THE REFERENDUM'S NO MAN
Daniel Johnson is proving his critico be very worng:
Into Daniel Johnson’s bright blue gaze there sometimes slips a fleeting look of startled irritation. It arrives swiftly, and just as swiftly leaves. But it glimmered icily for an instant one evening last week in a suburban Montreal hotel room when the Quebec Liberal leader, during a pause on the referendum trail, was reminded that he is often underestimated by friend and foe alike. “I know it happens,” he snapped, eyes steadily widening in step with the spreading annoyance. “But I also happen to know who runs this show. OK? I happen to know who makes the final decisions.” And then the moment passed as Johnson, the man who is carrying Canada’s cause on his shoulders, settled back into the sofa. “Besides,” he chuckled, “if I’m not the real boss around here, then why are they wasting so much time worrying about me?”
Not a bad question. For it is true that Quebec’s separatist leaders do seem to be expending an inordinate effort attempting to belittle the personality, talents and status of the man at the helm of the opposing camp. Both Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau and his Ottawa ally, Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard, were at it again last week. While Parizeau was deriding Johnson’s “inferiority complex,” Bouchard was airily dismissing him as simply being “not worthy” of becoming premier again. There is, no doubt, a heavy dose of campaign rhetoric in the slurs the leader of Quebec’s Liberal party has endured with increasing frequency of late. But there may be another, more profound, reason. And it probably has much to do with the dawning recognition that the head of the No forces in ^ Quebec’s referendum campaign is performing far E beyond the worst fears of his adversaries—and g even the best expectations of some of his allies. 5
“I think what we are seeing in Daniel Johnson right now is a product of maturity, a politician in his prime who is finally hitting his stride,” said John Parisella, former premier Robert Bourassa’s chief of staff and a key No side strategist in the current referendum campaign. Even Johnson’s enemies are ready to grudgingly concede the point, if not always in public. “The son of a bitch has really surprised a lot of us,” grumbled one dismayed member of Parizeau’s Parti Québécois caucus, begging anonymity. Mario Dumont, the former Liberal youthwing president who bolted the party to help found the moderately sovereigntist Parti action démocratique, was willing to echo a similar view for the record, admitting to reporters on the campaign trail last week that Johnson “is more solidly anchored” as Liberal leader than
most people think, and is likely to emerge from a referendum victory with an even tighter grip on his party. Dumont, no friend of the staunchly federalist Johnson, even went so far as to add: “I, for one, hope he stays.” Federalist sympathizers in Quebec—and beyond—would agree, having few causes for real complaint about the campaign he has been waging in defence of Canada. Certainly, the opinion polls indicate that the coalition of forces assembled under Johnson’s command continue to hold an edge in the battle for the hearts and minds of Quebec’s voters. The most recent survey, carried out between Oct. 1 and Oct. 5 by Groupe Léger & Léger for Le Journal de Montréal and Toronto’s Globe and Mail, suggests that federalists have not lost any ground, nor have the sovereigntists gained any, despite
the formal launch of Parizeau’s referendum effort. The pollsters, after distributing slightly more than 13 per cent of respondents who were either undecided or unwilling to answer, put support for the No side in the referendum at 52.8 per cent, and for the Yes at 47.2 per cent.
The results were almost identical to a similar Léger & Léger survey conducted a week earlier, when the Montreal polling firm found 53.2 per cent for the No and 46.8 per cent for the Yes. What is more, they are only marginally more optimistic about the separatists’ referendum prospects than other recent polls, which have consistently given the federalists much higher leads, ranging from six to 10 points. Judging from past results, Léger & Léger’s surveys often tend to give a bigger share of support to sovereigntists than do most other polling firms. Observers note that the company is a family affair with
strong links to the nationalist movement. It was founded by the late Marcel Léger, a former PQ cabinet minister, and is now run by his son,
But no matter who the messenger, the message from all the pollsters is more or less the same. With three weeks to go until Quebec’s 4.8 million eligible voters cast their ballots on Oct. 30, Parizeau’s machine had clearly stalled.
