Parizeau's Election Bombshell | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Parizeau's Election Bombshell

Call them the Legion of the Damning - an elite but unhappy group of former political leaders who rise, often at the most inopportune times, to smite their successors with deeply wounding revelations or advice.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 19, 1997

Parizeau's Election Bombshell

Call them the Legion of the Damning - an elite but unhappy group of former political leaders who rise, often at the most inopportune times, to smite their successors with deeply wounding revelations or advice. Outside Canada, the most obvious example is former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, whose combination of barbs and faint praise directed at John Major helped drive him from office earlier this month. At home, Pierre Trudeau has made a habit of rising from the political dead, helping to kill the Meech Lake constitutional accord in 1990, the Charlottetown accord in 1992, and then complaining about the No side's tactics in the aftermath of the 1995 Quebec referendum campaign. There is also Brian Mulroney, who emerged after 3½ years of silence to offer constitutional advice to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien last month.

And now - former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, aiming for his place in history no matter what the cost to his sovereigntist successors. Did Parizeau really mean to blatantly deceive the Quebec public and declare unilateral independence in the immediate aftermath of a Yes vote? That seemed to be the clear suggestion in a section of a new book by Parizeau, For a Sovereign Quebec, that was leaked to a Quebec City newspaper last week. In the ensuing furor, which included denunciations by Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard and other sovereigntists, Parizeau issued a statement saying the notion that he "would have proclaimed sovereignty in the days after a referendum is more than false, it is a lie."

But Bouchard was one of those who acknowledged that such a conclusion could easily be drawn from Parizeau's writing. Said Bouchard: "I am filled with consternation at the idea of the interpretations that are made and which, obviously, find a certain foundation in the clumsy wording of this passage of Mr. Parizeau's book."

By releasing his book now, in the middle of an election campaign - the official launch was set for May 12 - Parizeau was almost certainly aware of the controversy it would cause, and the effect it would have on sovereigntists. The uproar effectively turned the federal election campaign upside down and left the five major parties scrambling. Among other things, there were signs of vulnerability in the Bloc Québécois - which had been widely expected to take at least 50 of Quebec's 75 seats - and both the Liberals and Tories rushed to exploit that.

There are several reasons for Parizeau's behavior - and his timing. For one, it has never been a secret that Parizeau and Bouchard dislike each other. Parizeau considers Bouchard a latecomer to the sovereigntist movement and, in private, sometimes scathingly compares Bouchard's days as Canada's ambassador to France in the mid-1980s with his own activities at that time, rebuilding the then stumbling Parti Québécois. As well, since resigning as premier on October 31, 1995, Parizeau has both publicly and privately fretted that the PQ under Bouchard is not talking enough about sovereignty. And even when it does, Parizeau feels, the party spends too much time emphasizing the concept of a political and economic association with Canada.

Partly as a result of his own beliefs - that Quebec would fare better if it was completely independent, rather than still maintaining some links with Canada - friends say Parizeau seriously considered running for the BQ leadership earlier this year. And since Gilles Duceppe, a close friend of Bouchard, became leader, Parizeau has complained privately about the Bloc's lack of commitment to sovereignty. (When Duceppe appeared on a Montreal talk show last week, several callers expressed their support for Parizeau and derided Duceppe as a "pretend sovereigntist.") By launching his book in mid-campaign, Parizeau ensured that the sovereignty issue was again front and centre at a crucial time.

The controversy was enough to push the already troubled BQ campaign further on the defensive. And it was likely to continue this week, with Parizeau scheduled to appear at book launches in Montreal and Quebec City. Suddenly, a moribund federal election campaign had found an issue - national unity - that may, in fact, resonate until the June 2 vote. In the process, it underscored the sometimes sharply diverging points of view among the major parties on how best to handle Canada's constitutional future.

That debate hinges on age-old questions. How should the rest of Canada respond to the sovereignty movement - with open arms and new constitutional proposals, with tough love, or with a combination of the two? So far, the proposals from various political leaders include all of the above. But the Parizeau affair has also raised new issues. Can Bouchard still credibly maintain his promise that a sovereign Quebec would seek a "partnership" with the rest of Canada after a Yes vote? What guarantee is there for Quebecers - and indeed for other Canadians - that a Yes vote would be interpreted by all sides to mean the same thing? And what, to paraphrase a famous question, do Quebec sovereigntists really want - and how can the rest of Canada stop them from having it?

