Jacques Parizeau re-emerges—and rocks the election campaign

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 19 1997


Jacques Parizeau re-emerges—and rocks the election campaign

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 19 1997




Jacques Parizeau re-emerges—and rocks the election campaign


Call them the Legion of the Damning —an elite but unhappy group of former political leaders who rise, often at the most inopportune times, to smite their successors with deeply wounding revelations or advice. Outside Canada, the most obvious example is former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, whose combination of barbs and faint praise directed at John Major helped drive him from office earlier this month. At home, Pierre Trudeau has made a habit of rising from the political dead, helping to kill the Meech Lake constitutional accord in 1990, the Charlottetown accord in 1992, and then complaining about the No side’s tactics in the aftermath of the 1995 Quebec referendum campaign. There is also Brian Mulroney, who emerged after 3 V2 years of silence to offer constitutional advice to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien last month.

And now—former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, aiming for his place in history no matter what the cost to his sovereigntist successors. Did Parizeau really mean to blatantly deceive the Quebec public and declare unilateral independence in the immediate aftermath of a Yes vote? That seemed to be the clear suggestion in a section of a new book by Parizeau, For a Sovereign Quebec, that was leaked to a Quebec City newspaper last week. In the ensuing furor, which included denunciations by Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard and other sovereigntists, Parizeau issued a statement saying the notion that he “would have proclaimed sovereignty in the days after a referendum is more than false, it is a lie.”

But Bouchard was one of those who acknowledged that such a conclusion could easily be drawn from Parizeau’s writing. Said Bouchard: “I am filled with consternation at the idea of the interpretations that are made and which, obviously, find a certain foundation in the clumsy wording of this passage of Mr. Parizeau’s book.” By releasing his book now, in the middle of an election campaign—the official launch was set for May 12—Parizeau was almost certainly aware of the controversy it would cause, and the effect it would have on sovereigntists. The uproar effectively turned the federal election campaign upside down and left the five major parties scrambling. Among other things, there were signs of vulnerability in the Bloc Québécois—which had been widely expect-

ed to take at least 50 of Quebec’s 75 seats—and both the Liberals and Tories rushed to exploit that.

There are several reasons for Parizeau’s behavior—and his timing. For one, it has never been a secret that Parizeau and Bouchard dislike each other. Parizeau considers Bouchard a latecomer to the sovereigntist movement and, in private, sometimes scathingly compares Bouchard’s days as Canada’s ambassador to France in the mid-1980s with his own activities at that time, rebuilding the then stumbling Parti Québécois. As well, since resigning as premier on October 31, 1995, Parizeau has both publicly and privately fretted that the w PQ under Bouchard is not talking $ enough about sovereignty. And even I when it does, Parizeau feels, the par| ty spends too much time emphasiz£ ing the concept of a political and eco£ nomic association with Canada.

Partly as a result of his own beliefs —that Quebec would fare better if it was completely independent, rather than still maintaining some links with Canada—friends say Parizeau seriously considered running for the BQ leadership earlier this year. And since Gilles Duceppe, a close friend of Bouchard, became leader, Parizeau has complained privately about the Bloc’s lack of commitment to sovereignty. (When Duceppe appeared on a Montreal talk show last week, several callers expressed their support for Parizeau and derided Duceppe as a “pretend sovereigntist.”) By launching his book in mid-campaign, Parizeau ensured that the sovereignty issue was again front and centre at a crucial time.

The controversy was enough to push the already troubled BQ campaign further on the defensive. And it was likely to continue this week, with Parizeau scheduled to appear at book launches in Montreal and Quebec City. Suddenly, a moribund federal election campaign had found an issue—national unity—that may, in fact, resonate until the June 2 vote. In the process, it underscored the sometimes sharply diverging points of view among the major parties on how best to handle Canada’s constitutional future.

That debate hinges on age-old questions. How should the rest of Canada respond to the sovereignty movement—with open arms and new constitutional proposals, with tough love, or with a combination of the two? So far, the proposals from various political leaders include all of the above. But the Parizeau affair has also raised new issues. Can Bouchard still credibly maintain his promise that a sovereign Quebec would seek a “partnership” with the rest of Canada after a Yes vote? What guarantee is there for Quebecers —and indeed for other Canadians— « that a Yes vote would be interpreted by all | sides to mean the same thing? And what, to paraphrase a famous question, do g Quebec sovereigntists really want—and g how can the rest of Canada stop them 1 from having it? §

Most, if not all, of those questions seemed certain to be raised in the two televised leaders debates this week.

Those encounters were expected to mark the beginning of the “real” campaign; until last week, to use a word favored by strategists from all parties, the public appeared “disengaged” from the election.

But the unity question strikes a strong emotional chord in many people. Sovereigntist leaders greeted the Parizeau revelations with a mixture of shock, dismay—and denials that anyone else had known of his plans. Popular radio talk show host Jean Lapierre, a one-time Liberal cabinet minister and later a Bloc MP, declared that the Parizeau affair amounted to a “Scud missile” aimed at the heart of the sovereigntist movement, and said the former premier is to the movement “what Bre-X is to the mining industry.”

