Canada Special Report

A Dark Day for the PQ

Bouchard’s sudden departure leaves a void that sovereigntists will find difficult to fill

Brenda Branswell January 22 2001
Canada Special Report

A Dark Day for the PQ

Bouchard’s sudden departure leaves a void that sovereigntists will find difficult to fill

Brenda Branswell January 22 2001

With his expressive, sometimes mercurial personality, Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard has never been good at hiding his mood. Before Christmas, on the heels of a contentious fall legislative session, some colleagues found him preoccupied. “He seemed ill at ease and pensive,” recalled Parti Québécois MNA Claude Lachance. “I felt that something serious was in the works.” Yet few suspected that he was considering quitting politics. Yes, Bouchard had made no secret of his exasperation with aspiring Parti Québécois candidate Yves Michaud and his controversial remarks about Jews. Yes, family matters also weighed on his mind: the father of two young sons, he turned 62 on Dec. 22. Possibly, some observers thought, he would not run again in the next election due in the next two years. But resign now? On Thursday, PQMNAs filed out of the caucus meeting, mute and shocked as Bouchard did just that. As backbencher Matthias Rioux put it: “It’s like a blow to the solar plexus.”

Hopeful federalists might say a knockout punch. Bouchard’s resignation rocked the sovereignty movement; his shaken, red-eyed caucus watched his announcement knowing full well the impact of his decision. Despite a series of turbulent reforms, Bouchard remains a popular figure in Quebec, better liked, in fact, than his party, according to opinion polls. And that makes sovereignty seem all the more elusive and the PQ’s re-election chances more difficult with his departure. Bouchard will stay on as premier until the party chooses a new leader this spring. None of the three most often-cited potential successors—cabinet ministers Bernard Landry, Pauline Marois and François Legault—match Bouchard’s charisma. “It’s a big loss,” said Gilles Grenier, head of the PQ organization in the Quebec City region. “He was our best player, our best sovereignty salesman.”

In the wake of Bouchard’s mesmerizing performance during the 1995 referendum campaign, when he was still leader of the federal Bloc Québécois, sovereigntists latched onto him as their best ticket to a winning Yes vote in the future. But try as he might, Bouchard as premier never managed to rouse nationalist passions to the same degree.

Many chalked up the public indifference to constitutional fatigue. But the PQ’s restive hardliners pointed the finger at Bouchard, accusing him of not promoting separatism. In his resignation speech, Bouchard conceded failure on the sovereignty front. “I recognize that my efforts to quickly revive the debate on the national question were in vain,” he declared.

But in resigning, he did not disguise his disappointment with his province’s citizens. He described Quebec as “astonishingly impassive” in the face of what he viewed as successive federal assaults on its powers. Bouchard opposed the social union framework negotiated by Ottawa and the other provinces. He objected to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Millennium Scholarship program as an incursion into provincial jurisdiction over education. And, most of all, he resented the federal Clarity Act, which in the event of a future referendum would require a clear majority on a clear question before Ottawa would recognize a Yes victory.

Bouchard alluded to other reasons for stepping down. The most compelling, judging from his trembling voice, was a need to spend more time with his family. For years, Bouchard has divided his time between his office in Quebec City and the Outremont apartment he shares with wife Audrey Best and their two sons. Noting that his years were numbered, Bouchard said: “I also want to live fully the marvellous adventure of educating my boys, who are 11 and nine years old. Alexandre and Simon need me and I need to get back to them.”

The Michaud affair also grated on Bouchard. The longtime party activist recently caused a stir by claiming that Jews, as a result of the Holocaust, believe they are the only people who have suffered. He called the Jewish-rights organization, B’nai Brith, anti-sovereigntist and extremist. And to illustrate an example of the anti-sovereignty ethnic vote, he referred to a dozen polls in a largely Jewish Montreal suburb where everyone voted No in the 1995 referendum. Bouchard fired back with an impassioned condemnation that won him praise in Montreal’s Jewish community, but brought more grief from Michaud’s unrepentant supporters. On Wednesday, they ran a full-page ad in Le Devoir supporting Michaud. Serge Ménard, Quebec’s public security minister, insisted the controversy was more than a last straw for Bouchard. “It was the worst blow in his career,” said Ménard. The lingering bitterness crept into Bouchard’s speech. “I have no taste for continuing any discussions whatsoever on the Holocaust,” he declared, “and the vote of ethnic and cultural communities.”

Stanley Hartt, who was Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s chief of staff during the rise and fall of the Meech Lake constitutional accord, had more reason than most to resent Bouchard, a former Tory cabinet minister whose assault on the pact in 1990 helped kill the deal. Yet his first thoughts on hearing news of the resignation of his ally-turned-enemy in those old constitutional wars were personal rather than political. Hartt’s late father served in Quebec provincial politics and later as a federal MP through the late 1940s, and, like Bouchard, had a leg amputated. “That’s not easy,” Hartt said, recalling his father’s weariness and lingering pain when he would come home and finally remove his prosthesis at the end of a long day on the floor of Quebec’s national assembly or the House of Commons. “It’s painful.”

For all his personal sympathy, though, Hartt was blunt in his assessment of Bouchard’s political motives. He flatly rejects the notion that Bouchard was acting from deep conviction when he rejected modifications to the Meech Lake agreement that were worked out by Jean Charest in the spring of 1990—and that Bouchard claimed would dilute the deal. Instead, Hartt contends that Bouchard made a “tactical calculation” that the success of the accord would set back Quebec’s steady march towards greater and greater autonomy. He feared, Hartt charges, that the accord would be seen as an end to a process and not just one step on the route to more autonomy.