Most, if not all, of those questions seemed certain to be raised in the two televised leaders debates this week. Those encounters were expected to mark the beginning of the "real" campaign; until last week, to use a word favored by strategists from all parties, the public appeared "disengaged" from the election. But the unity question strikes a strong emotional chord in many people. Sovereigntist leaders greeted the Parizeau revelations with a mixture of shock, dismay - and denials that anyone else had known of his plans. Popular radio talk show host Jean Lapierre, a one-time Liberal cabinet minister and later a Bloc MP, declared that the Parizeau affair amounted to a "Scud missile" aimed at the heart of the sovereigntist movement, and said the former premier is to the movement "what Bre-X is to the mining industry."

On a national level, the uproar was enough to transform the tone of the campaign - and elicit responses from two leaders who had done their best to previously avoid the topic of Quebec's place in Canada: Chrétien and Tory Leader Jean Charest. In the campaign's early days, the once-combative Chrétien appeared generally restrained in his appearances. But last week, he went on the offensive, criticizing Parizeau - and also dismissing suggestions from other sovereigntists that they had been unaware of his apparent plan for Quebec to make a quick exit from Confederation. "They are all saying it was only Mr. Parizeau," Chrétien said. "I am skeptical."

Similarly, Charest had been muted on the Quebec question. Now vigorously courting the so-called soft nationalist vote in Quebec, he toned down his once-fierce criticisms of Bouchard. And in the West, he tried to avoid another topic: the Tory platform's support for the constitutional recognition of Quebec as a "distinct society." Last week, though, Charest came out swinging against the separatist movement. "How much can you really trust what the sovereigntist leaders are telling you?" he asked. He also took aim at the Liberals, in particular the federal government's ongoing Supreme Court of Canada challenge to Quebec's self-professed right to declare unilateral secession. Charest argues that the government is acknowledging that the possibility of Quebec secession exists - and that doing so makes the notion seem more real. "I will never propose to this country any formula to negotiate its breakup," he declared.

Other leaders also got into the act. Reform's Preston Manning renewed his call for both Chrétien and Charest to say precisely what they would do in the event of a Quebec declaration of sovereignty. The two leaders, Manning said, should be asked "just one simple question: do you finally agree with us that it's time to have a real plan?" NDP Leader Alexa McDonough, meanwhile, suggested in Regina that people already knew what Parizeau planned for Canada - and tried to keep the focus on jobs and the economy, calling them the "real shared priority of all Canadians."

In addition to their philosophical differences, the various leaders are clearly trying to appeal to vastly different constituencies. Ever since the referendum, the Liberals have been trying to be all things to all people with a two-pronged approach dubbed Plan A and B. The first part of the plan consists of wooing Quebecers back into the federalist fold through a series of small steps, such as legislation in the House of Commons declaring the province a distinct society, and devolution of some powers to the provinces. Plan B involves emphasizing to Quebecers the legal difficulties, economic headaches and overall uncertainty that would follow a Yes vote. That tougher approach, the Liberals hope, also appeals to many people in the rest of the country.

Charest, meanwhile, is now trying a more overt pitch to the so-called soft nationalists in Quebec. In a well-received speech in the sovereigntist heartland of the Saguenay-Lac St. Jean region last week, he called for a new policy of "national reconciliation." However, he provided few specific details. And by denouncing the federal challenge to Quebec's right to unilaterally secede, the Tories are echoing the mainstream view within that province.

The danger for the Tories, of course, is that Reformers are quick to exploit their perceived softness on the Quebec issue. Reform's hardline strategy towards Quebec - including an emphasis on the consequences of sovereignty and a stand against distinct society - is most popular in the West, where anti-Quebec sentiment runs highest. But Manning has also tried to cash in on frustration over the unity issue elsewhere. Campaigning in Ontario last week, he urged people to take a stand against special status for Quebec. "You hold in your hands the key to national unity," Manning said in Peterborough. "If Ontario sent out a clear message on distinct society, that would be the most unifying thing you could do."

