Bouchard Launches a Broadside

THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, Lucien. The charismatic leader who came this close to driving his flock out to greener pastures in a referendum 10 years ago now warns that Quebec is bound for the slag heap of history if it doesn't reform quickly.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 31, 2005

Bouchard Launches a Broadside

THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, Lucien. The charismatic leader who came this close to driving his flock out to greener pastures in a referendum 10 years ago now warns that Quebec is bound for the slag heap of history if it doesn't reform quickly. And, the former separatist premier says, the province's future constitutional status will have little impact on that outcome. Last week, Bouchard put a spectacular end to the radio silence he'd imposed on himself in 2001 after he slammed the door on the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS and walked away from the premier's job. Heading a coalition of intellectuals, businesspeople and former pols like himself, he delivered a political manifesto that exploded like a bomb in the void that public debate in Quebec has become.

And, oh yes, the man who had elevated blaming everyone else for Quebec's woes and insecurities to an art form 10 years ago now says Quebecers will have only themselves to blame if they don't reform their ways and kick some of their sacred cows in the groin.

Bouchard's broadside comes at a time when disgruntled citizens have turned their backs in droves on politicians they have stopped respecting and believing. They may not believe Bouchard either. But he was not afraid to spell out some blunt truths that no elected official has been strong, or game enough, to utter lately.

"At the very moment when we should be radically changing the way we view ourselves and the world around us," the manifesto charges, "the slightest change to the way government functions, a bold project, the most timid call to responsibility or the smallest change to comfortable habits, is met with an angry outcry and objections, or at best, indifference."

Wait - it gets better. With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the manifesto concludes: "This outright rejection of change hurts Quebec because it runs the risk of turning us into the republic of the status quo, a fossil from the 20th century."

Now, Lucien BOUCHARD knows a thing or two about political deadlock, paralysis and stagnation. He turned his back on the federal Conservatives to found the BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS, which he threw as a wrench into the gears of the House of Commons. He led a referendum campaign that split Quebec right down the middle between the Yes and No sides. Since then, Quebec's once vibrant and creative political life has degenerated into a sclerotic and dysfunctional system in which debate has been replaced by slogans, and decisive action has taken a back seat to scandals and finger-pointing. Small wonder then that Premier Jean CHAREST's face was not wide enough to contain his grin during a news conference called especially to comment on Bouchard's manifesto, published with little forewarning last Wednesday. "That's music to my ears," he cooed.

Well, maybe not so much music as a life-line thrown to him by his former federal Conservative colleague - and later separatist nemesis. A cocky and confident Charest was elected more than two years ago talking the same line as Bouchard today. Poor Charest expected some opposition; instead he found a lynch mob led by union leaders accusing him of plotting to "destroy Quebec." In mid-mandate, the premier is crippled by the lowest popularity level since polling began in Quebec - and mired in contract talks with government employees that are going nowhere and flare up in sporadic walkouts.

The only alternative to Charest, the Parti Québécois, is in even worse shape: leaderless and in the clutches of a posse of left-wing separatist zealots who have imposed a binding platform that alternates between impractical and lunatic. Their next leader will either be a fortysomething gay man who's admitted to snorting cocaine while a cabinet minister, or a fiftysomething former vice-premier who once tried to topple her leader and failed. Bouchard growls, and they look like dwarves scurrying for cover.

Little solace can be expected from Ottawa, thanks to the sponsorship scandal. There, three opposition leaders try to outdo one another in the outrage department while the embattled minority Prime Minister stammers in both official languages that this latest scandal will be the last. There again, Quebec voters have no federalist alternative to the Liberals.

What happened?

"Our society has evolved much faster than our political culture and parties," says Jean-Herman Guay, a political scientist at Université de Sherbrooke. "In one generation, we have mushroomed into a complex, diversified, postmodern society - but our politics has evolved at a much slower pace."

There is some of that, of course. The referendum of 1995 occurred in the wake of the collapse of the Meech Lake accord. Meech followed the patriation of the Constitution - which Quebec has yet to sign - in 1982. Pierre Trudeau patriated the Constitution after the first referendum on sovereignty association in 1980. It was just 25 years ago that angry young francophones were protesting against Anglo dominance. Today, Montreal is just as diverse - and peaceful - as Toronto or Vancouver - but the PQ is still at it, and so are its foes.

And then there's the question of leadership, or lack thereof, says CROP's Alain Giguère, the pollster who's had his finger on the national pulse for all these years. "Voters have become totally allergic to the bullshit that's rampant everywhere, and that sentiment is particularly acute here - people want to tell politicians to just cut the crap." Just a few days prior to Bouchard's sortie, Giguère described what, according to his polling, the composite sketch of a successful political leader in Quebec would be. "First, someone strong enough to rise above the fray, cut through the bullshit, the political correctness, and speak the truth," Giguère said. "Then, someone who could strike the elusive balance between social solidarity and fiscal responsibility." Another element missing in today's political discourse, Giguère said, "is a sense of direction, of purpose. Where the hell should we be headed? People need a sense of guidance."

Maybe Bouchard got a glimpse of Giguère's polling - he was on the money on all counts. Bouchard insisted, though, that his days as a politician are behind him. But who knows with a man like him, given the twists and turns of his political career, and now this none too subtle jab at his former separatist colleagues and their allies, the unions and pressure groups, "who have hijacked the progressive label."

"I'm doing this is on behalf of my children," Bouchard said last week." No doubt. But a lot of people are going to keep close tabs on him in the near future. With political life in Quebec flatlining, there's always room for someone to apply that jolt that gets the heartbeat going again.

Maclean's October 31, 2005