Jean Charest could end Quebec’s independence movement

Peter C. Newman May 12 2003


Jean Charest could end Quebec’s independence movement

Peter C. Newman May 12 2003


Jean Charest could end Quebec’s independence movement



“YOU!” JEAN CHAREST yelled at me across the hall. “You!” he repeated, focusing on my bald head. “How can you accuse me of having a bad hair day?”

Then, we both burst out laughing.

My accusation had been prompted less by the weed-garden mop of his hairdo than by the uninspiring speech he had just given to the 1993 Tory leadership convention. Too smooth by half, Charest had sounded like a bored lounge singer, substituting technique for substance. Kim Campbell got the nod, and prompdy fell on her sword. Charest was one of only two Tories who survived the general election that followed, prompting the joke on Parliament Hill that his perky wife, Michèle, was sleeping with half the Conservative caucus.

That was a decade ago, and last week the same Jean Charest (sporting a fresh hairdo) was sworn in as the first federalist premier of Quebec since, well, the last one. I put it that way because Quebec politicians inevitably swing between being pragmatic nationalists and national pragmatists. Charest will be no exception. But unlike his less openly federalist-minded predecessors, his stunning victory at the polls on April 14 gives him time and chance to bring down the curtain on Quebec’s independence movement.

THE FATHER of modem separatism in Quebec was an all but forgotten specialist in chemical warfare, who earned a doctorate from McGill University and became a highranking scientist with the Defence Research Board in Ottawa. Marcel Chaput launched le Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale in 1960, which René Lévesque later credited as being the catalyst for his own dedication to the cause. It was somehow typically Canadian that the leader of the founding movement dedicated to the destruction of Canada (our own Che Guevara) turned out to be not a hollow-eyed revolutionary in a mountain top hideout, but a middle-class federal civil servant in a dark

blue suit, occupying a suburban bungalow. Chaput was a highly intelligent and captivating speaker, but his timing was premature—and he ended his days as a heating oil salesman.

IN THE EARLY 1960s, I would fly into Quebec City two or three times a year to interview premier Jean Lesage, Eric Kierans, Lévesque and some of the other ministers masterminding the Quiet Revolution. As part of my rounds, I joined opposition leader Daniel Johnson for a drink at La Place de la Fontaine, the ground level bar at the Château Frontenac. Unfailingly courteous, poking fon at me for taking la grande politique of the reigning provincial Liberals so seriously, Johnson would expound on his own low-

COMPARED TO Parizeau, Bouchard was a much more serious threat to Canada’s future. Even his limp and cane were charismatic.

key approach. One evening after a round of kir, I asked him to define his ideology. “You know, in politics it’s very dangerous to have a philosophy,” he replied, smoothing his hair, which never had a strand out of place. “In a democracy you should have politicians who setde the problems that exist, not set out to prove philosophical ideals.”

That didn’t stop him from having some very definite opinions about Quebec’s future. Johnson was not a separatist, but no other Quebec politician has so clearly enunciated the notion of Canada as the home of two societies. When Johnson unexpectedly beat Lesage’s reformist regime in 1966, he began promoting the idea of Canada as “two equal brother nations.” He would meet nervous bond dealers in Toronto or New York City and reassure them: “Quebec won’t separate if

we can live in Canada as a group.” Then he would fly back to Quebec City and assert: “Unless Quebecers can live in Canada as a group, we will separate!” Journalists would subtract one statement from the other, end up with zero, and Johnson would attack them for misinterpreting his position. The premier’s bible was his own book, Egalité ou Indépendance. Its chilling final sentence remains the best summary of Quebec’s aspirations: “Where the French-Canadian nation finds its freedom, there too will be its homeland.”

ROBERT BOURASSA, the premier in charge of Quebec during the FLQ crisis of 1970, was brand new to power, still hoping that his diplomas from Oxford and Harvard would safeguard him from the violence sweeping Montreal. He seemed to be all horn-rimmed glasses and Adam’s apple, beseeching help from Ottawa to protect his authority from the militant forces of popular dissent. Unlike most of his predecessors and successors, he never endowed Quebec separatism with yearnings for lost nationhood, but saw provincial independence and Ottawa federalism as two sides of an economic equation that he intended to balance in his province’s favour. He spent most of his time in power trying to determine which side would win, so he could join it.

AVERY DIFFERENT and much more compelling character was René Lévesque, who dominated the Quebec political scene for the decade after his 1976 defeat of a dispirited Bourassa. During his apprenticeship as Quebec’s top-rated radio commentator, Lévesque became a master of the spoken word in both of Canada’s official languages. He learned how to spin a prevalence of ambiguities, using declaratory phrases to bolster his message. The appeal to his listeners lay in his ability to wash away their numbness of having lived two centuries as “a conquered people,” inviting them to come out of the colonial closet and be filled with love and wonder.

