ANDREW PHILLIPS October 23 1995


ANDREW PHILLIPS October 23 1995




The drab industrial town of Sorel, 50 km northeast of Montreal, is hardly a place to lift the spirits. These days, it is best known as the Quebec headquarters of the Hell’s Angels, the feared motorcycle gang whose bloody feud with the rival Rock Machine has shocked the province. Organizers for the Yes side in Quebec’s referendum view Sorel, with its overwhelmingly French-speaking working-class population, as prime territory for their message (though “Les Hells,” as they are known locally, do not even bother to register to vote). So it was there that Lucien Bouchard chose last week to begin his fight to resuscitate the sovereigntist cause. At a run-down community centre just a few doors down Rue Prince from the

church where Angels slain in the gang wars are buried, Bouchard electrified 400 of the separatist faithful with an impassioned appeal to pride and patriotism. It was not, he acknowledged later, the most glamorous setting he had ever spoken in. “But the cause,” he said, “is the most important.”

The cause, of course, was nothing less than saving the separatist movement from the type of crushing defeat on Oct. 30 that might have buried it for a generation. Until Premier Jacques Parizeau bowed to intense pressure from within his own Parti Québécois and handed Bouchard the effective leadership of the Yes forces, the squabbling, stumbling sovereigntists had seemed doomed to failure—their leader ineffective, their troops demoralized. Bouchard’s nomination as the “chief negotiator” for Quebec in the event of a Yes vote at least gave the separatist camp a fighting

chance. The crowds who greeted him everywhere he went with rhythmic chants of “Lu-cien! Lu-cien!” served clear notice that those who had already written off the separatists and begun debating the size of a seemingly inevitable federalist victory should think again. “The result,” Bouchard predicted, “will be a big surprise for those who had bought the champagne too early.” The early signs were that, indeed, Bouchard’s appearance did give the Yes side a badly needed boost—at least temporarily. In a week that also saw a major show of federalist strength in Montreal as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and the nine English-speaking premiers hosted the visiting Chinese leader, Li Peng, a new set of opinion polls suggested that the sovereigntists had narrowed the gap over the past week. The survey of 1,002 voters, carried out between Oct. 8 and 12

by Groupe Léger & Léger for Le Journal de Montréal and The Globe and Mail, put support for the Yes side at 49.2 per cent and the No at 50.8 per cent. Given the poll’s margin of error (plus or minus 3.1 percentage points), it suggested that the federalist and separatist forces were essentially tied. Another poll, however, showed less change in public opinion. A survey of 1,013 voters conducted by Toronto-based Gallup Canada Inc. between Oct. 10 and 12 put support for the Yes at 39 per cent, the No at 43 per cent, and found 18 per cent of voters were undecided.

Since analysts say most undecided voters are probably federalists, it suggested that the bottom line was Yes, 43.5 per cent, and No, 56.5 per cent.

Those numbers, however, were far from decisive with two weeks to go before Quebecers vote on Oct. 30. The question remained: would Bouchard’s dramatic seizure of the leadership of the Yes forces and his status as the most popular and credible politician in Quebec be enough to give them victory? Federalists, predictably, were dismissive. “We’re not running a beauty contest,” Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson snapped while campaigning in Baie-Comeau, on the lower north shore of the St. Lawrence River. Lucienne Robillard, the federal minister in charge of referendum strategy, interpreted Bouchard’s new role as an admission that he had failed to effectively challenge Chrétien in Parliament. “It was very clear to us that he lost the battle in the House of Commons,” she said in an interview with

Maclean’s. “For us, it doesn’t change anything. It’s only changing the bus driver; the bus is going in the same direction.” Privately, though, federalist organizers acknowledged that the momentum in favor of the Yes forces was a wake-up call for a campaign that risked becoming complacent after weeks of leading by up to 10 points. “We can’t afford to take anything for granted,” said one.

