Canada Special Report

Giving Up the Struggle

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 22 2001
Canada Special Report

Giving Up the Struggle

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 22 2001

Giving Up the Struggle

Canada Special Report

Anthony Wilson-Smith

On Dec. 13, 1995—the day he left federal politics on his way to become premier of Quebec—Lucien Bouchard asked for and received a meeting with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Remarkably, it was the first private meeting between two of the most dominant figures in Canadian politics. Their session was booked to last 10 minutes: it ran 35 minutes over. They talked about shared concerns, like Quebec’s economy, and shared acquaintances, like their brothers, both medical researchers. At one point, Chrétien denounced the intemperate rhetoric Bouchard had directed at him during the recent referendum campaign. Bouchard, for once, held his temper in check: he confessed later he hadn’t realized his words had been so hurtful, and vowed to try to avoid invective in future.

And, for the next five years, he mosdy did. When Bouchard delivered his startling resignation announcement last week, his elegant speech offered clear evidence of why Brian Mulroney, in happier days, once told Ronald Reagan that Bouchard was “the most eloquent French-Canadian I know.” It was easy for the moment to forget that this was the easily aggravated man who at various times over the years called other premiers “morons” and “idiots,” once described Chrétien as a “traitor” to Quebec and accused pro-federalist businesspeople of “spitting” on the province. His secondto-last remarks in his announcement, before thanking his family, were an apology to anyone he had hurt: “I assure them it wasn’t done through meanness or lack of respect.”

There is no reason to doubt that—and no changing the fact that Bouchard will be remembered as the politician who expressed emotions—and evoked them—more powerfully than any other of his era. Alternately shy and snobbish when he first entered politics, he was, by the time he left, arguably the most compelling speaker in Canada in either language. When he arrived in Ottawa after his turn as ambassador in Paris in 1988 to take up a cabinet position in Mulroney’sTory government, he was mocked by many in his own party for his short attention span and expensive tastes—he almost

immediately ordered $35,000 in office furnishings. But he matured into a leader who mastered complex policy briefs in short order, routinely worked 12-hour days, and lived a Spartan life away from his family, sleeping in a room little bigger than a jail cell in a soulless government-owned building in Quebec City known as “The Bunker.”

Ironically, it is unclear which side is happier about his leaving—federalists, who regarded him as the last potent weapon in the sovereigntist side’s depleted arsenal, or hard-core sovereigntists, who damned him as a quasi-federalist. For federalists, the good news is that no one in sovereigntist circles can come close to matching Bouchard in charisma or intellectual stature. By law, a new PQ premier isn’t bound to call another election before 2003—but will face heavy pressure to do so well before that. Suddenly, federalists can think realistically about a return to provincial power with Jean Charest’s Liberals.

But federalists’ joy should be tempered by other effects of Bouchard’s departure. Within the PQ, he resisted not only calls to declare French the only legal language on public signs, but also efforts to limit access to English-language CEGEPs. He was a willing, effective participant in federal-provincial conferences, Team Canada economic trips, and any cooperative event in which he felt Quebec could gain. A new premier will face PQ pressure to do as Jacques Parizeau did before Bouchard—and boycott federal-provincial events.

As well, Quebec’s businesspeople have cause to be nervous. Bouchard reached out to the business community, naming federalists to head some provincial Crown corporations and commissions. Those actions helped calm the economic climate after the razor-thin federalist win in the referendum, and Quebec’s economy has been booming in recent years. (Last week, Bouchard tipped several business leaders of his

departure plans a day in advance, so they could prepare to reassure investors.) But many PQ members have leftist leanings, and a successor will face pressure to pay more attention to their views.

The nastiest possibility is that a leadership race could split the PQover ethnicity issues. Bouchard always said that anyone who lives in the province is a full-fledged Quebecer. That vision is not shared by all sovereigntists, as was evident in the recent Yves Michaud affair: after the longtime separatist made several remarks with anti-Semitic overtones, he was censured by the national assembly but vigorously defended by some Péquistes.

The fact that such a debate exists at all illustrates what may be the party’s biggest problem: it used to be hip in Quebec to belong to the PQ, but no longer. These days, the province’s economic motor, Montreal, is as multicultural as Toronto and Vancouver. Many young people move effortlessly between English, French and sometimes a third language. And while polls show most young francophones favour laws enforcing the primacy of French, they strongly reject ethnic distinctions. The debate over who is a real Quebecer feels old— and that description also fits the PQ’s greying membership.

It isn’t hard, then, to see why Bouchard is leaving. The

With his party divided and support for Quebec sovereignty waning, Lucien Bouchard calls it quits

wonder may be why he stayed this long. Reviled by some and revered by others, he sometimes seemed to feed on the electricity of audiences. But at other times, he bemoaned the loss of privacy that comes with a very public job—and the sacrifices.

They include a once-valued friendship: when Bouchard broke with Mulroney over efforts to save the Meech Lake constitutional accord in 1990, it ended a relationship of 30 years. The two men no longer speak. In Bouchard’s autobiography, On the Record, his concluding line dealt with that break, and his gamble on the “dream that just as one door closed on part of my past one evening in May, 1990, so another and better door will soon be opening for the future of my nation.”

But with his departure announcement, Bouchard effectively admitted that will not happen any time soon. It nearly did in 1995, when he took control of the Yes campaign with three weeks to go and miraculously moved it to within a half percentage point of victory. He can take solace in the fact that there is, almost certainly, no other politician who could have done what he did. Now, with his retirement, federalists take solace in that as well.

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