There he goes again: the politician most likely to evoke powerful feelings and public displays of patriotism in every part of Canada. No matter where Lucien Bouchard goes— and recently, that has seemed to be almost everywhere— and no matter what Lucien Bouchard says—and last week, that included all kinds of things—the one thing that is certain is that he always has an attentive audience. Did he say that in the event of Quebec becoming sovereign, the Americans might then annex British Columbia to gain access to Alaska? Yes, said members of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, where Bouchard spoke informally at a closed-door dinner in Ottawa. No, responded an angry Bouchard, who insisted he was misinterpreted on that—and almost all the rest of his remarks. No matter: of that incident, one aspect was clear. Then, as almost always among English-speaking Canadians, the leader of the Bloc Québécois aroused anger, anguish, enmity, exasperation—all of it topped off by
uncharacteristically fierce expressions of Canadian patriotism. Among many French-speaking Quebecers, the response is no less colored: for them, the emotions include admiration, affection bordering on adoration—and fierce pride in Quebec.
What a difference a little more than four years can make in the life of a man—and a country. Until May 22,1990, the day he formally resigned from the government and cabinet of Brian Mulroney, his then-best friend and prime minister, Bouchard was the best example of Mulroney’s efforts to win over Quebec sovereigntists to the idea of working within the federal system. At the time, Bouchard was also a noticeably awkward politician, alternately shy and snobbish, ill at ease in English, uncomfortable mingling with potential voters, quicktempered, thin-skinned and unwilling to have his private life under constant public scrutiny. Today, the only such traits that remain are his sometimes brusque, impatient manner and his deep dislike of the demands that public office makes on his private life.
Everything else has changed. The new, improved, politically astute 1994 edition of Lucien Bouchard promises a smooth ride towards Quebec sovereignty and even handling of the rest of Canada, and offers a polished, smartly driven performance in the House of Commons. His command of English and level of self-confidence have improved to the point where he is probably the best—although the windiest—political orator in either language in Canada. Bouchard can sound confident and knowledgeable on issues such as the economy and national defence, where he has previously expressed little interest and had even less formal training.
Whether in private caucus meetings or in the Commons, Bouchard has unquestioned control of his party. Nie Leblanc, one of the group of five Quebec Tory MPs who bolted the party with Bouchard in 1990, shakes his head now when he thinks of the difference between the fumbling, uneasy politician Bouchard was then and the decisive leader he is now. “He has changed,” says Leblanc. “He’s quite a strict, severe leader. Under the circumstances, this is necessary.”
“Severe” is one word that Bloc MPs and workers use quite often in describing Bouchard: another is “demanding.” Pierrette Venne, a Tory MP who defected to the Bloc in 1991, uses both words in recalling an incident last year when she displeased him.
Bouchard had delegated her to ask the Speaker of the Commons whether he would be able to ask a question during the daily Question Period. The first time, Venne was only able to elicit a “perhaps” from the Speaker. After Bouchard sent her back a second time, she was told he would be able to ask one question, without the usual followup. At that point, recalls Venne:
“He was boiling, and he turned to me and said: ‘Pierrette, if you’re not capable of doing this, I’ll go, I’ll do it myself.’ ” But the next day, adds Venne, “It was over, forgotten. He doesn’t hold a grudge.”
That is one side of Bouchard.
Others include occasional but sharp contradictions between the aloof public image and the private man. He has, say close associates, become noticeably more mellow since becoming a father for the first time at age 50. In the apartment in the Montreal district of Outremont that he shares with his second wife, Audrey Best, he spends hours playing on the floor with their two children, Alexandre,
4, and Simon, 2. An elegantly dressed figure almost never seen without tie and his trademark double-breasted suits, he frets about his weight and impressive appetite. But, says Lyne Jacques, a Montreal lawyer and former federal Liberal who is now an adviser to the Bloc, those worries seldom seem to stop Bouchard from indulging in a lunchtime passion for smoked meat sandwiches.