In fact, there were plenty of telltale signs last week that the separatists’ dream of leading Quebec to independence may be in even more trouble than the polls suggest. It was supposed to be the week that finally witnessed the long-promised takeoff for the Yes camp. Parizeau appeared on provincewide prime-time television to officially launch the effort. His troops blanketed the province with tens of thousands of Yes posters—daisies and loonies and peace symbols in bright green and warm yellow, promising an equally colorful future. The premier himself boarded a psychedelically decorated bus and set off to tour the hinterland. For two days, he wandered through eastern Quebec and up the St. Lawrence River, encountering at almost every stop sparse crowds, technical breakdowns and awkward questions.
In Montmagny, 100 km east of Quebec City, media representatives and campaign staff came close to outnumbering the 65 people who
showed for a luncheon speech in a hall capable of seating 400. Even worse, he found himself confronted by the local mayor, JeanClaude Croteau, who worried aloud about the “lack of precision” in the separatists’ proposal for a political and economic partnership with the rest of Canada. “The majority of our local products are made of wood, metal and textiles and they are exported across the province, North America and the world,” said Mayor Croteau as Parizeau listened in pained silence. “It seems to me to be important that someone take the time to give clear proof that our products will be able to continue to circulate on the markets.”
If that was not bad enough, Parizeau was forced to suffer a broadside a day later, unloosed by one his own allies, Mario Dumont. Following in the premier’s footsteps among the towns and villages that dot the lower St. Lawrence shore, the young leader, apparently unaware that his words were on the record, groused to reporters about what he described as a “loser mentality” among many of the Péquiste rank and file. “Don’t ask me to do psychoanalysis,” he complained, pointing an accusing finger at separatist troops who seemed unwilling to “pull on their pants” to fight.
Stung by both the cool reception and Dumont’s barely veiled criticism, Parizeau finally lit a spark in his campaign late in the week in the town of Matane on the St. Lawrence estuary. But he managed to do it only by lashing out in bitter anger at some of Quebec’s leading businessmen, in particular two of the most successful entrepreneurs in the province, Bombardier Inc. chairman Laurent Beaudoin and Power Corp. president Paul Desmarais. “Now, they spit on us, the ones who financed their pro-
Johnson deserves much of the credit for the federalists' strong campaign
jects,” Parizeau told a wildly cheering crowd in direct reference to Beaudoin and Desmarais, both of whom have been outspoken in their opposition to sovereignty. “My friends, we have to get out. If not, they will constantly kick our asses.”
Parizeau made no attempt to hide the reasons behind his incendiary outburst in Matane. He later told reporters that he hoped to ignite an element of pride among Quebecers who have been victims of Quebec business’s “scare campaign” that is all too evidently working. “I never dreamed that those the Quebec community helped to be-
‘THERE IS STILL CONFUSION'
As leader of Quebec’s Opposition Liberals, Daniel Johnson heads the official No committee in the referendum campaign. He spoke last week while campaigning in Laval, just north of Montreal, with Senior Editor Andrew Phillips and Montreal Bureau Chief Barry Came. Excerpts:
Maclean’s: Why are you winning?
Johnson: We’re not winning. The campaign has just started. You win on the day of the vote. I happen to think the more people know, the more they vote No. People say, ‘Hey, what is this? We don’t need this weakening of our economy. We shouldn’t give up the state that we have in Canada.’ When people under-
stand what the question really means, that we won’t be renewing federalism if we vote Yes, that it’s a new country, [they are more likely to vote No].
But there’s still a lot of confusion out there, and that’s why the campaign is important. If there’s one Quebecer who believes that by voting Yes, that means our MPs in Ottawa will represent us and have leverage, I have work to do. The last thing it will do is increase our leverage. How can you expect people in authority [in English Canada] to respond positively to an offer of partnership from seven million people, a majority of whom have broken with the country?
