Canada Special Report

THE LANDRY DILEMMA

BRENDA BRANSWELL May 28 2001
Canada Special Report

THE LANDRY DILEMMA

BRENDA BRANSWELL May 28 2001

THE LANDRY DILEMMA

Canada Special Report

BRENDA BRANSWELL

Jean-François Joly used to be a believer. In the 1970s, as a young optometrist building up his business in his home town of Joliette, Que., he was swayed by former premier René Lévesque’s charisma and supported sovereignty as a way of saving Quebec’s language and culture. The intervening years have brought middle age, grey hair, a souvenir picture of him and American golfer Mark O’Meara hanging on the wall—and a political change of heart. His faith began to lapse in the 1990s with the explosion of corporate mergers, the soft-spoken Joly explains matter-of-factly in his small office 65 km northeast of Montreal. I hat led him to conclude that “there is no one who improves by getting smaller.” Joly, 54, also thinks the province has succeeded in protecting Quebec’s culture and feels the French language is less threatened today. The result of that evolution? “I would never vote for separation,” Joly says bluntly.

Can such sentiments be reversed? Yes, if another son of the Joliette area has his way. Call it the Bernard Landry formula: take one committed sovereigntist, place him at the head of the nationalist Parti Québécois, and vow— again—to strongly promote the separation of Quebec from Canada. Since taking over in March from Lucien Bouchard, the new Quebec premier has reaffirmed his commitment to separatism and taken the opportunity to lambaste Ottawa whenever he can, all the while proclaiming “Quebec est une nation with the regularity of radio weather forecasts. At 64, an age when many people are on the cusp of retirement—and more than 30 years after he helped found the PQ—Landry still exudes the zeal of a young party militant. But will it be enough?

Few people expect Landry to stage a sovereignty referendum before calling a general election.

He may go to the polls as early as next fall, but, like his predecessors, Landry may win office and then lose the larger battle. Among some voters, there is a sense that the Péquistes are peddling a dated idea based on old grievances. Others say sovereignty is not the issue —social concerns are. And is the party’s brand of nationalism at odds with an evolving, multifaceted Quebec in which many francophones feel more secure about their language and culture?

Landry clearly does not think so, and to some degree the numbers bear him out. Separatism is far from a spent force: since Landry became premier, support for sovereignty has inched up slightly, to 46 per cent from 43 per cent a year ago, according to a recent sounding by Leger Marketing. But the movement seems stuck at the 10-yard line, with no obvious way to score a touchdown. Lévesque tried in 1980, and went down to defeat at the hands of the federalist gunslinger from Ottawa, Pierre Trudeau. Jacques Parizeau tried again in 1995, in a lacklustre effort that was, at the eleventh hour, revitalized by Bouchard, then leader of the federal Bloc Québécois and a high-profile defector from the Mulroney cabinet over, yes, the Quebec ques-

tion. But a 49.4 per cent Yes vote, however close, is still not a majority, and in the wake of that loss, the passion waned.

When he came home from Ottawa as Parizeau’s successor, Saint Lucien could not ignite nationalist fervour, in spite of his charisma and currency with Quebec voters. Some Péquistes, including the evermercurial Parizeau, blamed that failure on Bouchard’s alleged lack of commitment to

The PG has reaffirmed its commitment to sovereignty, but are Quebecers ready to follow?

the cause. Others, though, say the trouble is not in the messenger, or the marketing. “The problem,” says former Lévesque cabinet minister Claude Charron, “is the product itself.”

In spite of the Scottish origins of her name, Audrey McKinnon is very much a francophone. Sitting in a Montreal café with a cigarette in one hand, sporting big silver hoop earrings and fimky red hair, she is also cutting edge. Maybe too cutting for some oldstyle Péquistes. The 24-year-old university student and sovereigntist bolted into action

in January afier Yves Michaud, 70, a highprofile and longtime PQ supporter, made some much-publicized derogatory comments about Jews and their lack of support for the PQ In an op-ed piece in the daily Le Devoir, McKinnon and 14 other young people denounced Michaud and the tendency of old-style sovereigntists to divide Quebec along ethnic lines. “They experienced another social reality of Quebec, so they continue to hold to that discourse, ” she says, referring to the era when an anglophone elite dominated the business community. McKinnons world is different. She is one of the so-called children of Bill 101, the legislation that enshrined the primacy of French in Quebec. Her classmates and friends, meanwhile, come from many ethnic backgrounds. But in one respect she shares common ground with Michaud. McKinnon is still interested in politics. Many of her peers are not.

A large majority of young Quebecers say they back sovereignty. But that support has slipped, according to Montreal pollster JeanMarc Léger. And even among those who identify themselves as sovereigntists, the fire is lacking. “For the moment it’s not their debate,” Léger notes. “It’s the debate of a generation of baby boomers.” PQ campaign worker Gérard Boulonne confirms that. He spotted few young people at the polls last month in the byelection in Montreal’s Mercier riding—a PQ stronghold whose loss to the Liberals sent shock waves through separatist circles. “I think young people are more concerned now with employment,” says Boulonne. “They are not anti-Péquiste or anti-Liberal. They are apolitical.”

Like Richard Dallaire’s children. As he nurses a drink in the fading sun on the patio of a Trois-Rivières bar, the 47-yearold mechanical technician describes himself as a “unionist, a separatist and socialist.” His activism is typical of many early sovereigntists: he has taken part in numerous union protests, and last month travelled to Quebec City to demonstrate at the Summit of the Americas. Over the years, Dallaire’s commitment to sovereignty has not waned—he refers to Quebec as his “pays,”his country. In one breath, Dallaire says he puts his faith in his childrens generation to help make Quebec a sovereign country. But in the next, he acknowledges that “young people today are depoliticized.” Dallaire cites his 21-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son as examples:

“They don’t have the same political interest that my era had.”

