Never mind the coke jokes—André Boisclair really wants to tear the country apart
“There is no reason to fear me,” André Boisclair told a National Post reporter and, by extension, the rest of Canada a few days before he won the Parti Québécois leadership on Nov. 15. And indeed, despite his convincing victory—53 per cent on the first ballot against more than a half-dozen opponents—Boisclair’s triumph seemed to inspire more giggling than trembling among federal politicians.
Pierre Pettigrew, Paul Martin’s foot-inmouth foreign minister, sparked outrage in some quarters by calling Boisclair the “next loser” in a party of losers. Federal Transport Minister Jean Lapierre added that “it was the easiest adversary for Jean Charest, who’s just won.” And Liza Frulla, the heritage minister, wished the young newcomer luck because “his party throws its leaders out like old Kleenex.”
Much of the snickering, of course, was occasioned by Boisclair’s colourful past. The dashing 39-year-old is the first openly gay leader of a major provincial political party. But the novelty of that feat was handily outweighed by the revelation that he is also the first leader to admit he used cocaine while serving as a cabinet minister in Lucien Bouchard’s government. That shocking news marred Boisclair’s otherwise well-orchestrated comeback. He had left politics last year to study at Harvard University, and had already accepted a Toronto consulting job with McKinsey & Co. before Bernard Landry’s resignation launched the search for the PQ’s sixth leader.
If he did win despite his slim CV and an avalanche of coke jokes, it’s because Boisclair represented something so novel it was irresistible for Péquistes: the first leader in the party’s history who doesn’t belong to the same generation as its founders of the 1960s. The abiding fear for Péquistes has been that their
movement was the product and prisoner of a single generation. Boisclair represents renewal. And not, on the face of it, much else. He offers the vigour and beauty of youth along with, by most accounts, no particular insight into history or the life of the mind.
So Boisclair would be easy to dismiss as a seasonal fad, the political equivalent of a mood ring or a pet rock, were it not for the polling trends and the program he defends. The polls suggest he would win a general election even more handily than he won the PQ leadership: 41 per cent to 21 per cent for the Charest Liberals, according to CROP.
If that trend held until an election that will probably be called in 2007, Boisclair would be in a position to implement the latest PQ program.
In a grassroots party like the PQ, disproportionately influenced by the hard-core separatists known as “caribous? the program is hammered out paragraph by paragraph at policy conferences. The current program is the product of a party base that was badly upset by Bernard Landry’s 2003 election rout. Boisclair, seen by some in the PQ as too business-friendly and Anglo-friendly, has embraced the program wholeheartedly to prove his separatist bona fides. And it’s this program that led federal Environment Minister Stéphane Dion to say that Boisclair’s “moderate veneer won’t hold up. He’s a radical.”
How so? Because the latest PQ program abandons two central tenets of Jacques Parizeau’s 1995 sovereignty plan: a QuebecCanada “partnership” and a year’s worth of negotiations between a referendum and a secession. Instead, the PQ now calls for a unilateral “declaration of national sovereignty” immediately after a referendum, along with a law “declaring that only the government of Quebec may raise taxes among the Quebec population.”
Could a Quebec government simply do
WOLF IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING: the popular Boisclair might seem a moderate, but in fact he is a radical who wholeheartedly supports the PQ's hard-core separatist agenda
that? Declare itself independent and order its citizens to ignore a federal government that contested the secession? “Of course not. It would be chaotic,” says Robert Young, a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario. Young was once considered such a congenial expert for Quebec sovereigntists that the PQ caucus invited him to brief them in 1995. But now he says a contested secession could result in a funda-
mental and prolonged clash of legitimacies.
Here’s what that means on the ground. Are federal government benefits still worth anything in Quebec? Can Canada Post deliver them to your home? When it comes time to collect payroll taxes, to which government should a business pay them? What happens to decisions in Quebec courts under appeal at federal courts? Governments in Quebec and Ottawa would be giving contradictory instructions. “This would be particularly tricky
problem for federally appointed judges serving in Quebec,” says Sujit Choudhry, a University of Toronto law professor.
The relevant section in Young’s 1999 book, The Struggle for Quebec, is called “Meltdown.” A contested unilateral secession “involves a level of disorder and violence that contradicts the normal view of Canada and Quebec as stable, tolerant societies,” he wrote. And this scenario
begins, not with Ottawa doing anything dramatic like sending in troops, but simply with the federal government continuing to enforce laws and provide services while the Quebec government insists it stop.
These dilemmas would bring profound uncertainty directly into the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Quebecers. And perhaps the most interesting thing about the recent PQ race is that this
warning—that the PQ platform is a recipe for chaos on a massive scale—is shared, not only by federalist academics in Ontario, but by the most experienced of the defeated PQ leadership candidates.
Louis Bernard was among the most trusted advisers to René Lévesque in 1980 and to Jacques Parizeau in 1995Nobody questions his desire for a sovereign Quebec. But his surprise candidacy turned into a lonely crusade against his own party’s radically irre-
sponsible program. “A declaration of sovereignty or independence is a solemn gesture from a country declaring that, henceforth, its government exercises complete and sovereign control over its territory, to the exclusion of all other authority,” he wrote during the campaign.
Unfortunately, if the federal government won’t pack up and leave—and the Clarity Act forbids it from doing so if Parliament finds either the referendum question or majority unclear—then the secession “will inevitably be chaos,” Bernard wrote. “It will be impossible for Quebec to take over and ensure the continuity of federal programs and services, because it will have neither the information, the civil servants, nor the money to do so.”
And finally, because “foreign countries, even ^ the friendliest, won’t want to alienate CanarW da by immediately recognizing a sovereign Quebec.”
So this is the analysis of the PQ’s finest mind (and of serious observers outside Quebec): that the route to sovereignty Boisclair endorses is a straight path to chaos. Which may be all the reason anyone needs to fear the PQ’s callow and popular new sorcerer’s apprentice. M
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