If the Quebec separatist movement did nothing but produce Lévesque, it would have been worth it. He realized that politics is not a science decided by the elegant droppings of computers, but an exercise in sorcery filled with illusions and enchantments. His election campaigns had the élan of those Second World War films glorifying the French Resistance: all throwaway heroics and noble enunciations. He was at his best during televised news conferences, having mastered the art of the verbal shrug.

Asked a question, he would hesitate, not to protect himself, but the way a child does who pauses to come up with a detailed reply. His blue eyes darting like hyper minnows from one camera to another, Lévesque kept hinting that some of his best friends were WASPs, and that somehow we would all survive and prosper together. René Lévesque was a romantic in politics, but eventually gave up his quest. Like his ever-present cigarette, his political agenda turned into a socially unacceptable form of suicide.

JACQUES PARIZEAU, who eventually succeeded him—first came Pierre-Marc Johnson for two years—was best known for the description of his conversion during a crosscountry train trip in 1967: “When I left Montreal’s Windsor Station, I was a federalist,” went his mantra. “When I arrived in Banff, I was a separatist.” (To avoid other defections, the Brian Mulroney Conservatives killed the VIA train to Banff.) Parizeau never stopped blowing through his moustache, blaming all but pure laine Quebecers for the province’s secondary status. When Quebec achieved independence, he promised that the province’s citizens could still use the Canadian dollar and retain their Canadian passports, but would be encouraged to curse Ottawa and make fun of Toronto. Nobody believed it would work, because that’s what being Canadian is all about.

His racist remarks after losing the 1995 referendum drove him out of office, and even in this election he was counted as a liability to the Parti Québécois campaign and was exiled to his vineyard in France.

LUCIEN BOUCHARD, who took over the PQ in January 1996 was a much more serious threat to the Canadian future. He lacked Lévesque’s charm, but was clearly a heavyweight. Even his limp and cane were charismatic. I had trouble interviewing him or even watching him on TV, because every time he appeared I imagined (like a character out of Ally McBeal) that he was accompanied by a bass-trombone orchestra, playing the brooding score from a Verdi opera. He was the basso profundo—a swarthy villain, intent on defiling the coloratura diva’s lily whites. Monsieur Bouchard exuded a certain stolid determination, though he had switched parties and positions half a dozen times. These twin traits established him as a politician who could not be bought, but certainly could be rented.

Against this potent appeal, Ottawa offered something its constitutional idiot savants called the “distinct society” option. It was the perfect Canadian political ploy: almost everyone came out against it, except those who insisted that it was meaningless.

I stopped bothering to take seriously Bouchard’s successor, Bernard Landry, when during a 1994 interview with the French magazine L’Express he claimed that under English-Canadian rule, “Quebec’s population has endured a cataclysm comparable

Essay | >

to the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe.” I blamed that absurd comparison on his slight overreaction to the pending loss of the Nordiques, the hockey team then in the process of abandoning Quebec City. In terms of the independence debate, it placed Landry not only outside the box, but outside the warehouse. After his devastating electoral defeat last month, he declared smugly: “Sovereignty is progressing more during our opposition time.”

Long may he reign.

NOW, HERE COMES Jean Charest. He appears younger than his 44 years, but has been in politics for two stormy decades, and what he has learned is to function as much on the basis of his thoughts as his feelings. The youngest cabinet minister in Canadian history when he was sworn into the Mulroney cabinet in 1986, he has learned much in the interval. Patience has become his middle name and he implicitly trusts his own judgment, which has kept him in the political game when Montreal law firms were waving fat employment contracts at him. He comes into office just as most of Quebec’s voters realize that their personal and collective interests are better protected within the larger entity of Canada, than with the neurotic isolation demanded of independence in an interdependent world.

Charest will be the first Quebec premier who feels at home in 10 provinces, having toured their every nook and cranny as a federal minister and later as Tory leader. He will battle Ottawa as hard as any of his predecessors, but it will be for tax points, to be spent within a united Canada.

At the same time, those of us who care about the future of Canada must not allow the two solitudes of the past to become the twin lassitudes of the present. For once, Canada seems lucky. No duo of politicians possesses greater potential for healing national rifts than Paul Martin and Jean Charest. (And, hey, Jean is 20 years younger than Paul. Guess who’ll have the best shot at succeeding the man most likely to be the next prime minister of Canada.)

Whatever their delusions and excesses, Quebec separatists have benefited hugely from their vibrant politics and sure sense of place. English Canada must now follow suit. Jean Charest cannot succeed without us. ffll