accepted, one of his brothers barely spoke to him for a year.

The summer before he left, Bouchard immersed himself in brief-

ings at External Affairs, which also set up his first cross-Canada tour. At 46, he had never been west of Toronto, and he had not visited even that city until after his 40th birthday. Paradoxically, the man who wants to break up the country still scarcely knows it at all. Nor, when he arrived in Paris, could he speak English. At the embassy, he hired Eva Bild, the vivacious wife of his second-in-command, for weekly English lessons. But nine years later, the man who speaks elegant, even symphonic French still wrestles with the other official language.

In Paris, Bouchard’s PQ past gave him a one-upmanship over the Quebec delegation. And his lifelong love affair with French literature made him the darling of the capital’s politico-intellectual set. He had already read all nine volumes of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, twice. And in Paris he made pilgrimages to every one of Proust’s numerous apartments and to his gravesite.

But Bouchard also had an unexpected entrée into the salons of Paris. Within months of arriving at the magnificent ambassadorial château on the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, his wife, Jocelyne, suddenly flew back home—a rupture that he will not talk about, but he says he takes full responsibility for. Not coincidentally, Quebec TV personality Denise Bombardier breezed into the news room of a Montreal conference and announced that she was on her way to Paris that night, leaving her husband behind to move in with the ambassador to France. Her glee promptly found its way into an entertainment tabloid, Echos-Vedette, which scrupulously declined to name Bouchard.

But weeks later, the paper made up for that lapse by running a front-page photo of the couple together at a Paris concert, with a lurid purple arrow pointing to him and the caption: “Scoop—here’s her lover.” Bouchard says they conducted their relationship “correctly—she wouldn’t attend public functions.” But Bombardier, a novelist as well as the former host of the widely watched TV newsmagazine Le Point, was one of Quebec’s most celebrated writers in France, regularly quoted in Le Monde. According to friends, she did not take kindly to that exclusion and their affair ended abruptly and bitterly.

Summoned home in 1988 as the new savior of Mulroney’s battle-scarred government, Bouchard was sworn in as secretary of state and inducted into the cabinet’s key policy and priorities committee even before the Conservatives had found him a seat. After he won election in Lac-St-Jean, the riding where he had been bom, he shone for a time as one of Mulroney’s most faithful— and brightest—cabinet stars, moving on to become minister of the environment. In cabinet, his obsession was the Meech Lake accord, which he threw his weight behind as Quebec’s last hope for reconciliation with the rest of Canada. When he learned that, behind his back, Mulroney was cutting a watered-down deal with the man he regarded as the ultimate enemy—Jean Chrétien, Tmdeau’s provincial point man in the bitter 1982 constitutional repatriation battle—Bouchard was stung. He flew home from a holiday in Paris, carrying his five-page resignation letter to 24 Sussex Drive.

In the four years since he exited that gate on May 21, 1990, a month before the Meech negotiations collapsed,

£ he and Mulroney have not spoken. But last winter, short| ly after he was elected leader of the Opposition,

Bouchard and his second wife, Audrey, were sitting in z Ben’s Delicatessen in Montreal, when she saw the for£ mer prime minister stroll in with his RCMP escort. Then,

5 Mulroney caught sight of the Bouchards. He found a I table at the far side of the room, and the two sat for the next half-hour chewing their smoked meat, their backs to each other. “I didn’t see him, actually,” says Bouchard. “I didn’t look at him. I wouldn’t. And he wouldn’t either.”

In The Trickster, Jean-François Usée claimed that the real godfather of the Bloc Québécois was not Bouchard but Premier Robert Bourassa. Bouchard confirms that claim (one which Bourassa himself has refused to comment on). On July 3,1990, two months after his resignation, he was hiking in the mountains of Charlevoix, north of Quebec City, when Bourassa summoned him to his Quebec City office, known as le bunker. Bourassa pointedly inquired if Bouchard planned to field a sovereigntist candidate in an upcoming federal election in Montreal. In fact, Bouchard had already toyed with the idea, but he was afraid to trust a secret poll that predicted that any candidate he backed could win with two-thirds of the vote. Days later, he says, a Bourassa aide delivered him a more sophisticated poll, confirming his own. “And then I had no doubt.”

But why on earth would Quebec’s Liberal chief want to give birth to a federal

separatist party? “Bourassa was afraid of Bouchard,” says Usée. “He knew Bouchard could beat him. It was better to get him out of Quebec and onto the federal stage.”

One bonus of Bouchard’s federalist dalliance was an hour-long flight from Paris to London in March, 1987, when he couldn’t help noticing the tanned blonde in black who sank breathlessly into the next seat. Ever a romantic, he spun a scenario for her. “I thought she was British,” he says. “She looked like the wife of a British earl or a rich businessman.” When she dropped a magazine, he leaped to retrieve it and strike up a conversation. To his surprise, Audrey Best was the 26-year-old daughter of a French mother and an American naval officer, who had been born on the Riviera and grew up in California.

He told her only that he was a diplomat. Three weeks later, she wrote him care of

the embassy and was impressed to find out when he replied that he was the ambassador. After a two-year trans-Atlantic courtship—and Bouchard’s divorce—the former secretary from a California aerospace defence plant became the wife of Canada’s environment minister. Nine months later, Audrey Best Bouchard gave birth to their first son, Alexandre, and two years ago, to his brother, Simon. With little interest in politics, she has not been thrilled to find herself married to the man whom talk-show callers brand a “traitor.” And she seldom leaves their modest apartment in Montreal’s Outremont district for Ottawa. “It is hard for her,” he says. “But she’s strong, very strong.”

A doting father who loves to read “all

the Walt Disney Books” to his sons and play computer games on weekends, he says Alexandre has no idea that his father is so controversial. “But my son of 4 is becoming a person now,” he says. “He’s awakening. He said to his mother this week, ‘You know I love my daddy so much, but he doesn’t have time to love me.’ ” Lucien Bouchard, the man English-Canadians love to hate, has tears in his eyes. “It broke my heart, of course,” he says.

But until the referendum is over, Alexandre will have to content himself with the ongoing tale that his father has concocted for him about “a dragon who has a problem, because he tries to frighten people by blowing fire. But he has lost his fire. So we make fun out of him.” Alexandre Bouchard calls his father’s story the Gentle Dragon.

BARRY CAME