A Landry quandary

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 5 2001

A Landry quandary

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 5 2001

One winter in the 1980s, a young Anglo journalist was in the northern Quebec region of Rouyn-Noranda on assignment when a snowstorm hit. All regular flights out of the local airport were cancelled, and the journalist discovered, unhappily, that his stay was likely to be much longer than expected. Just when things seemed most bleak, a local acquaintance offered potential salvation—a charter aircraft belonging to the Quebec government was waiting to fly a visiting provincial minister back to Quebec City. The only problem was that the minister was Bernard Landry—already well-known for his intemperate remarks, and irascibility. With little at risk except, perhaps, a tongue-lashing, the journalist approached Landry at a reception and asked to hitch a ride. Landry agreed immediately and was, on the bumpy two-hour flight back, a calming, charming and convivial host in both English and French.

That gracious host was, of course, the same Landry who almost certainly will become premier of Quebec in another couple of months. It is hard to reconcile that image with the graceless bully who popped up last week, likening the Canadian flag to “a piece of red rag”—and rudely dismissing Stéphane Dion as “the most detested politician in history.” You could write that stuff off as a hissy fit from someone who knows better—except that Landry has been around the same block many times, and still can’t rein himself in. This is the guy who dressed down a frightened Hispanic hotel clerk for voting No on referendum night in 1995 —and only apologized to her after being informed that the incident had been captured on videotape. This is the same guy who at various times over the years has called Canada “a cultural Chernobyl” and described Quebec as the last colonized nation in the Western world.

These days, with the exception of a pocket of aging diehards, the PQ bends over backward to appeal to different ethnic groups within Quebec: their buzz phrase is “territorial nationalism,” meaning that they’ve formally dispensed with the old notion that only white Roman Catholic francophones qualify as real Quebecers. There’s a case to be made that no one has worked harder within the PQ to promote that openness than the trilingual Landry (who also speaks fluent Spanish). Even when the sovereigntist cause seemed hopeless in the late 1980s, he was always available to preach tirelessly and fruitlessly to any Anglo group that needed a token Péquiste to disagree with. But then, as now, Landry always blew his accumulated goodwill by flying off the handle one more time. In public, he once argued that the federalist side needs more than 50 per cent in a referendum to have legitimacy—because that includes ethnic ballots, and what really counts are francophones’ votes. In private, he is much more gracious. Montreal businessman Andy Nulman, who used to run the city’s Just for Laughs comedy festival, recalls telling Landry about a trip to New York City he made with festival founder Gilbert Rozon. “There we were in Manhattan, a Québécois and an Anglo Jew ...” Landry immediately interrupted him by saying: “No Andy, there you were in Manhattan, deux Québécois...” And, says Nulman— a devout and enthusiastic federalist—Landry “has never been anything less than warm and gracious in private—which is why the other stuff always surprises me.”

In a way, it shouldn’t. Landry, 63, is part of a generation that, more than any other before or since, lives and breathes separatism: a woman who knew him as a young man once recalled that “in 1960, he wanted to be president of the Republic of Quebec.” In 1963, he led a demonstration against Canadian National Railways president Donald Gordon after Gordon remarked that French-Canadians were not qualified for executive positions with CNR. (Today, francophone Paul Tellier is CEO of CN—and one of the most highly regarded corporate leaders in the country.) In 1970, Landry told filmmaker Denys Arcand that Quebecers risked sliding into the same condition as blacks in the United States. “As long as it will be possible to prevent this disaster from happening, to reverse the direction of things, and to progress towards sovereignty, I will be on the firing line,” he said. In fact, Landry’s aging generation dates itself most by a sense of grievance about the rest of Canada that is alien to younger francophones. A part of his history that he seldom discusses is a period he spent in the Canadian Forces, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant. “You’d think,” he once told an acquaintance, “that having travelled across this country as much as I did with the military, I would like it better.” He didn’t. Once, in a legislative debate in the national assembly in 1979, he let his bitterness towards that period show—complaining about the manner in which he was ordered to speak English by a superior.

Soon, he will be leader—not just of a party of like-minded sovereigntists, but of seven million Canadians in the country’s second-biggest province. Last week, he learned—not so much from predictably annoyed English-Canadians, but from the appalled responses of other Quebecers—that no one wants to see his nasty side. Anyone who covers politics long enough learns that some of its most gracious practitioners in public can be charmless and churlish in private. Landry proves the reverse is also true.**