Maclean’s: But isn’t it true that Quebec will lose leverage with a No vote?
Johnson: Not at all. [The issue is] how can we embark on a program to make the federation more efficient that would culminate ultimately in constitutional amendments? A No would provide a more positive atmosphere in which Quebec could go on seeking its objectives of recognition. If you become a loyal supporter of maintaining Canada and
come entrepreneurs of the first order would turn back against the same community to say “You are incapable,’ ” he complained. “I expected a lot of things in this campaign, but I never expected this.”
If there was a note of angry desperation in the separatist camp last week, however, there was much jubilation among federalists. While Dumont was grumbling about the lack of separatist fire in his home town of Rivière-du-Loup, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was masterfully enlisting the support of hockey legends of old in Ottawa, including a pair of Montreal Canadiens greats, Jean Béliveau and Henri Richard. Chrétien followed that up with his first personal foray into the campaign at a No rally in his home town of Shawinigan, Que. Joined by Johnson, Tory Leader Jean Charest, six senators and 12 francophone Liberal MPs from outside Quebec, the Prime Minister reminded Quebecers that they already wield great power in Canada. “The French fact has become a reality in Ottawa,” he said. “Francophone Quebecers occupy the highest positions in the administration.”
The No camp staged another impressive show of political muscle in Montreal, where more than 2,500 supporters crowded into the Metropolis nightclub to dance in the aisles as a parade of celebrities took repeated potshots at the separatists. Even Mila Mulroney was on hand, promising that her husband, former prime minister Brian Mulroney, would soon wade into the referendum fight. Liberal Leader Johnson, the star of the show, told the cheering crowd that “winds of change” were blowing across Canada that will persuade the rest of the country to work with Quebec to change the way the federal system functions.
Clearly, the federalist referendum machine was purring happily along as both sides headed into the final three weeks of the campaign. True, the polls were close enough to make predictions about the eventual outcome hazardous. But events were clearly moving in the direction the federalists want—so well, in fact, that virtually every key figure in the No camp is growing increasingly jittery about the possibility of committing the fatal error that might unhinge their effort. And that includes the man in charge. “We’re not winning,” Johnson insisted in an interview with Maclean’s. “The campaign is just starting; too many things can go wrong. I’ve been in politics long enough to know that you can only say you’re winning on the day the votes are counted.”
improving the lot of all Canadians, that provides an opportunity to discuss in a totally different type of atmosphere the problem which we still have.
Maclean’s: Many people in English Canada hope that a big No vote will make the whole Quebec issue go away.
Johnson: Well, they’re wrong. That would be a misreading of what Quebec is all about. Their willingness to co-operate with other Canadians to change things is very real. All Quebecers want change. In the background is the realization by all Quebecers that the Canadian Constitution should ultimately reflect our specific character, our distinct character.
Maclean’s: Could you spell out what you will be pressing for?
Johnson: No. It has nothing to do with the referendum. Even if I came up with a tremendous set of detailed proposals, the day following a No vote Jacques Parizeau will still be the premier. He will not take our platform; he will deride it from here to eternity. Quebecers will be able to choose at the next election whether they
trust us with a series of proposals.
Maclean’s: What could still go wrong for the No campaign?
Johnson: A flag-stomping incident would be no good—there’s no question. There are a few awkward moments likely to come. We are saying millions of words, there are hundreds of spokesmen in our camp. Somebody will misstep. But you can’t decide to break up a country on a slip of the tongue by something that somebody who’s not used to public speaking says to a partisan crowd.
Maclean’s: How important is it to get a so-called double majority, a majority of francophone voters and a majority of all voters?
Johnson: We don’t want to stray away from the basic fact that when you count the votes, you count them, you don’t weigh them. But politically, it would be helpful. It immediately stops any attempt by people who don’t think as serenely as others to start venting their anger. I hope the result will be so convincing either way that we can just turn the page and go on.