The sovereigntists’ message, too, changed in subtle but crucial ways. Their organizers are well aware that if Quebecers believe they are being asked whether or not to make Quebec an independent country, the response will be a massive No. But Bouchard has stressed the new partnership that sovereigntists want to offer English Canada, as he did at a noisy rally in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, 30 km east of Montreal. Typically, he said that a Yes vote is needed to send a strong Quebec team to a negotiating table with the rest of Canada to bargain “d’égal à égal” (equal to equal)—the historic dream of those who see the country’s origins as a pact between two founding peoples. The sovereigntists’ hope is that enough Quebecers will somehow interpret a Yes vote as a way to give the province more leverage, despite Parizeau’s repeated and unambiguous warnings that sovereignty does indeed mean creating a new country. One sign of Bouchard’s impact came when a federalist businessman, JeanDenis Côté, president of the wine-distribution company Groupe Paul Masson, announced that he intends to vote Yes because he believes that will give Quebec the bargaining power to bring about a renewed federal system. The reason for his position, Côté said, was Bouchard’s nomination as Quebec’s would-be chief negotiator.

Federalists, aware of Bouchard’s appeal to so-called soft nationalists such as Côté, stepped up their efforts to send a clear message: a Yes vote means Quebec will become a separate country, and English

Quebec's referendum race tightens as the Bloc Québécois leader boosts the Yes forces

Canada has no interest in the new partnership that the sovereigntists are promising. Ontario Premier Mike Harris delivered that warning in Toronto during a speech to business leaders that was carefully vetted by No-side organizers. “Either we are one country or we are not,” Harris said bluntly. “A separate Quebec would be a foreign country. Period. Anything else would be wishful thinking.” Parizeau’s response: “I have to get a grip on my natural tendency to laugh.” Bouchard’s takeover of the Yes campaign may have galvanized sovereigntists, but as uneasy federalists reminded themselves last week, a referendum is not an election campaign. Quebecers will not be voting for a man on Oct. 30, but on a fundamental political question that they have been debating for a generation and more. As a result, even analysts sympathetic to the separatist cause doubted that the “Lucien factor,” as it quickly became known, would be enough to overcome the long-standing trend that puts the vote for sovereignty at around 45 per cent. Pierre Drouilly, a sociologist at the University of Quebec at Montreal who has studied long-term voting trends in Quebec and himself favors independence, concluded that the real effect of Bouchard’s higher profile would be to give the Yes side a respectable result on Oct. 30—perhaps enough for a moral victory through winning a majority of the francophone vote. “I think they will avoid disaster now,” he said. “Instead of 42 or 43 per cent, they have a chance of getting 45 or 46 per cent and a majority of the francophone vote. It’s still very difficult for them to go above that.”

On the campaign trail with Bouchard, though, it was easy to get the impression that the sovereignty forces had woken up and were roaring to victory. Everywhere that Bouchard went, he brought Yesside activists to their feet with his practised appeal to Quebecers’ deepest political feelings. In an age of low political expectations, the common wisdom is that voters no longer trust high-flying rhetoric and white-hot oratory. If so, someone forgot to tell Bouchard. At the

moment, he is unrivaled in Quebec—and possibly in Canada—as an orator. His message is a curious combination of the new—a call for rebuilding the relationship between Quebec and Canada—and the oldest type of appeal to Quebecers’ traditional sense of being not quite equal in the country they believe they founded on the banks of the St. Lawrence. In Sorel, he managed to push all the hot buttons for nationalists, reaching back two centuries to evoke the British conquest of 1759 and looking forward to promise a future without the acrid divisions of the present. “After a Yes vote, there won’t be any more federalists or sovereigntists,” he thundered. “There will just be Quebecers, all together.”

The response to Bouchard’s presence last week was extraordinary.

People reached out to shake his hand, or just to touch his sleeve, with the kind of moist-eyed enthusiasm that very few political leaders can evoke. “Monsieur Bouchard, you’re a real hero,” one middleaged woman told him in Sorel. In St. Jean, the cry from another supporter was “Lache-pas la patate, Lucien!”—an earthy phrase that literally means “Don’t let go of the potato” but which could better be rendered as “Hang in there, Lucien!” As Bouchard made his way to the stage, yet another eager sovereigntist evoked an image of the Yes side’s new hope taking the helm of a future Republic of Quebec by yelling out “Viva el Presidente!” Despite his personal appeal, though, there were signs that the Yes campaign was still plagued by the poor organization that hampered it earlier. Despite the difficulty he has in walking after losing his left leg—and nearly his life—last December to the so-called flesh-eating disease necrotizing myositis, he was forced to stand for more than an hour wedged among supporters throughout a joint rally with Parizeau because organizers had not thought to provide chairs for the speakers.