Last week, pundits recognized Bouchard’s considerable political talents and took note of his faults, such as his penchant for theatrical outbursts. In the end, a significant part of his political legacy will be his administrative accomplishments, chief among them the elimination of Quebec’s deficit. For all his grievances with Ottawa, Bouchard also established a remarkable working rapport with his peers on the Canadian political scene. His resignation brought an outpouring of praise from across the country—although politicians outside Quebec were invariably careful to hedge their compliments by noting, as if it needed saying, that they differed with Bouchard over his desire to break up the country. Chrétien, who was in Florida celebrating his 67th birthday on the day Bouchard made his announcement, lauded the Quebec premier as “an able parliamentarian who has fought for his beliefs with passion and determination.” Among the inevitable tributes from the premiers, Mike Harris’s was one of the most effusive. “We worked very well together on issues that really matter to Canadians, including Ontarians and Quebecers, in health care, post-secondary education, in social programs,” the Ontario premier said, describing Bouchard as a “strong ally.”

Alberta Premier Ralph Klein also dished out praise, noting how Bouchard played a more active role in intergovernmental conferences than his two immediate predecessors. “The first premiers’ conference I attended was with Robert Bourassa and he flew in and made a statement and flew out again,” Klein told Maclean's. “Even though he was a federalist, there was never meaningful participation.” Jacques Parizeau, said Klein, was the same: “Again, he would fly in, make a big show, huff and puff—and leave.” But Bouchard, he added, always maintained that as long as Quebec was still part of Canada, he would defend and promote the principles of the country and Quebec. “So he participated fully and in a meaningful way in premiers’ and first ministers’ conferences,” Klein said. As for the effect of his resignation on Canada, Klein said flatly: “It’s not good for the country. I think Lucien was much more of a moderate than many members of his caucus would have liked. My fear is that his successor might not be. My fear is that his successor might be a militant, rabid separatist.”

If not Bouchard at the helm, then who? Bernard Landry, 63, the deputy premier and finance minister, is seen as the front-runner, although his age might work against him. Landry has currency with the hardliners who trust his sovereigntist convictions, although he also supported Bouchard’s moderate approach on language. Health Minister Pauline Marois, 51, is another prime candidate. She finished second in the 1985 leadership race behind former premier Pierre-Marc Johnson, and has held a series of senior portfolios. Education Minister François Legault, a 43-year-old former Air Transat executive brought into cabinet by Bouchard in 1998, is another possible contender, in spite of his status as a relative newcomer. Many Péquistes are acutely conscious of their greying caucus, which could help Legault's chances. “A party that changes its leader,” said Jacques Léonard, the PQ’s treasury board minister, “should not miss the chance to change generations.”

Quebec Liberals, meanwhile, have reason to rejoice—at least in the short term. But Liberal caucus chairman Jacques Chagnon thinks the party should step up its organizational efforts to be ready for an election. He expects the new PQ leader will call one relatively soon, rather than waiting until the mandate expires in 2003. But Chagnon also sees potential bumps ahead for the PQ. “The next leader won’t have the same credibility that Bouchard had when he replaced Parizeau,” he notes.

As for Bouchard, he gave no hint of his future plans. Colleagues say he intends to raise his children in his home province; his wife is finishing her law degree at McGill and plans to article with the Montreal firm of Heenan Blaikie next year. Last week, Bouchard’s staff denied rumours he has accepted a teaching position in California or a job offer at Montreal-based Bombardier Inc. But Bouchard has shown some aptitude for big business. “I was at a lunch that Bouchard spoke at on Wall Street late last year,” says Hartt, who is now chairman in Canada of the international brokerage house Salomon Smith Barney. “He was brilliant. He spoke stockbroker-investment-banker language. He was perfect in the idiom.” 

Bouchard does, after all, have a strong claim to being the premier who cleaned up Quebec’s public finances. If he now makes a jump to the transnational corporate world, as some have speculated, Hartt predicts he will get a warm welcome—despite his sovereigntist convictions. “At that level, nobody gives a hoot,” he says. For Bouchard, at least, the immediate future may look rosy. For the party he leaves behind, though, the days ahead promise to be difficult.

MILESTONES

1938: Born in Saint-Coeur-de-Marie, Que.

1964: Graduates from Université Laval (his classmate is Brian Mulroney) and is called to the Quebec bar.

1985: Appointed Canadian ambassador to France by Mulroney. 1988: Appointed to the Mulroney cabinet as secretary of state. In that same year, he is elected as the Conservative MP for Lac-Saint-Jean in a by-election.

1989: Named environment minister.

1990: In a bitter split with Mulroney, resigns from the cabinet to sit as an Independent because of potential changes to the Meech Lake accord.

1991: Becomes leader of the newly formed Bloc Québécois. 

1994: Undergoes surgery for the removal of his left leg at mid-thigh to stop the spread of necrotizing myositis, also known as the “flesh-eating disease.”

1995: Assumes a large role in the campaign for the sovereignty referendum, which is narrowly lost by separatist forces.

1996: Takes over from Jacques Parizeau as leader of the Parti Québécois and premier of Quebec.

1998: Leads the PQ to another majority government.


With John Geddes in Ottawa and Brian Bergman in Calgary