Mulroney once introduced Bouchard to Ronald Reagan by describing him as the “most eloquent French-Canadian that I know.” Nonetheless, his speech in private, as Venne notes, retains the dated backwoods expressions and traces of the muddy twang of his native Lac-St-Jean area. That, says Venne, is “one of the things that creates a bond with ordinary Quebecers.” As Canada’s ambassador to France from 1985 to 1988, Bouchard was renowned for his fondness for travel and the city’s expensive cultural and culinary delights. As a cabinet minister, he drew fire for spending $35,000 on office furnishings—including a $10,000 mahogany bookcase unit that he cancelled after public outcry. But he has learned his lessons regarding frugality well: when the House of Commons is in session, he stays at the
In Bouchar Quebecers have found a leader who combines the passion of Lévesque with the cool logic of Trudeau
$55-a-night Holiday Inn in Hull, Que. Unlike Reform Leader Preston Manning, Bouchard receives no compensation from the Bloc for such expenses as car, clothes or dry cleaning.
Some of Bouchard’s contradictions are more damaging to him politically: he has a history of making blunt statements that he recants just as bluntly several years later. In 1988, he said that “the solution of independence, as such, is no longer a viable solution for Quebec,” and added, in a separate interview, that “I don’t like the word ‘separatist’; it’s not the reality.” But during a visit to Washington in March, he unabashedly described himself as a separatist. In 1990, after leaving the Tories, he initially rejected the idea of a Quebec-first party—only to form the Bloc several months later. In 1991, he said, at separate times, that an independent Quebec would have its own passport and might tie its currency to the Canadian dollar. Now, he says that Quebec and Canada would share both the existing passport and the dollar.
At the same time, Bouchard has learned how to shift positions and sidestep on issues as well as any politician. One example: three years ago, when Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari spoke in favor of a united Canada, Bouchard publicly chastised him for “meddling” in Canada’s internal affairs. But Bouchard, in his role as official Opposition leader, saw no contradiction in using a trip to France last month almost entirely to promote sovereignty—and to suggest repeatedly that French government officials widely support that aim.
Those contradictions are, perhaps, the realities and compromises that all politicians face. On more fundamental issues, the outcome of Bouchard’s positions is clear. The friendship with Mulroney, like Bouchard’s commitment to Canada, is irrevocably over. The tight circle of people who were longtime friends of both men has broken apart, as most of them have taken sides. Mulroney, says one of the few people who has remained on speaking terms with both men, almost never mentions Bouchard’s name. Instead, he talks bitterly about “him”—often accompanied by colorful and unprintable adjectives. Bouchard, in turn, has been alternately wistful about and critical of Mulroney. At one point in the constitutional debate of 1992, he suggested Mulroney was being more harsh to Quebec than was Pierre Trudeau—probably the worst insult in sovereigntist lexicon. But when Mulroney left politics last year, Bouchard praised him for his “deep commitment” to Quebec—high praise from a sovereigntist to a federalist.
On the odd occasions now when Bouchard speaks of Mulroney, it is with a sense of loss. That is occasionally evident, too, when he speaks of Canada. In a Maclean’s interview two years ago, Bouchard described Canada as a “noble dream that failed.” Unlike Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau, but much like the late René Lévesque, Bouchard appears saddened by that notion. That ambivalence towards the rest of Canada resonates in the souls of many Quebecers, both federalist and sovereigntist, and helps to explain Bouchard’s appeal in the province.
And there is another factor to be considered as Quebec faces the increasing likelihood of another referendum on the province’s constitutional future. Fourteen years ago, when Lévesque and Trudeau were both in power, many Quebecers used to say that the cool, philosophical Trudeau represented the person they wanted to be, but the more mercurial, engaging Lévesque represented the person they really were. Whether the rest of Canada likes him or not, in Lucien Bouchard, Quebecers have found a political leader who embodies a bit of both.
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.