THE REFERENDUM CAMPAIGN
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made his first foray into the campaign, along with 30 of his MPs, 12 of them francophones from outside Quebec, at a No rally in his home town of Shawinigan, Que. Chrétien said that Quebecers looking for more power should realize that they already have a major share in running Canada.
In Ottawa, Russian President Victor Chernomyrdin entered the referendum debate. During a three-day visit to Canada, he spoke out in support of “an indivisible Canada.”
Mario Dumont, one of the three leaders of the sovereigntist forces, condemned the “loser mentality”
’that he said has gripped rmuch of the separatist camp. Dumont, leader of the tiny Parti action démocratique, joined the sovereignty coalition in June.
This week, the English-speaking premiers were entering the campaign. Ontario’s Mike Harris was scheduled to make a speech in Toronto responding to separatist proposals for a new partnership with the rest of Canada. Then, Chrétien and the nine English premiers were to meet in Montreal on Friday, Oct. 13, to host visiting Chinese Premier Li Peng. Premier Jacques Parizeau turned down an invitation to join them.
Still, the federalist troops have, so far at least, waged an effective battle. And for that, Johnson himself deserves much credit. For Quebec’s Liberal leader has rarely put a foot wrong since the campaign began. He presided over the construction of a smoothly functioning campaign organization, headquartered on the second floor of a nondescript office block on fashionable rue St-Denis in east-end Montreal. It is a high-tech effort, complete with a so-called war room, banks of television monitors and a staff of tested veterans who are on hand from well before dawn to well after midnight. More important, Johnson has proven himself to be an able warrior. “Daniel’s a fighter, a scrapper,” said longtime colleague André Bourbeau, finance minister in Johnson’s short-lived government. Johnson became premier in January, 1994, after Robert Bourassa retired, but held the job only eight months before his Liberals went down to defeat at the hands of Parizeau’s PQ the following September. “He showed that in the first week of the [referendum] campaign when he mauled Parizeau in the national assembly. I’ve never seen Parizeau handled that well.”
For some, Johnson’s emergence as a skilled campaigner is no surprise, and they point to last year’s provincial election as proof. “He brought us from 10 points down with two weeks to go to a virtual tie on voting day,” noted Bourbeau. But for others, friend and foe alike, little was expected from the man who was recently dismissed by La Presse chief editorialist Alain Dubuc as “the weak link on the federalist side.” Dubuc is by no means alone in that opinion. Part of the problem is Johnson’s personality. In a trade where the art of the schmooze should come as easily as breathing, he is an icy exception. Like Chrétien, the Quebec Liberal leader is not much given to networking. And he often betrays a difficulty in remembering even basic courtesies. At a recent rally near Quebec City, he was introduced to the oldest resident of the town, a man close to 100. The old fellow was clearly pleased at the occasion, as was everyone else in the room. But Johnson merely pumped the man’s hand once in a perfunctory way, and prepared to move on. He was saved by his wife, 48-year-old
Suzanne Marcii, who delicately guided him back, coaxing him into conversation with the man.
There have been other, more damaging, incidents. His relations with one former cabinet colleague, Lise Bacon, are still frigid as a result of what can only be described as a lack of basic courtesy. She remains angry about efforts Johnson supporters made to recruit a new candidate to run in her riding in the 1994 election even before she had announced her decision to retire. At the time, Bacon vowed never to have anything more to do with Johnson. After much persuasion, she recently agreed to campaign in the referendum fight, but pointedly remarked that she did not have to get along well with everyone in order to make common cause for a goal as important as defeating separatism.
It is incidents like that that once prompted a former colleague to describe Johnson as being “as warm as a tombstone.” But there is another side to the man, not often glimpsed by those beyond his immediate circle. Friends report that he was devastated when his wife (it is his second marriage) was struck with non-lethal skin cancer earlier this year. And he has certainly demonstrated concern for the well-being of another intimate, Westmount Liberal MNA Jacques Chagnon, who was education minister in Johnson’s government and his parliamentary assistant for six years when Johnson served as Treasury Board president in Bourassa’s cabinet. Last summer, Chagnon suffered a heart attack while on a fishing trip.