Bouchard’s appeal in Quebec to both pur et dur separatists and less-committed nationalists may be a mystery to English-Canadians accustomed to regarding him as a political Prince of Darkness bent on tearing the country apart. Bouchard, himself, has said that living simultaneously as a hero in Quebec and a villain in the rest of Canada is a confusing situation, “like having two characters.” In part, his appeal for Quebecers is a matter of style: in his oratory, he leaves aside the dry recitation of facts and figures so beloved by Parizeau and Johnson in favor of an appeal to Quebecers’ collective political feelings. “He rates 150 per cent on indignation,” says Jean Lapierre,

a former Bloc Québécois and Liberal MP who is now a radio hotline host in Montreal. “People love the way he pours out his feelings.”

Drouilly, the sociologist, puts it in more exotic terms. “Bouchard is so emotional in public, he touches people directly,” he says. “It’s a kind of political seduction. Watching him work a crowd is remarkable; it’s like a love affair between the leader and the audience.” And, of course, Bouchard’s brush with death gave him the added stature of a near martyr. When he makes his awkward way to the centre of a stage and hands his cane to an aide, the personal sympathy from his audience is palpable.

The 56-year old Bouchard’s complicated political path—from the federal Liberals of Pierre Trudeau in the late 1960s, to the Parti Québécois in the 1970s, the federal Conservatives in the 1980s and the Bloc in the 1990s—is also seen quite differently in Quebec than elsewhere. For English-Canadians, it can look like blatant opportunism, shifting to the separatist camp when it was in the ascendancy, then back towards federalism when former prime minister Brian Mulroney invited Bouchard first to become ambassador to France and then federal minister of the environment, and finally returning to the sovereigntist movement as founder of the Bloc in 1990. Journalist Manon Cornellier, author of a new study of Bouchard’s party entitled The Bloc, argues that most Quebecers do not see his political zigzags as inconsistent. When he quit the Tories over the failure of the Meech Lake accord, she notes, he traded a seat in cabinet for a very uncertain future as leader of a separatist splinter group. “People see him as a man of principle who has defended Quebec’s interests regardless of what party he is in, at personal cost to himself,” she says. Drouilly endorses the widespread view that Bouchard has managed to voice Quebecers’ often-contradictory aspirations throughout his career. “His political path reflects that of most Quebecers who are not committed to one party or the other— which is to say, the majority,” says Drouilly.

This week, Bouchard’s appeal will be tested once again. The question will be whether sovereigntists can turn the initial boost in support that he helped to bring about into a winning trend that will last until the vote on Oct. 30. In any case, Bouchard himself is already a winner. If, as still seems likely, the No side triumphs but the Yes scores well enough to claim a moral victory, sovereigntists will surely hail Bouchard as the man who averted the humiliation of a crushing defeat. And that will position him for what may well be his real goal: eventually replacing the discredited Parizeau as leader of the PQ and becoming the undisputed leader of the sovereignty movement. □

During a swing through Western Canada, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien expressed his gratitude that Canadians i outside of Quebec had resisted provo[ A cations from separatists. “You did not lo' bite,” he told a Liberal fund-raising dinner in Saskatoon. “You kept your cool. In your way, you said to the people of Quebec that we want to keep the family together.”

Noting that discontent with the status quo is deeply rooted in many parts of the country, former prime minister Joe Clark told a business audience in Calgary that if Quebec separates from Canada, other provinces may soon follow suit. “It’s a good thing that the referendum on Oct.

30 is not being held in British Columbia,” he added, because many people there

are already looking to the Pacific Rim for their future.

television debate between Premier Jacques Parizeau and Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson scheduled for Oct. 15 was cancelled after the Yes side refused to agree to the format advanced by their opponents.

i Premier Parizeau’s wife, Lisette Lapointe, stormed off the stage during the inauguration of a Quebec City square after Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet pointedly remarked that francophone businessmen have been so successful “the premier thinks some have too much power and are allowed to say too much.” Lapointe was overheard saying: “I feel sick and insulted.”