Guy Bertrand (Profile)

Flamboyant is the adjective most often used to describe Guy Bertrand. It's accurate enough, for there is something a little larger than life about the 58-year-old Quebec City lawyer and perennial political gadfly.

Bertrand, Guy (Profile)

Flamboyant is the adjective most often used to describe Guy Bertrand. It's accurate enough, for there is something a little larger than life about the 58-year-old Quebec City lawyer and perennial political gadfly. With dyed black hair, the hawk-nosed profile of a Roman senator and the wardrobe of a Hollywood star, he is the kind of man who can make heads turn, as happened last week when Bertrand, accompanied by his 28-year-old son and legal associate, Jean-François, took a break from court to lunch at the city's trendy Club Aviatic. For one brief moment, conversation paused in the crowded restaurant as Bertrand "père et fils" entered. "I suppose it's because I hold very strong ideas, perhaps a little ahead of their time," he later shrugged while reflecting upon a plate of Dijon sausages. "My father always warned me about it. He said it would cause me to lead an unhappy life."

Unhappy or not, Bertrand's life has certainly been tumultuous, particularly of late. As the prime mover of the court action to legally define Quebec's right to self-determination, he sits in the very eye of the storm currently raging between Ottawa and Quebec City. And while Bertrand shows every sign that he is actually enjoying all the attention, his position is not a comfortable one. He continues to be pilloried in the French-language media, portrayed as an unwitting dupe at best, a clown at worst. Even his own brother, Rosaire, a Parti Québécois member of the national assembly, refuses to speak to him. To most hardline separatists, in fact, Bertrand is a pariah to be reviled. For many committed federalists, however, he has become an instant hero, a once die-hard separatist who not only glimpsed the error of his ways but also found the courage to act upon his new convictions. And in between those points of view, there rests a large body of opinion that really does not quite know what to make of the flashy lawyer with the newly discovered faith in Canada.

If any of this bothers Bertrand, he does not show it. "Why can't I change my mind?" he asks. "Do I have to live with the same ideas I had when I was born?" He pauses over his saucisses to direct a shot directly at many of those, led by Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, who are now among his most vocal detractors. "Besides," he adds with a knowing glance, "unlike some others, I've only switched my political stripes once in the past 25 years." What prompted the change? "I think it all began when the Bloc Québécois was elected as official Opposition in Ottawa," he muses. "I asked myself what other country in the world would permit that, the election of a party dedicated to the country's destruction? It dawned on me then that this might be a democracy worth saving." He claims that the massive outpouring of public sympathy from all across Canada over Bouchard's near-fatal bout with the so-called flesh-eating disease in late 1994 accelerated the process. "I saw that most Canadians reacted to Bouchard's plight as if he were a member of the family," he recalls. "It moved me."

From that point, according to Bertrand, it was only a matter of time before he went from dedicated separatist to equally committed federalist. He describes each step in the transformation in a book he published earlier this month - Plaidoyer pour Les Citoyens (In the Citizens' Defence). In it, he concludes that an "intolerant, ethnocentric, egocentric" francophone nationalism has led both Quebec and Canada to the brink of ruin. The movement has been orchestrated, he claims, by a privileged "separatist mafia," a network of elites in government, the universities, cultural organizations and the media who have combined to wage constant warfare against the Canadian federation. Federalist sympathizers, fearing a francophone backlash, have failed to speak out forcefully in the country's defence. "It's why there are so few people of his generation," says Bertrand with a gesture towards his son, "who are not separatists, or at least supporters of separatism."

Whatever the merits of his argument, Bertrand has had - and continues to have - difficulty convincing Quebecers of his sincerity. A major part of the problem is the man himself. Bertrand was not merely a separatist, he was among the most aggressive of the breed. He helped to found the PQ in 1968, twice ran unsuccessfully under the party's banners for a seat in the national assembly and, in 1985, mounted a losing bid for the PQ leadership. The late René Lévesque once labelled Bertrand an "ayatollah in bedroom slippers," largely as a result of the latter's vigorous attempts to pressure the PQ into unilaterally declaring independence after Ottawa's decision to repatriate Canada's Constitution over Quebec's objections. Lévesque, Bertrand points out, fought him over that issue on the grounds that a unilateral declaration of independence would not only be "illegal and undemocratic but also immoral." Bertrand sighs and shakes his head. "And now," he continues, "everybody in the PQ is mad at me for simply doing what Lévesque told me to do in the first place."

Until the federal government decided to intervene in his case, Bertrand's battle was a lonely one. He stoutly maintains that he had neither advance notice nor any talks with Ottawa on the matter. But he welcomes the boost it may lend to his cause. At the same time, however, he is also bracing for renewed attacks. In a reference to the building in Quebec City where the offices of Bouchard and his key ministers are located, he says: "The Bunker is trying to destroy my reputation. It's been very hard for me - and for my family."

Still, neither son nor father would roll back the clock. "I think my father is a visionary," says Jean-François. As for the elder Bertrand, he claims his change from angry separatist to embattled federalist has bought some unsuspected benefits. "It's so refreshing," he marvels. "For the first time in 25 years, I'm now engaged in trying to build harmony rather than sow destruction." He even harbors a hope, albeit slim, that brother Rosaire will eventually come around to talking to him once again. "He used to be a federalist, you know, " Bertrand confides. "I convinced him to become a separatist. Maybe I can change his mind again." Maybe he can.

Maclean's May 27, 1996