“Daniel was one of the first to visit me in the hospital and he was close to tears when he arrived,” recalled Chagnon. “He called my wife and my daughters every day when I was in the hospital. Since I’ve been home, he calls me every other day.”
Johnson’s relationship with his younger brother, the former PQ premier Pierre-Marc, is one of the abiding mysteries of Quebec political life. It is clear, however, that the two share a strong bond. Despite their obvious political differences, they have resisted the many attempts by the media over the years to discuss the issue in public. Even today, Johnson brushes off all attempts to probe the subject beyond remarking, as he did last week to Maclean’s: “We get together every now and then for coffee. Sometimes, we have some pretty good discussions.” Among political insiders in Quebec City, it was always understood that a pact existed between Daniel and PierreMarc to the effect that as long as one led one party, the other would not attempt to gain the leadership of the other. And it is certainly true that no one can recall an exchange between the Johnson brothers when they sat on opposite sides of the aisle in the national assembly.
In terms of political pedigree, Johnson has few peers inside or outside Quebec. The son of Daniel Johnson Sr., who served as Union Nationale premier of Quebec from 1966 to 1968, he grew up in an intensely political household. Quebec nationalism was always a guiding principle for the Johnson family. It was Johnson père who coined the famous phrase “Egalité ou indépendance”—equality or independence. For years, it has been used as a convenient key to understanding the political difference between the two brothers. While Pierre-Marc followed the path of independence into the PQ, Daniel stressed equality within Canada and eventually joined the Liberals.
It has been speculated that one of the forces that drove the Johnson brothers down such different political paths is the fact that Pierre-Marc remained in Quebec through the 1970 October Crisis and the subsequent years of turmoil while Daniel was studying abroad. In 1968, the year the boys’ father died, Daniel was earning a master’s degree in law at the University of London, where he also ob-
tained a PhD in 1971. After that, he spent two years at the Harvard Business School, completing his studies with an MBA. He did not return to Quebec until 1973, when he was 28.
His subsequent business career was spent in the heady atmosphere of high finance and even higher political connections at Paul Desmarais’s Power Corp. in Montreal, where Johnson eventually became vice-president. Finance Minister Paul Martin was there at the same time, as was Chrétiens future son-in-law, André Desmarais, son of the company president. Throughout Johnson’s time at Power Corp., it was always assumed that a political career awaited him. “It was not a question of if, but rather when,” Paul Martin later recalled. The moment came in 1981, when former Liberal leader Claude Ryan
The Johnson brothers have resisted the many attempts to divide them
persuaded Johnson to run for a seat in the national assembly. He won the mainly francophone riding of Vaudreuil, just west of Montreal, and has held it ever since.
Given his background, it is difficult to understand why Johnson has been, and continues to be, so widely underestimated. It certainly has something to do with his manner. “Daniel sometimes has to be reminded that nature may not have been as kind to others as it has been to him,” remarks Chagnon, phrasing the issue delicately. In short, he does not suffer fools gladly. But he is clearly learning. His new wife, a Montreal businesswoman whom he married two years ago after divorcing Jocelyne Pelchat, his first wife and the mother of his two grown children, has obviously had some success in blunting the sharper edges of his personality. At 50, he is also older and wiser.
In recent months, he has graphically demonstrated that he can shake his wooden public image when he latches onto an issue he really cares about. Clearly, the battle over the future of Canada and Quebec is something that concerns him deeply. He is, in fact, probably the most resolutely federalist leader the Quebec Liberals have had since Jean Lesage in the 1960s. And for that, the day may not be too long distant when those who care about the continued existence of Canada may have occasion to thank him.