CANADA

Peace with a price

A voice from the past haunts Lucien Bouchard

BRENDA BRANSWELL November 11 1996
CANADA

Peace with a price

A voice from the past haunts Lucien Bouchard

BRENDA BRANSWELL November 11 1996

Peace with a price

CANADA

A voice from the past haunts Lucien Bouchard

For all of the Parti Québécois government’s efforts to ensure a smooth ride at its long-awaited summit on Quebec’s economic future, the road was definitely bumpy. Some things last week were beyond the government’s control—especially former premier Jacques Parizeau’s return to the political scene by writing a newspaper article critical of the Bouchard government. But the most striking image was that of social discord resulting from the government’s own cost-cutting initiatives. As the summit of government, business and labor leaders opened at Montreal’s Sheraton Centre on Oct. 29, several hundred protesters gathered outside to burn Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard in effigy. Some of the demonstrators voiced an often-heard criticism— and one echoed in Parizeau’s article: the PQ has abandoned social democracy and climbed into bed with business leaders. “It’s simply to win votes for sovereignty—but they’ll lose others,” warned Laval teacher Louise Ducharme, who joined a union protest near the hotel. “It’s too bad, but that’s the way it is.”

The perceived close relationship between the Bouchard government and business has threatened the once-close relationship between the PQ and the province’s labor unions, traditional allies of the party. And it made the premier’s task all the more delicate at the four-day summit, during which a series of committees made public reports on such issues as job creation strategies. With some union representatives threatening to walk out of the proceedings if the government did not introduce measures to soften the social effects of deficit-cutting, Bouchard was forced to counter the perception of his government’s pro-business leanings. Laying claim once again to the PQ’s mantle of social democracy, he reminded participants at a roundtable discussion about the government’s plan to adopt pay equity legislation this year. That measure is vigorously opposed by business groups—but supported by Quebec’s unions. “This is not a government that is insensitive, that cuts blindly,” Bouchard declared.

That view was not shared by Parizeau, whose article in the daily Le Devoir appeared on Oct. 30—the first anniversary of last year’s sovereignty referendum. In his article—much anticipated since Parizeau gave notice of its publication a week earlier—the former premier raised questions about the Bouchard government’s perceived abandonment not only of sovereignty but also of social democracy. He cited as evidence its plan to bring Quebec’s current $3.2-billion deficit to zero by the year 2000. ‘We risk entering into a known spiral: we cut, foreseen revenues fall, we cut again, they fall again,” Parizeau wrote. “I think that in wanting to do too much we’re affecting the health of the economy.” PQ cabinet ministers brushed aside those remarks. “With all due respect, I think Mr. Parizeau is wrong,” said Finance Minister Bernard Landry, who also served in Parizeau’s cabinet. Landry also noted that the deficitcutting target was the result of a consensus reached among the government, business and labor during Bouchard’s first economic summit held last March.

But Parizeau’s comments may well find some resonance within the PQ, where he is viewed as an unwavering separatist—and where some members are clearly irritated by Bouchard’s decision to shelve the idea of another sovereignty referendum for up to three years. Parizeau’s comments came just weeks before the party’s mid-November policy convention—and may inflame the ensuing debate over the issues of social democracy, sov-

ereignty and Quebec’s language laws. Some hard-core party members have made no secret of the fact that they want the province’s controversial Bill 86, which allows for bilingual commercial signs, abolished in favor of Frenchonly signs. And former federal Bloc Québécois MP Jean Lapierre, now a popular Montreal radio talk-show host, believes that Bouchard will be attacked on all fronts. “I think Parizeau could be destabilizing for the government because it has to pass the test of the convention,” he said. Lapierre, who is close to Bouchard, also said that Parizeau is frustrated by his departure from public life— and may continue to seek a higher public profile. “He’s looking for a role for himself,” Lapierre added. “So he will become the protector of the orthodoxy.”

Parizeau’s re-emergence left some commentators pointing to his past. It was not the first time that Parizeau has criticized a PQ premier: in 1987, emerging from a previous retirement, he led a movement to oust Pierre-Marc Johnson, who had called for temporarily shelving the sovereigntist option in favor of renewed federalism. But Laval University political science professor Louis Balthazar, for one, doubts if this time around Parizeau will have much impact. “I don’t think we can expect any major upheaval in the PQ,” Balthazar said. While “a lot of people agree with Parizeau within the PQ,” he said, the party remains solidly in power—which in itself mitigates against a strong anti-Bouchard movement. Meanwhile, Balthazar also noted that Parizeau himself has a credibility problem: the man now attacking the Bouchard government for its austerity measures carried out a major public sector wage rollback in 1982 while finance minister in the Lévesque government.

But Parizeau’s return to the public spotlight reopened some old wounds—particularly within Quebec’s anglophone community. After the last sovereignty referendum, Parizeau blamed the Yes side’s narrow loss on “money and the ethnic vote.” Comments in his article last week had a similar flavor. “The only thing that must be avoided is the belief that the improvement of relations with Montreal’s anglophone community is a sort of necessary condition to job creation and capital investment,” he wrote. ‘Today, Quebec’s economic development is no longer conditioned by the reactions of a few hundred people located on the Golden Square Mile or in Westmount.”

Bouchard, meanwhile, was clearly shaken by the appearance of Parizeau’s article. At one point, when asked about the former premier’s remarks, Bouchard curtly told reporters: “I won’t comment on what this man said.” By contrast, he appeared to make overtures to anglophones attending the summit, saying pointedly in his opening speech: “A year ago tonight, our gathering would have been unthinkable.” But the premier offered little in the way of allaying fears about a future Quebec drive towards sovereignty. Last week, a task force group headed by Imasco president Brian Levitt on the potential revitalization of Montreal’s staggering economy delivered its report at the summit. Based on interviews with 36 Montreal business leaders, it concluded that “until the burden of political uncertainty has been lifted, one cannot reasonably expect Montreal to create the number of jobs that it so badly needs.” But Bouchard indicated that sovereignty remained very much on the PQ’s agenda, telling business leaders that “it is something that goes beyond the summit and the national assembly—the authority is with the Quebec people.”

In the end, though, in spite of the protests and the criticism, a smiling Bouchard could point to some summit successes. The participants reached consensus on an agreement to create 72,000 jobs over three years. In fact, there seemed to be a little something for everyone. Labor walked away with the promise of a $250-million “solidarity fund” to help disadvantaged Quebecers find work—with the cost to be shared by government and employers. “It was a summit that creates hope,” declared Clément Godbout, president of the Quebec Federation of Labor.

Business leaders, meanwhile, got a promise that payroll taxes would be reduced—and the government would revise bureaucratic red tape, which business leaders say hampers economic growth. “We know each other a little better now,” said Jean Coutu, who presides over a major Quebec-based drugstore chain. “I think Bouchard has convinced the business people of Quebec and the people of Canada that, even with the option of sovereignty, Quebec is a good place to invest.” As for the premier, Bouchard said that the summit had been “a big risk—but one that we had to take.” It had, he added, ended with a little “magic.” That assessment may have been a touch optimistic. But after a week of curses, the premier could perhaps be forgiven for being a little spellbound.

BRENDA BRANSWELL