Canada

A new tune in Quebec City

June 17 1996
Canada

A new tune in Quebec City

June 17 1996

A new tune in Quebec City

Bouchard plays down separatism— at least for now

In Lucien Bouchard’s version of events, it was a mere temporary lapse, the result of fatigue at the end of a gruelling three-day visit to the United States. It prompted him to deny in public what had taken place in private during separate conversations with four state governors. “There were no questions about sovereignty,” the Quebec premier categorically declared—seven times—as he described the encounters. Unfortunately for Bouchard, that was not the view of aides to Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who insisted that the governor had in fact expressed fears about the impact on Canada of Quebec’s separatist objectives. When confronted with the contradiction, Bouchard was forced into a humiliating retreat. “I really blew it,” he acknowledged on his return to Quebec to face a storm of accusations, not least that he had deliberately lied. “I simply did not remember.”

It was not the only occasion last week that Bouchard’s memory landed him in trouble. The premier spent much of his time during a quick trip to New York City and a whirlwind tour of three New England states attempting to justify, through a highly selective interpretation of recent events, a sudden reversal of policies and attitudes that astonished friend and foe alike. He began the week in New York by assuring a $250-a-plate luncheon gathering of influential Wall Street investors that he had no plans for either an early election or another referendum, conveniently overlooking the fact that barely a month ago he was ominously threatening both. He ended the week with a face-to-face meeting in Quebec City with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, an

encounter he had abruptly cancelled last month after accusing Chrétien of creating a crisis to destabilize his government. “No, no, no. There was no crisis,” argued a miraculously transformed Bouchard, insisting that it had been his intention all along to meet with the Prime Minister. “I did not change my mind,” he asserted. “I’m sticking to my original agenda.”

If that is true, it was certainly a well-kept secret For in the middle of May, Bouchard, reacting to the federal government’s decision to intervene in Quebec City lawyer Guy Bertrand’s high-profile attempt to have a court outlaw any unilateral declarations of Quebec independence, had angrily declared that he could no longer see himself “sitting with Mr. Chrétien in a photo op, smiling and shaking hands and talking about business as usual.” Last Friday, however, that is precisely what the Quebec premier was doing, sitting with the Prime Minister in a photo

opportunity at the historic Citadel on the edge of Quebec City’s Plains of Abraham, smiling and carrying on in a manner suspiciously similar to business as usual.

The pair met for two hours inside the imposing 170-year-old military fortress that serves as one of the two official residences of Canada’s governor general, emerging to stand side by side before furled Canadian and Quebec flags. By “mutual understanding,” the Constitution was not discussed. Rather, the Prime Minister and the premier reached agreement on three projects aimed at spurring economic growth in the province. They agreed to $60 million in funding for a railway bridge crossing the St Lawrence River at Quebec City; pledged to co-operate on ensuring that a future pipeline from Nova Scotia’s Sable Island natural gas fields would be routed through New Brunswick and Quebec rather than directly to U.S. markets; and gave the green

light to a new feasibility study for the controversial proposal to construct a high-speed rail link between Quebec City and Windsor, Ont. Both men were quick to point out that the railway study involved no financial commitments from any government, at least not yet. Bouchard said the study, expected to be completed in four months, will be funded entirely by the private consortium led by Quebec’s Bombardier Inc., which owns North American rights to the French technology for highspeed trains.

Both Chrétien and Bouchard

were careful to steer clear of any provocative remarks, particularly when each was asked if they were not strengthening the other’s political cause by agreeing to co-operate. The Prime Minister delicately denied that he was aiding sovereignty. And Bouchard remarked that helping to boost Quebec’s economy is “good for everyone, whether Quebec remains part of Canada or eventually becomes a sovereign country. In the end, it will be democracy that decides that issue.”

£ No, no, no. I did not change my mind. I'm sticking to my original agenda. ^

No matter what the eventual outcome of the encounter between the two leaders, the mere fact that they met did signal a sea change in the confrontational atmosphere that has dominated recent relations between Ottawa and Quebec City. That Bouchard is largely responsible for the altered mood seems beyond doubt. For it is he who is whistling a new tune, or at least returning to the conservative, business-oriented themes he has pursued since he took office last January. Those concerns were clearly in evidence last week in the 20-minute address he delivered to 350 New York investors gathered in the city’s elegant Plaza Hotel. He assured his wellheeled audience that the economy, fiscal controls and job creation were his immediate priorities, even if his ultimate goal several years down the road remains independence. “Quebecers have not forgotten about their political preferences, either for sovereignty or federalism, but they are quite willing to take a break from the subject,” he said. “The smart money knows

this is the time to buy in Montreal. The prices are low, the opportunities great.” Bouchard even managed to downplay the crisis he himself engendered over the past month with yet another demonstration of his curiously selective memory. It was “provocations” from the federal government in Ottawa that were largely to blame, he suggested, as he compared himself to the Mafia chieftain Michael Corleone in the movie The Godfather. “Like Corleone in the last instalment of the film, he is trying to practise virtue but they keep pulling him back,” he said, drawing a few chortles. “We will resist, we will resist.”

By and large, Bouchard’s message was generally well received, by his public audi-

ence at the Plaza Hotel, as well as during private discussions with credit-rating agencies, the New York Times editorial board and the governors of New York, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. ‘The economic message was very encouraging to Wall Street,” said Robert Hormats of the Wall Street investment house Goldman Sachs. At the same time,

however, some members of New York’s financial community expressed a palpable sense of disappointment with Bouchard’s overall performance. “I think some of us were expecting more,” said investment banker Robert Blohm. “His speech was as exciting as reading a prospectus, which is not what you’d anticipate from someone who, after all, is advocating earth-shaking policies for Canada.”

Wall Street investors got a double dose of Canadian politics last week, as Ontario Premier Mike Harris told another business audience in New York that there is a “zero” chance of Quebec separating. Harris went to New York to reassure investors that his Conservative government has put Ontario’s fiscal house in order after one year in power, but he ended up addressing the constitutional issue. “I think the chances of a separation between Quebec and Canada are zilch, absolutely zero,” he said. “I don’t see any possibility.”

When Bouchard returned to Quebec, he faced disappointment of another sort—not only because of his lapse about his conversations with the Massachusetts governor. For in adopting a conservative, cost-cutting agenda, Bouchard risks alienating many of the traditional left-leaning groups that helped to propel him to office. Already there are rumblings of discontent among nationalist rank-and-file members of the Parti Québécois, trade unionists and women’s groups. Like Bouchard’s new allies in the business community, they, too, may be wondering about the premier’s memory.

BARRY CAME in Montreal

with MARK CARDWELL in Quebec City