Canada

Chips off the Bloc

Tories and Liberals hope to cash in on the BQ's problems

BRENDA BRANSWELL May 26 1997
Canada

Chips off the Bloc

Tories and Liberals hope to cash in on the BQ's problems

BRENDA BRANSWELL May 26 1997

Chips off the Bloc

BUREAU REPORT: Quebec

Tories and Liberals hope to cash in on the BQ's problems

BRENDA BRANSWELL

He may have suffered a serious heart attack last fall, but Bloc Québécois MP Roger Pomerleau seems in top form as he campaigns in Anjou/Rivières-des-Prairies. “In 1993, I did this in running shoes,” Pomerleau says, bounding up the stairs of a duplex in the working-class riding just east of Montreal. Pomerleau, 49, who received a goahead from his doctor to enter the fray again, has switched to walking shoes this time as he attempts to hang on to his seat. But his footwear is not the only thing that has changed since 1993. Pomerleau is convinced that voters, including sovereigntists, are generally less interested in this election—although he insists bravely that it will not affect the Bloc’s vote. Still, he concedes, “it’s not the same effervescence as in 1993,” when “we felt the wave rising.”

The Bloc rode it—to 54 of Quebec’s 75 seats in the House of Commons. This time, the BQ is floundering. After a rocky start under new leader Gilles Duceppe, the party continued to stumble last week— especially over Duceppe’s bizarre comment that, even if Quebecers voted for sovereignty, federalists could then stage another referen-

dum. Since the start of the campaign, polls have consistently shown the BQ’s popularity eroding—and the soundings released late last week only brought more bad news.

According to a Groupe Léger & Léger poll, conducted after the May 12 and 13 leaders’ debates, the sovereigntist party had dropped to 35.2 per cent of decided voters—compared with 45 per cent in late March. Support for the Liberals has also slipped according to the poll, dropping from 38.8 per cent a week earlier to 32.9 per cent. For both parties, the bad news lay in the growing presence of a third force on the Quebec electoral scene: Jean Charest’s revitalized Tories. According to the Léger & Léger poll, support for the Conservatives soared to 30.1 per cent, compared with 17.1 in late March, and 19.8 per cent in a poll released on May 10—the largest jump for a party, on a weekly basis, ever registered by Léger & Léger. “Now, it is becoming disastrous for the sovereigntist movement,” says Jean-Marc Léger, the firm’s president, who suggests that the rest of Canada will interpret the results—wrongly—as a drop in support for sovereignty itself. As for the Liberals, says Léger, they are starting to lose, to Charest, federalist francophones who do not like Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Before, they were stuck voting for the Liberals; now, Léger says, “they have a choice.”

In fact, another poll conducted by Toronto-based Environics Research Group after the May 12 and 13 debates and released late last week had even more dramatic results: the Tories leading in Quebec with 36 per cent, compared with 32 per cent for the Liberals and 27 for the Bloc. Charest has certainly been on the offensive. While attempting to lure soft nationalists away from the Bloc, he is also going after the Liberals. Playing up Chrétien’s unpopularity in his home province—in the Environics poll twice as many Quebecers chose Charest than Chrétien as the best choice for prime minister— Charest told Le Journal de Montréal last week that the Prime Minister “doesn’t seem to come from Quebec—he’s a guy from Ottawa and that shows in his choices.” But in spite of the Tories’ rise in support, analysts say the party still faces an uphill battle in a province where it currently holds only one seat—Charest’s own riding of Sherbrooke (the Tories’ other seat is held by Elsie Wayne of Saint John). “The problem they have is they don’t have an in-the-field organization,” says Léger. He adds that the party lacks strong candidates—“and that will cost them votes and seats.”

One of the Tories’ few wellknown standard-bearers is Jean Corbeil, who is running in Anjou/Rivières-des-Prairies. A former mayor of suburban Anjou, on the northeast tip of the island of Montreal, Corbeil held the tiding for one term, serving as transport minister in the Mulroney cabinet before going down to defeat in 1993. Now 63, he agreed to run again at Charest’s request.

But his campaign illustrates some of the obstacles facing the Tories.

Until last week, there were few Conservative posters visible along Anjou streets. “First of all, the budget is limited,” he says.

“And we find there is more impact to do it at the end of the campaign.” The Tories face other problems. The local riding association has shrunk to 125 people, compared with 800 in 1993. ‘We have our difficulties because we’re starting from scratch,” concedes Corbeil. “But our big asset is Jean Charest.”

Corbeil regularly emphasizes that selling point. Last week, as he campaigned in a seniors’ residence after the first two instalments of the leaders’ debates, he introduced himself as the candidate “with Jean Charest.” But admiration may not necessarily translate into votes. At a nearby mall, one shopper acknowledged that she likes Charest. But, she added, a vote for the Tories—at the expense of the Liberals—could split the federalist vote. “By voting for Charest, we’re sending a vote to Duceppe.”

