In 1979, Lucien Bouchard was practising law in his home town of Chicoutimi when then-Premier René Lévesque telephoned. The premier, impressed by earlier work that Bouchard had done for the government, wanted him to serve as chief negotiator in labor talks with the province’s civil servants. It was a huge job, because Lévesque wanted unprecedented pay and work concessions from the province’s powerful trade unions. The challenge became even more difficult, as Bouchard later recounted in his memoirs, entitled On the Record, because Lévesque had “handed day-to-day government operations over to [then-Finance Minister Jacques] Parizeau.” He was a man who, as Bouchard wrote, “liked negotiations with their dramatic turns, opposing strategies, and surprise countermoves.”
And Parizeau, ever sure of himself, wanted to choose his own chief negotiator. When Bouchard reported for his first day of work, he recalls, “I was surprised at his cool reception.”
Perhaps Lucien Bouchard never learned the old adage that most children seem to absorb as soon as they set foot in a schoolyard:
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. If he had, he might have rejected Parizeau’s reluctant offer to make him chief negotiator of the sovereignty side during the 1995 Quebec referendum campaign.
By then, Bouchard knew from firsthand experience, he could not count on Parizeau for trust, affection, or, most importantly, full disclosure of necessary information.
All of that matters now because it is just becoming clear—even as Quebec sovereigntists are closer to their goal than ever before—that they are every bit as divided as Canadian federalists. The divisions in Ottawa are easy enough to spot, and are more than ideological. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Reform party Leader Preston Manning, for example, do not only disagree: they also give every impression of disliking each other. Although Chrétien regularly communicates with politicians from other parties, and counts some as friends, he and Manning seldom speak outside the House of Commons. That, Manning said recently, “is because we [Reform] are not part of that little traditional Ottawa insiders’ circle—and we do not want to be.” Nor, for that matter, does Manning get along with Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest—and Charest, in turn, has a chilly relationship with Chrétien. The two men, who became close during the referendum campaign, have been at odds personally since Chrétien pre-empted Charest’s speech on television on referendum night with his own victory address.
All that may sound like petty stuff among leaders supposedly dedicated to the preservation of a country—but the reality is that
Personal dislikes and ideological differences are splitting Quebec’s sovereigntists as badly as Canada’s federalists
the putative builders of a Quebec nation don’t do any better. Parizeau and Bouchard, of course, get along about as sweetly as two cats in a sack. Michel Gauthier, who briefly ran the Bloc Québécois in between the reign of Bouchard and present leader Gilles Duceppe, was regarded with suspicion by both men. Duceppe’s first act as party leader was to deny Gauthier the one job he really wanted, as the Bloc’s House leader. Then there’s Yves Duhaime, the former Parti Québécois cabinet minister who finished a strong second in the leadership race that Duceppe won. He was so underwhelmed by the result that he refused to go onstage to rally around the new leader, and did not pledge his support until Duceppe, virtually pleading, came to the riding where Duhaime is now running against Chrétien to pay homage.
It is not only sovereigntist leadership hopefuls, however, who fight one another: the same applies to rank-and-file members. Two incumbent Bloc MPs will not be running for the party this time because they could not win nomination battles in their ridings. At least one of them now plans to run on his own—as an independent MP campaigning for Quebec independence against his former, pro-independentiste party. Another incumbent, veteran MP Nie Leblanc, wrote a guest column for a Montreal newspaper recently, detailing all the reasons why Duceppe would not make a good leader. Then there is Mario Dumont, the youthful head of the Parti d’action démocratique. During the referendum, he campaigned on behalf of the Yes side. In this election, Dumont—who has cited Ontario Premier Mike Harris as a cost-cutting role model—won’t say whom he supports, but he says he finds the pro-federalist Charest to have “the most impressive message” of any leader.
Perhaps the real problem is that the concept of sovereignty has come to mean all things to all people—and, by extension, nothing specific to anybody. Some people, like Dumont, think a sovereign Quebec should maintain political and economic ties with Canada, but become a sort of pro-business, free enterprise zone, like a northern Singapore. Others, like the province’s powerful union leaders, see the future nation as a sort of North American Sweden of yesteryear, characterized by Big Government, even bigger taxes, and no ties to anyone else. Which qualities would characterize an independent Quebec? Until now, it hasn’t mattered, because sovereigntists have only had to agree on what they don’t like— which is the present federal system. In a separate Quebec, in which the leaders had only each other to blame, they might soon find one of their worst nightmares coming true: a bickering, divided nation not at all unlike the one they thought they had left behind.
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