CANADA

'I'M REALLY BACK'

Bouchard tries to breathe new life into the cause of separatism

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 6 1995
CANADA

'I'M REALLY BACK'

Bouchard tries to breathe new life into the cause of separatism

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 6 1995

'I'M REALLY BACK'

Bouchard tries to breathe new life into the cause of separatism

CANADA

First came the man, then the myth. And last week, when Lucien Bouchard made his long-awaited return to Parliament Hill, all that seemed missing was the inevitable television mini-series on his life.

Someday, no doubt, one will be made. In the meantime, there was almost everything else the multimedia era can offer a legend-in-the-making: it was virtually impossible to turn on a television or open a newspaper in either official language without confronting images of the gaunt but still game leader of the Bloc Québécois. “I am back, really back, this is not a one-shot deal,” Bouchard insisted in his first public meeting with reporters since his December bout with necrotizing myositis (commonly known as the flesh-eating disease) that cost him his left leg—and almost cost him his life.

And, in one of several flashes of humor that he has not previously shown much

evidence of in public, he poked fun at his own ubiquitous, tightly scripted media presence. “The next time I come back after being close to death, I will do it differently,” he said with a smile.

No matter. The present-day Bouchard is, given the severity of his illness, a remarkably lively figure. As he made clear in several exchanges in the House of Commons, he has lost none of his rhetorical skills or passion. The only difference is that instead of gesturing with both hands, as was once the case, he now keeps one hand balanced on a wood railing in front of him to steady himself. Similarly, although he now uses a cane to provide extra balance with his new prosthetic leg, he has only a slight limp, and despite a widely seen stumble that took place in front of television cameras, Bouchard moves up and down stairs—usually one of the most difficult challenges for recent amputees—relatively swiftly and easily. And Bouchard vows that he will be “as active and present as I was before” in the Commons, and in public life in general.

If the outpouring of good wishes from across Canada during Bouchard’s recovery was any indication, that news will be received with pleasure by most Canadians. But it is especially good news for Quebec sovereigntists, who are counting desperately on Bouchard to inject new energy into their recently moribund cause. After a long period in which federalists seemed to have all but absented themselves from the public debate about Quebec’s future, their silence appears golden. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who was excoriated both in and outside the province for his low-key approach, “is suddenly being hailed for his wisdom and discretion,” notes an adviser sardonically. “Well, we knew he had that all along.” More to the point, Chrétien now has the well-respected Lucienne Robillard at his side. Fresh from her byelection victory in the Montreal rid-

ing of St-Henri/Westmount on Feb. 13, Robillard was sworn in as labor minister last week, and given the added responsibility of directing Ottawa’s efforts in the referendum campaign—if and when it ever comes. Robillard, a provincial cabinet minister under former premier Robert Bourassa, “was unquestionably one of the two or three smartest, most able ministers we had,” says John Parisella, Bourassa’s former chief of staff. She will serve as Ottawa’s representative on the No side in a referendum—the same role Chrétien served in the 1980 campaign. A major plus is that she also gets along well with Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson, which leaves her well placed to try to co-ordinate the views of Chrétien and Johnson. It also means that she will be given the spotlight in Quebec rather than Privy Council President Marcel Massé or Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet.

There is more good news for Chrétien. He has several new polls, including one released last week, showing a comfortable lead for the federalist side among decided voters. The poll, conducted by the Angus Reid Group, showed that 54 per cent of decided respondents would vote No to sovereignty, while 42 per cent were in favor. The province-wide sovereignty commissions, which were supposed to provide a springboard for the movement, have ended up for the most part preaching to the converted—the approximately 40 per cent of Quebecers who at any time will vote for sovereignty. Otherwise, the hearings have sometimes been sparsely attended, and many of those who do testify are either longtime Péquistes or representatives of special-interest groups. Similarly, a series of Quebec government studies that were expected to provide dramatic examples of the cost of waste and duplication between federal and provincial governments have so far failed to uncover any such evi-

dence. And perhaps most important, it is Quebec sovereigntists who now show the same signs of disunity and disarray that appeared for so long to be the exclusive domain of federalists.

The dilemma for Bouchard as he begins his return to public life is simple. On the one hand, he must provide enough solace and spark to convince disenchanted sovereigntists and undecided voters that there is a wave building up on behalf of the Oui side in an eventual referendum. But he must do so while simultaneously tamping down the enthusiasm of die-hard sovereigntists—and cocksure federalists—who are demanding a referendum soon, with the most clear-cut question possible. The reason: even the Parti Québécois’s own polls indicate they could not win under those conditions. Although Bouchard insists

he still wants a referendum in 1995—as Premier Jacques Parizeau has promised—it is clear that he is thinking later in the year, rather than sooner. It is less clear whether Bouchard thinks the question to be asked in such a referendum should even directly offer Quebecers the option of full sovereignty. Asked whether he might like to see a question that would propose that Quebecers stay linked to Canada through an arrangement similar to the European Union, Bouchard said with careful ambiguity: “We shouldn’t exclude anything positive, interesting and creative.”

The new wording is one of several possibilities that sovereigntists are considering. Another option would be to ask Quebecers to choose between sovereignty and the status quo, which would imply that Canada’s

constitutional arrangements can never be changed. A third option would be to ask voters to give the provincial government a mandate to demand specific and wide-ranging new powers from Ottawa. If those powers were not granted by a certain date to be specified in the referendum, the government would then have the mandate to declare Quebec a fully sovereign state. Yet another option would be to ask voters to choose from several choices, ranging from full sovereignty to the status quo to a new confederal arrangement giving Quebec new powers.

But any or all of those questions carry their own set of risks for sovereigntists. A multi-question referendum, for example, would force Quebec to change its existing referendum law and spark a long, contentious debate even before the campaign began. Quebec’s chief electoral officer, Pierre-F. Côté, last week took the unusual step of publicly criticizing such a notion. Another danger is that Canadian political leaders outside Quebec, whose co-operation would be essential in any future association with a sovereign Quebec, would not recognize the legitimacy of a referendum if they considered the question too soft.

But the real gamble of a soft question, acknowledge some sovereigntists, lies in the uncertain response of Quebecers. “Just how stupid are we going to look if we ask a soft question and the result is still a majority Non?” one PQ member of the national assembly told Maclean’s. That is quite possible: despite the frequent assertion of Bouchard and others that Quebecers wholeheartedly reject the status quo, a recent poll commissioned by the CBC showed that 51 per cent of decided respondents, faced with a choice between sovereignty or the status quo, would choose the latter. A No vote to such a question would leave the PQ in the unenviable and ironic position of putting the province in a weaker bargaining position with the rest of Canada after a referendum than when they took power.

Bouchard’s return also brings an intangible, but important, element that should be appreciated by most Canadians. He remarked several times last week how “profoundly moved” he was by the outpouring of sympathy from outside Quebec. Similarly, the prolonged ovation in the Commons that marked his return left him briefly tearful. In acknowledgment of the yellow rose left on his empty desk by Reform MP Jan Brown during his illness, Bouchard sent her a rose on his return. “I have looked forward to this moment since a certain day in December, when technology and destiny combined to give me another chance,” he said. The ideological gulf between sovereigntists and federalists remains as wide as ever. But between Bouchard on the one side, and his political foes on the other, the emotional distance may never again be quite the same.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

in Ottawa