Such apathy may simply be a small fissure rather than a glaring crack in the PQ armour. For a party trying to kickstart the sovereignty debate again, it’s not an encouraging development. Publicly, some older Péquistes acknowledge they must reach out to attract younger members. Privately, one can imagine them reliving past sovereignty battles and complaining that young people these days are not—wait for it—radical enough.

But if sovereignty is an uphill batde, who better to fight it than Landry? In high school at the

Séminaire de Joliette, near his home town of St-Jacques-de-

Montcalm, he stood out as a natural leader and spirited debater.

Former classmate Serge Barrette remembers him as likable, and tenacious. “He was a very intelligent type with an extraordinary facility with words,” says Barrette, whose father, Antonio, was, briefly, leader of the Union Nationale party and Quebec premier in 1960. He chuckles at the mem-

Landry claims that, in an era of globalization, sovereignty is necessary to protect Quebec’s identity

ory of Landry serving as a lieutenant in the cadet corps of the Canadian army for several summers, and suggests the future premier relished power even then. Recalling Landry’s style, Barrette smiles, slaps his hand and says, “We marched. It was quite authoritarian.”

Landry has preached the sovereigntist gospel most of his adult life. Brought up in modest circumstances as the son of an insurance agent, he has, friends say, the ability to connect well with ordinary people.

Yet he was not, at first, a natural campaigner. “He had some difficulties in getting his message across,” acknowledges René Charette, who worked on Landry’s unsuccessful bids to get elected in Joliette in 1970 and 1973 as a PQcandidate. During a stop in one village, Charette recalls,

Landry, who has a master’s in political science as well as a law degree, “talked to them about macroeconomics.” It left his audience cold; later, says Charette, campaign staff told Landry he had to “find easier words for people.”

Landry’s time finally came when the PQ swept to power in 1976 under Lévesque. Bright and ambitious, Landry and Pierre Marois, who went on to hold several cabinet positions, quickly became the premier’s favourites, according to former cab-

inet colleague Denis Lazure. “They were the two dauphins,” he recalls. Landry has held several high-profile portfolios over the years—despite having a hot temper and a knack for tactless comments. In 1998, for instance, he opined—shades of Michaud—that making the minimum requirement for a pro-sovereignty vote more than 50 per cent would risk “giving a veto right to our compatriots, brothers and sisters from cultural communities, on our national project. We can’t do that.” In other words, those pesky minorities again.

Now ensconced in the job he has coveted since his youth, Landry often trots out economic arguments in favour of sovereignty. “I am convinced not only that Canada has no use, but that it has been harmful,” he declared soon after becoming premier. Landry also claims that, in an era of globalization, sovereignty is necessary to protect Quebec’s uniqueness. “The people of Quebec cannot put at risk their language, their culture and their economic interests through their absence at international forums,” he dedared prior to last month’s Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. But are Quebecers listening?

Daniel Normandin has finally found work. For the 34-year-old resident of TroisRivières, it was a long haul—his last fulltime job, doing cleaning and other work on a renovation project, ended in the summer of1999. Unable to collect employment insurance benefits because that work had not lasted long enough,

Normandin, who is a trained mechanic, went on welfare. Trips to the boardwalk by the St.

Lawrence River sometimes helped clear his head, but the frustration always returned. Now working as a customer-service clerk at a local tire outlet, Normandin remains guarded about his prospects, well aware that the boom that touched many areas of North America in recent years passed Trois-Rivières by. Compared with the provincial average of 8.7per cent and a national rate of seven per cent, the city now has an unemployment rate ofnine per cent. That is likely to rise: just recently, Fruit of the Loom announced plans to close its

factory, leaving another 600 people out of

work. And as Normandin talks politics, the words tumble out in a torrent offrustration. Poverty, not separatism, is his idea of a pressing issue. ‘Instead of thinking of sovereignty, ” he says indignantly, “Landry should think of serious things. ”

It is not all about sovereignty, Landry insists. He has said that, for his government, social concerns are also a top priority. He has some baggage to get rid of. As Bouchard’s finance minister, Landry slashed Quebec’s deficit, at the expense of social services and the health-care system, while doling out hefty subsidies to big business. Such measures alienated the party’s left wing. The most compelling proof of that occurred last month in the Mercier byelection. An independent leftist candidate, Paul Cliche, split the traditional sovereigntist vote, paving the way for the Liberal victory.

Ironically, the PQ, which has historically been a social democratic party, now faces pressure from what should be

its own constituency. Emboldened by Cliches strong showing, several small parties and unions are talking about forming a coalition and fielding a full slate of progressive, alternative candidates in the next election. Arthur Sandborn, the president of the Montreal-area branch of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, one of Quebec’s largest unions, suggested recendy in Le Devoir that sovereignty can no

longer be the only priority. The public, he

said, is preoccupied by poverty, globalization and the environment.

Lriends and colleagues say Landry is sincere about his commitment to social issues. “He’s a guy from a modest milieu,” says Lazure. “When he says his No. 1 priority is the fight against poverty, it’s real.” To polish his social democratic credentials, Landry has created a new cabinet position dedicated to the fight against poverty and exclusion. But some of the PQ’s traditional supporters will need more proof. According to Quebec’s chief electoral officer, the party’s membership has dropped to 65,000 (the party disputes those numbers, contending that the figure hovers around 100,000, including those up for renewal). Recent opinion polls have shown the PQwith a slight edge over the Liberals midway through the party’s second mandate. That may yet translate into electoral victory when Landry decides to go to the polls. But on the sovereignty front, the driving political cause of Bernard Landry’s life, the outlook is far more uncertain. E3