That is a concern for liberal strategists as well. “It’s our job now in the last weeks to make sure that we capture all the federalist vote,” says Alfonso Gagliano, minister of labor and the Liberals’ chief Quebec organizer. To that end, the Liberals are blitzing Quebec with their big guns to increase the party’s visibility. They currently hold 19 seats—and the Environics poll indicates that the party could take as many as another six ridings. Chrétien is “doing better than even he thought he would do” in Quebec, says Darrell Bricker, senior vicepresident at Angus Reid Group Inc. “If you look at substantive issues facing the country,” says Bricker, citing job creation and the economy as examples, “the Liberal government does quite well in Quebec.” The liberals have also picked up support from people disaffected with the Bloc and Duceppe’s leadership, Bricker adds.

RIDINGS TO WATCH

ANJOU/RIVIERES-DES-PRAIRIES: Former Mulroney cabinet minister Jean Corbeil takes another stab at his old riding, running against incumbent Bloc Québécois MP Roger Pomerleau and Liberal Yvan Charbonneau, a former MNA and union leader.

BOURASSA: The Bloc’s only non-francophone candidate, Chilean-born Osvaldo Nunez, is in danger of losing his seat to Denis Coderre, a longtime Liberal organizer, in this northend Montreal riding.

SAINT-MAURICE: Prime Minister Jean Chrétien goes head-tohead with the Bloc’s Yves Duhaime, a longtime political foe.

GASPE/BONAVENTURE/ILES-DE-LA-MADELEINE: The redrawn electoral map has two MPs battling for the same seat. Liberal Patrick Gagnon faces off against the Bloc’s Yvan Bernier.

BEAUCE: The decision of Independent MP Gilles Bernier, a former Tory, to quit politics has his old party hoping to make inroads in this francophone federalist riding.

Chrétien was personally on hand last week in his home riding of Saint-Maurice to show the Liberal flag against the Bloc. The Prime Minister is facing a challenge from his longtime political foe Yves Duhaime, the runner-up in the Bloc leadership race. Despite the Bloc’s bravado early in the campaign, it faces an uphill battle trying to unseat Chrétien, who won the riding handily by 6,000 votes in 1993—in spite of persistent conjecture that he would go down to defeat. But Duhaime remains upbeat, banking on the hope that people who voted for sovereignty in the October, 1995, referendum—the Yes side pulled in 56 per cent of the vote in Saint-Maurice—will vote for him. We have very good indications that we’ll win,” Duhaime told Maclean’s recently. “But we’ll have to work hard because Mr. Chrétien will deploy the entire party machine.”

A lawyer and lobbyist, Duhaime held several cabinet portfolios in the Parti Québécois government under René Lévesque—and has had a long—and at times acrimonious—relationship with Chrétien. He maintains there is no great animosity between them, although, he acknowledges, “we were never friends.” In fact, the two almost came

to blows once over a land dispute: in the mid-1970s, then-Treasury Board President Chrétien’s plans to build a taxation centre in the riding hit a roadblock when Duhaime, whose mother-in-law owned the proposed site, rejected the federal purchase offer. At an accidental meeting on a local golf course, Chrétien reportedly threatened to punch Duhaime in the mouth. Duhaime seems to enjoy being a thorn in the Prime Minister’s side. When Chrétien declared in the House of Commons in 1995 that the word souverainistes wasn’t in the dictionary, Duhaime promptly sent him a French dictionary that included the word.

The Bloc may still gain momentum. Although the May 13 Frenchlanguage leaders’ debate was cut short because of the illness of moderator Claire Lamarche—just before the discussion turned to the BQ’s bread-and-butter issue of sovereignty—all of the parties agreed to finish the encounter on the weekend. So far, though, Duceppe has been largely unsuccessful in his attempts to inject sovereigntist fervor into the race. That may, in part, be due to his lacklustre leadership: his remarks last week about the possibility of federalists holding another referendum after a future Yes vote to sovereignty were quickly contradicted by Parti Québécois House Leader Pierre Bélanger. “Once we have a Yes vote on the sovereignty issue,” Bélanger said, “I think the question of Quebec will be settled—I can see no turning back.”

But some of Duceppe’s problems revolve around another crisis of leadership involving fellow separatist Jacques Parizeau, who last week formally launched his controversial new book, Pour un Québec souverain. Recently leaked excerpts from that memoir created an uproar with the revelation that the former premier had considered a unilateral declaration of independence in the wake of the last referendum—contrary to the sovereignty movement’s reassurances that peaceful negotiations with Canada would follow a Yes vote. That ignited a controversy that cast doubt on all separatists and raised the question: who really speaks for the sovereignty movement? Parizeau, who has privately been critical of Duceppe, tried to publicly mend some fences. At his book launch, he urged the crowd to vote for the BQ, saying: “In the weeks to come, the fervor for sovereignty will have to return.” That may be easier said than done. During this campaign, fervor of any kind has so far eluded the Bloc.