On a national level, the uproar was enough to transform the tone of the campaign—and elicit responses from two leaders who had done their best to previously avoid the topic of Quebec’s place in Canada: Chrétien and Tory Leader Jean Charest. In the campaign’s early days, the once-combative Chrétien appeared generally restrained in his appearances. But last week, he went on the offensive, criticizing Parizeau—and also dismissing sug-

The Bloc is the only obvious loser in the Parizeau affair

gestions from other sovereigntists that they had been unaware of his apparent plan for Quebec to make a quick exit from Confederation. ‘They are all saying it was only Mr. Parizeau,” Chrétien said. “I am skeptical.”

Similarly, Charest had been muted on the Quebec question. Now vigorously courting the so-called soft nationalist vote in Quebec, he toned down his once-fierce criticisms of Bouchard. And in the West, he tried to avoid another topic: the Tory platform’s support for the constitutional recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society.” Last week, though, Charest came out swinging against the separatist movement. “How much can you really trust what the sovereigntist leaders are telling you?” he asked. He also took aim at the Liberals, in particular the federal government’s ongoing Supreme Court of Canada challenge to Quebec’s self-professed right to declare unilateral secession. Charest argues that the government is acknowledging that the possibility of Quebec secession exists—and that doing so makes the notion seem more real. “I will never propose to this country any formula to negotiate its breakup,” he declared.

Other leaders also got into the act. Reform’s Preston Manning renewed his call for both Chrétien and Charest to say precisely what they would do in the event of a Quebec declaration of sovereignty. The two leaders, Manning said, should be asked “just one simple question: do you finally agree with us that it’s time to have a real plan?” NDP Leader Alexa McDonough, meanwhile, suggested in Regina that people already knew what Parizeau planned for Canada—and tried to keep the focus on jobs and the economy, calling them the “real shared priority of all Canadians.”

In addition to their philosophical differences, the various leaders are clearly trying to appeal to vastly different constituencies. Ever since the referendum, the Liberals have been trying to be all things to all people with a two-pronged approach dubbed Plan A and B. The first part of the plan consists of wooing Quebecers back into the federalist fold through a series of small steps, such as legislation in the House of Commons declaring the province a distinct society, and devolution of some powers to the provinces. Plan B involves emphasizing to Quebecers the legal difficulties, economic headaches and overall uncertainty that would follow a Yes vote. That M tougher approach, the Liberals hope, also appeals I to many people in the rest of the country.

1 Charest, meanwhile, is now trying a more I overt pitch to the so-called soft nationalists in § Quebec. In a well-received speech in the sover! eigntist heartland of the Saguenay-Lac St. Jean 3 region last week, he called for a new policy of “■ “national reconciliation.” However, he provided few specific details. And by denouncing the federal challenge to Quebec’s right to unilaterally secede, the Tories are echoing the mainstream view within that province.

The danger for the Tories, of course, is that Reformers are quick to exploit their perceived softness on the Quebec issue. Reform’s hardline strategy towards Quebec—including an emphasis on the consequences of sovereignty and a stand against distinct society—is most popular in the West, where anti-Quebec sentiment runs highest. But Manning has also tried to cash in on frustration over the unity issue elsewhere. Campaigning in Ontario last week, he urged people to take a stand against special status for Quebec. “You hold in your hands the key to national unity,” Manning said in Peterborough. “If Ontario sent out a clear message on distinct society, that would be the most unifying thing you could do.”

Of all the parties, the BQ seems to be the only obvious loser in the Parizeau affair. The party appears to be in chaos at the mid-campaign mark. One reason is its leader. Polls indicate that Duceppe, who appears stiff and humorless in public, is recognized by only one in four Quebec voters and the party is slumping in the polls. According to a survey by the Léger & Léger polling firm taken between May 6 and 9—that is, starting the day before the Parizeau revelation and continuing through to the day of the former premier’s denial—Liberal support in Quebec passed that of the BQ for the first time: 39 per cent to 37 per cent. For the Bloc, that was 12 points below its final tally on election day in 1993. The Tories, meanwhile, increased their share of support from 15 to 20 per cent.

Who will benefit most from the Parizeau affair? The real test, says one Chrétien adviser,

“will be what people are talking about after the televised debates.” But Peter McCormick, an Alberta political scientist and adviser to Premier Ralph Klein, says the Liberals stand to gain the most. Chrétien’s strategy, he says, of “waiting [the sovereigntists] out” now may seem justified, if the movement succumbs to prolonged bickering. And, McCormick adds, Reform’s hardline stand may not continue to play well because the sovereigntist threat appears diminished. But he cautions that a weakened sovereigntist movement will not result in any lessening of the antipathy in the West—and especially Alberta—towards the cause separatists represent. “It has hardened,” McCormick says, “to the point of knee-jerk reaction in this province.” Ironically, Jacques Parizeau may have given pro-sovereignty Quebecers and other Canadians something they can agree on: his message is unwelcome to both sides.





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