Parizeau's Lobster Flap

In the midst of the traditionally slow-news summer silly season, it provided ever-hungry editorial cartoonists with the kind of food for thought that makes them sink to their knees in gratitude and offer thanks to a Higher Power. The key ingredients for their Seafood Delight: take one blunt and outspoken Quebec premier, mix with 15 stiff foreign diplomats, spice with a controversial comparison of Quebecers with lobsters, sprinkle angry words between the provincial and federal governments, and prepare for the inevitable editorial roasting and toasting. Did Jacques Parizeau really say in a meeting with Ottawa-based foreign ambassadors that Quebecers, in the event of a Yes vote in a sovereignty referendum, would be trapped like "lobsters thrown into boiling water?" Only those present at the meeting will ever know for sure - and almost all of them, for different reasons, retreated last week behind a wall of silence or issued rather ambiguous denials.

But that made no difference to gleeful Quebec cartoonists, who - especially in the middle of the province's official Lobster Month - knew a good catch when they saw one. In La Presse, the newspaper which broke the story, cartoonist Girerd depicted a nude Parizeau poised nervously over a tub of water, shouting "Honey! It's boiling!" The acerbic Aislin of The Gazette, in a play on the famous poster promoting the movie Jaws, showed a giant lobster lurking beneath the water, waiting to trap the swimming Parizeau. Berthio of Quebec City's Le Soleil showed Parizeau being pinched by two lobster claws, and in Montreal's Le Devoir, a frustrated Parizeau - who was on vacation in the south of France - was shown banging his head in frustration on a restaurant table as a baffled waiter delivered a lobster.

By the end of last week, it seemed there were few Quebecers - or other Canadians, for that matter - who were not aware of the newest Ottawa/Quebec political controversy, a veritable tempest in a lobster pot. The reaction, predictably, ranged from angry denials on the sovereigntist side to carefully suppressed giggles among federalists. Quebec's ever-combative deputy premier, Bernard Landry, who was not present at the meeting, denied that Parizeau had ever made such a comment, accused the federal government of deliberately leaking the document in order to draw foreign diplomats into internal politics, and demanded a formal apology. A Foreign Affairs official denied that the department had leaked the memo, and said the department would investigate the leak, which it "deeply regretted." Parizeau himself, along with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, opted for silence. So, for the most part, did the shocked diplomats, who found themselves unwittingly and unhappily trapped at centre stage of the latest episode of Canada's tragicomic constitutional soap opera. "The meeting was of a strictly private nature," said Spain's ambassador, José Luis Pardos, in a statement on behalf of the group. For that reason, he continued, he would not comment on the article in La Presse.

What actually happened during the meeting in question, held in Ottawa on June 13? These are the only details not in dispute: the Quebec premier spent most of his time during his session with the diplomats explaining his government's intentions in the planned referendum on sovereignty. On the following day, as is customary, a representative of the group, Dutch ambassador Jan Fietelaars, met with an official from the foreign affairs department to give his impressions of the meeting.

Five days later, the official, Michel Duval, wrote a report, intended only for internal distribution, summarizing the ambassador's description of the meeting. In it, Duval wrote: "Mr. Parizeau noted that what counted above all was to have a majority Yes from Quebecers. After that, they would be 'like lobsters thrown in boiling water.' " Duval also noted that Fietelaars referred to Parizeau as an "able and cynical politician." A copy of the report was obtained by the Ottawa bureau chief of La Presse, Chantale Hébert. She confirmed its contents in off-the-record interviews with two participants in the meeting and in an on-the-record interview with a third, Belgian Ambassador Christian Fellens.

Hébert's article had the rare quality of providing potential for exquisite embarrassment for all involved. On the federalist side, the concern was that foreign representatives could be more cautious about meeting with federal officials if they feel they are being manipulated or compromised before the referendum. Within the foreign affairs department, there were expressions of chagrin that confidentiality had been breached in such a manner. "As a breach of security, we take it very seriously," said Ariel Delouya, a spokesman for the department. "It is like a budget leak or leaking of policy information - it is a breach." Still, the department stopped short of launching a formal inquiry. Similarly, officials in Chrétien's office said they regretted the incident - but could not restrain themselves from suggesting that Quebecers pay careful heed to Parizeau's comments.

Predictably, members of Parizeau's office and cabinet were the most mortified. Asked by La Presse to respond to the story before it appeared, officials in Parizeau's office asked for a 72-hour delay in order to find participants who would deny that Parizeau had made such a comment. Landry, who was in Mexico at the time, called Fietelaars to advise him that the newspaper was planning to run an article based on the memo. Fietelaars then called Hébert to say that Parizeau's comment, as cited in the report, was "to the best of [his] memory, not what was said." Similarly, the statement issued by Spain's ambassador, Pardos, said Parizeau "did not make the remarks attributed to him."

But those carefully worded denials could refer only to the boiling water, not the creature in question. Traditionally, diplomats have a horror of being publicly quoted or involved in any way with controversies in the countries where they are posted. On the Quebec sovereignty issue in particular, one European ambassador commented recently that "we learn very early in our posting to change the subject as soon as the issue comes up. Otherwise, it can explode on you." Other diplomats who were not present at the meeting say they were told by participants that Parizeau, speaking in English, used a different analogy involving lobsters: he said that in the event of a Yes vote, the result would be like a "lobster pot." That refers to the traditional wooden traps that have a one-way gate allowing a lobster to get in, but not out - and could be a metaphorical way of illustrating the finality of a majority Yes vote by Quebecers.

In Quebec, the event was enough to briefly rekindle interest in the referendum issue at a time when most residents, including the province's political leaders, are doing their best to avoid it. While Parizeau was in France, Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard was in California visiting his in-laws, and Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson was at a cottage just outside Montreal. With several recent polls showing that the Yes side holds a narrow lead in public opinion, Parti Québécois strategists say they will intensify referendum planning activities in August. The vote itself will likely be held on Nov. 6.

How much the controversy will hurt the Yes side is uncertain, but it clearly will not help. Reaction last week on Quebec radio open-line shows was overwhelmingly negative, with some callers suggesting that Parizeau must have been drunk when he made his remarks. (There was no evidence to suggest that.) Others accused the premier of insulting Quebecers by making the comparison.

In any event, it was far from Parizeau's first brush with pre-referendum controversy. In the 1980 campaign, when he was finance minister, Parizeau was roundly criticized for a flip remark in which he said that sovereignty would not cost the average voter any more than a case of beer a year. First lager, now lobster: both are reminders that the full-figured Parizeau is renowned for his epicurean ways. But in the tense pre-referendum atmosphere, both also seem to be surefire recipes for indigestion.

Maclean's July 24, 1995