For better or for worse, the result of the coming Quebec election will have a profound effect on Canada
When they first took centre stage in the 1970s and 1980s, the cast of characters in the ongoing melodrama of Quebec politics was so familiar that no one in Canada needed a program to tell them apart. On the left—very much so—were the prosovereignty members of the Parti Québécois (PQ): at the party’s interminable weekend rallies, they smoked imported French cigarettes, dressed in determinedly proletarian leisure suits and quivered with delicious indignation at apocryphal tales of fat unilingual English salesladies in downtown Montreal stores who had once told them to “speak white.” They were usually artists, academics, union leaders or provincial civil servants with full job security. On the right were the federalist Liberals. They were professionals from the private sector, expensively dressed and looking not unlike middle-class Canadians in other provinces—or, at least, the well-fed, white, contented and prosperous ones. And in the audience, other Canadians intently watched, organized petitions beseeching Quebecers to stay in Canada and staged conferences to worry about What Quebec Wants.
Times may change, but Canada’s internal worries about the future remain maddeningly familiar. As the impending Quebec election campaign will almost certainly demonstrate, age has blurred the distinctions between the two parties to the point where they look alike and, on some economic issues, even sound alike. But in other ways, time has not always been kind to the latest revival of Canada’s most enduring piece of political theatre. Even the pre-election campaign period has been far from elegant. Premier Daniel Johnson, with his party trailing badly in every recent public opinion poll, delayed an election call widely expected last week. (By week’s end, senior party officials were suggesting that the election would almost certainly be called this week for Sept. 12.) In the face of that inaction, PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau announced that his party would begin its own campaign at once, without waiting for a formal declaration. “Our campaign is under way, and Mr. Johnson can join us when he wants to,” he said during a swing through the Charlevoix region late last week. Johnson, added a frustrated Jean Royer, a special adviser to Parizeau, could “go to hell.” At the same time, the audience for Quebec’s ongoing soul-searching has also become more testy. Both inside and outside the province, many Canadians worry more about such traditional midsummer problems as crabgrass and blackflies than about the equally enduring dilemma of whether Quebec will stay or go. “Will they separate? I’m rather indifferent,” was the somewhat typical response last week of Rodney deRosenroll, a 66-year-old retired accountant in the Ottawa area community of Kanata. Inside the province, anglophones and francophones appear united on at least one issue: they are equally unenthused about the prospect of an election. “I just don’t care any more because I’ve had enough of politics,” says Gabriela Simonka, a 25-year-old Montreal engineer. “Basically, I’m saturated.”
But if the fight for Quebec’s political soul is now more prickly than passionate, one key factor remains the same about the coming battle between the Liberals and the PQ: the size of the stakes. For the seventh time in the past quarter century, a Quebec election campaign will be a showdown between two parties with dramatically different visions of the future of the province. The result, whether Canadians like to acknowledge it or not, will inevitably affect the entire country. A PQ win, which on the eve of the election call appeared near certain, would spark a new period of uncertainty that would not be resolved until after a provincial referendum on independence, which Parizeau has promised to hold eight to 10 months after taking office. The result, investment analysts say, would be a rise in interest rates and a falling Canadian dollar, fuelled by continuing uncertainty among international investors over Canada’s future.
And under Parizeau, the PQ plans to be far more aggressive in its dealings with Ottawa than it was in its nine previous years of rule under René Lévesque, from 1976 to 1985. Relations between the federal government and Quebec are almost guaranteed to be difficult: Parizeau has also said he plans to challenge federal control over a number of areas, such as maritime operations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As well, his wish to begin negotiating “terms of sovereignty” with Ottawa even before a referendum is held is certain to arouse an angry response in the rest of the country.
For those reasons, Canadians outside Quebec who long for constitutional quiet regard the prospect of a PQ victory with the same enthusiasm as they would a toothache. On the other hand, an upset Liberal win would not only chase the question of Quebec’s future from centre stage, but also cast into doubt the future of the Bloc Québécois in Ottawa. A provincial Liberal win, Bloc Leader Lucien Bouchard has said, would force the party to “profoundly rethink” its role in Ottawa—and even whether it has one. It would also probably mean that the federal Liberals, under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, would move more swiftly on such issues as deficit reduction and the reform of social programs. Some senior Liberals concede privately that a key reason that progress in both areas has been stalled is unwillingness to annoy Quebec voters before a possible referendum.
Similarly, as federal and provincial liberals point out, the re-election of a federalist government in Quebec would increase the chance of achieving more deals like last week’s modest but encouraging interprovincial agreement to reduce trade barriers. The agreement’s major conditions include: the creation of a dispute-resolution mecha\ nism to settle trade arguments; an end to provinces offering compet; ing subsidies to lure businesses away from each other; and an end to : some restrictions on companies seeking business in other provinces. I At the same time, the deal was equally notable for areas where it i failed to achieve any progress: stiff barriers still exist against the sale of beer and wine by companies to different provinces, for example, and energy and agricultural issues were not discussed at all. Still, the deal marked the first such co-operative agreement in Canada’s history and, said Johnson, “proves the economic union can evolve.”
Johnson’s days of contributing to that evolution, however, appear numbered. The Liberals lag far behind the PQ in every pre-election poll taken this year: one poll released last week, conducted jointly for The Globe and Mail and Le Devoir newspapers, gave the PQ a 25-percentagepoint lead among francophone voters, and a 51to 44-per-cent lead overall. If that support holds, it could give the PQ as many as 100 of the National Assembly’s 125 seats. (The standings now are Liberals 78; PQ 33; Equality party 1; Independents 5; vacant seats 8.) Perhaps most telling, the PQ is leading despite the fact that the same surveys indicate falling support for sovereignty, and little enthusiasm for Parizeau personally. In fact, the surly tone of recent exchanges between Johnson and Parizeau emphasizes the churlishness that pervades modern-day Quebec politics.
Johnson, in the words of Journal de Montréal political columnist Michel C. Auger, is so dull that many people see him as former finance minister Michael Wilson “without the charisma.” A rambling, repetitive 55-minute speech that Johnson gave last week at a packed rally in his own riding of Yaudreuil, designed to inspire Liberals, appeared only to prove that point. On the other hand, the politest way to describe Parizeau’s single most striking quality is that his confidence in his own abilities is almost breathtaking. Neither inspires widespread affection. Both, on the other hand, speak in superficial, carefully measured sound bites that stress subjects dear to the hearts of businesspeople everywhere: the importance of deficit reduction, job creation and free trade.
In fact, a retooled PQ has done its best to push the ill-tailored leftists of yesteryear out of sight, while attempting to draw attention to a new generation of more business-friendly candidates. The old lines, PQ supporters are fond of saying, have been redrawn: it is no longer true that the business community almost exclusively supports the Liberals. They have a point: among the PQ’s current crop of star candidates are a former president of an accounting firm, Rita Dionne-Marsolais; Richard Le Hir, the former president of the Quebec Manufacturers’ Association ; and Daniel Paille, a former vice-president of the Montrealbased publishing giant, Quebecor Inc. They, like most Péquistes these days, preach the gospel of economic responsibility and the merits of free trade and sound much, in fact, like traditional Liberals. The Liberals themselves, on the other hand, are courting as a candidate Yvon Charbonneau, a onetime far-left firebrand union leader, who was thrown in jail in the early 1970s for defying back-to-work legislation passed by then-Premier Robert Bourassa.
But nomic behind issues, the PQ’s most careful of the party’s efforts key to portray figures itself and as economic centrist policies on ecostill reflect the PQ’s roots as a social-democratic group with a strong faith in government. Once, the PQ was known for attracting the best and brightest of young Quebec intellectuals. Now, what is most striking is how old many of the candidates are—and how many have been with the party since its earliest days in the late 1960s. They include Parizeau, 63; former language czar Camille Laurin, 72; and Denis Lazure, 68. In all, 10 of the current candidates were ministers in the last PQ government.
At the same time, the party’s electoral program reflects a leftist tilt that is not always evident in Parizeau’s pro-business rhetoric. The PQ program describes government as the “motor of the economy” and suggests maintaining or expanding its role in a wide range of areas. The party platform includes a commitment to try to eliminate unemployment, put a moratorium on the sale of Crown corporations and increase Quebec government investment in companies doing business in the province. As well, the party program describes deficit reduction as something that is desirable but “should not be achieved blindly at the price of all our past achievements.”
By contrast, the Liberals, since Johnson took power from the retiring Robert Bourassa in January, have charted a resolutely conservative economic course that seems aimed at reducing government’s role in the economy. Finance Minister André Bourbeau’s budget, tabled last May, called for the privatization and sale of eight existing Crown corporations, and said government’s future role in any commercial ventures
should be regarded as “strictly temporary.” The party’s platform also calls for the complete elimination of budget deficits within the next five years, and a comprehensive reform of the health-care system, including the privatization of unspecified services.
At the same time, the Liberals are trying to convert a public relations problem into a virtue by emphasizing the relative youth and large number of their new candidates. Seventy of the party’s candidates are running for the first time; 12 are 35 years of age or younger.
“We are offering Quebecers a truly renewed party,” said John Parisella, the director of their election campaign. But that is partly because of the unusually high number of Liberals who decided not to run again: those stepping down include 17 former cabinet ministers. And unlike the 1985 and 1989 elections, few of the party’s new faces are well-known.
As well, Johnson, despite his firm commitment to federalism and fluent bilingualism, has annoyed many anglophones, normally the party’s most staunch supporters. The reason: he did not appoint any Englishspeaking Quebecers to his cabinet, and has encouraged or appointed francophone candidates in a number of ridings in the West Island of Montreal, where the concentration of anglophones is highest. One vivid example is the riding of Westmount, where Education Minister Jacques Chagnon is running in a seat that has traditionally been re garded as the preserve of an anglophone destined for the cabinet. But those accusations of heavy-handedness do not only come from anglophones. Former deputy premier Lise Bacon, who clashed several times with Johnson when both were in the cabinet, complained that Johnson planned to replace her in her riding even before she had decided to retire. Recently Bacon, a well-known figure in the party for more than two decades, complained privately to several friends that “I no longer feel as though it is my party.”
For the Liberals, that is not a hopeful sign: loyal party members and firm federalists are not something that the party has in overabundance as it campaigns for what Johnson last week called “one of the most important elec-
tions in Quebec’s history.” One truism that veteran political organizers cite as a key to a winning campaign is to “keep your old friends even as you make new ones.” Already, the Liberals con-
cede that they have little hope of winning votes from the 35 to 40 per cent of Quebecers who, polls show, are committed sovereigntists. Some Quebec federalists will sit on the sidelines by mutual agreement: federal Liberal MPs, for example, will play only a negligible role, and Chrétien is not likely to be involved at all. But the real challenge, Liberals concede, is to persuade federalists who are unhappy with the present government that the consequences of a PQ victory would be even worse. The PQ, Johnson said in a speech last week, “wants to have [Quebecers] believe that there will be two chances to express an opinion on sovereignty”: the election and the referendum. But, insisted Johnson, “it’s the first one— the election—that matters.” Still, Quebecers, according to a popular maxim in the province, are so traditionally cautious that they “like to wear a belt and suspenders at the same time.” And two chances, instead of one, may be the kind of odds they cannot refuse.
With CHRISTINA WOLANIUK in Montreal and LUKE FISHER in Ottawa