Of all the parties, the BQ seems to be the only obvious loser in the Parizeau affair. The party appears to be in chaos at the mid-campaign mark. One reason is its leader. Polls indicate that Duceppe, who appears stiff and humorless in public, is recognized by only one in four Quebec voters and the party is slumping in the polls. According to a survey by the Léger & Léger polling firm taken between May 6 and 9 - that is, starting the day before the Parizeau revelation and continuing through to the day of the former premier's denial - Liberal support in Quebec passed that of the BQ for the first time: 39 per cent to 37 per cent. For the Bloc, that was 12 points below its final tally on election day in 1993. The Tories, meanwhile, increased their share of support from 15 to 20 per cent.

Who will benefit most from the Parizeau affair? The real test, says one Chrétien adviser, "will be what people are talking about after the televised debates." But Peter McCormick, an Alberta political scientist and adviser to Premier Ralph Klein, says the Liberals stand to gain the most. Chrétien's strategy, he says, of "waiting [the sovereigntists] out" now may seem justified, if the movement succumbs to prolonged bickering. And, McCormick adds, Reform's hardline stand may not continue to play well because the sovereigntist threat appears diminished. But he cautions that a weakened sovereigntist movement will not result in any lessening of the antipathy in the West - and especially Alberta - towards the cause separatists represent. "It has hardened," McCormick says, "to the point of knee-jerk reaction in this province." Ironically, Jacques Parizeau may have given pro-sovereignty Quebecers and other Canadians something they can agree on: his message is unwelcome to both sides.

Excerpt from Parizeau's Book

The following is an edited, translated excerpt from Jacques Parizeau's book, Pour un Québec souverain:

There was a need to re-establish in France the credibility of the sovereigntist cause, and establish my own credibility as leader of the Parti Québécois. That allowed me, later, to initiate what I called "the great game."... That strategy was the common denominator underlying all my moves. It consisted of understanding ... that the Americans, already unhappy at having to tell Canadians they would maintain Quebec in NAFTA, would not be inclined to recognize a Quebec that declared itself sovereign unless they really had no other choice. The only way to get the Americans to accept Quebec's new status would be by getting France to quickly recognize Quebec as a country. That, the United States could not abide.

On the occasion of an official visit to France in Jan., 1995, I set in motion for the first time my game. It was during that trip that [former French president] Valéry Giscard d'Estaing raised an important issue that, until then, I had not fully understood. The drift of what he was saying was that it was necessary, in the hours or days that followed a Yes victory in the referendum, for Quebec to make a solemn gesture to proclaim its sovereignty. Without that, no foreign country could provide speedy recognition, that is to say, within a week or 10 days. If the proclamation of independence were suspended, say for six months or a year, to allow time for negotiations with Canada to succeed, or to draft jointly with Canada a partnership treaty, fine. However, France, or any other country, can only recognize a country. It does not recognize an intention.

One will find that the parts of my speeches that deal with negotiations with Canada are drafted in a way that would allow such a declaration of sovereignty. And I have never committed myself, publicly or privately, not to make a unilateral declaration of sovereignty. All that has been written in the newspapers on this matter shows once again that, in these matters, those who talk don't know and those who know don't talk.

The Manning Enigma

Something just wasn't clicking with the public. So last fall, Preston Manning decided to listen to Reform's spin doctors and sharpen up his country-parson public image. He adopted a new blow-dried hairstyle, dropped the spectacles and string ties, and took elocution lessons to rid himself of his shrill western twang. "If you can change things that distract from the message then do it," he explained last week. "But I still say, be yourself."

The question is: who is he? The official résumé has always made him sound like a political poster boy for the West: son of Ernest Manning, Alberta's former Social Credit premier; evangelical Christian and staunch family man; oilpatch business consultant turned right-wing crusader. But the public image never quite fit the reality of the 54-year-old married father of five. Manning still seems to brim with contradictions: he is a self-described populist, but his iron-handed rule of Reform has caused many high-profile defections. He says he loves campaigning, but he lacks the common touch: encounters last week with voters in a Lindsay, Ont., shopping mall and with Reform youth in nearby Peterborough (Manning awkwardly traded high fives) appeared decidedly strained. And his usual aw-shucks public manner can quickly give way to sharp attacks, such as his barbs about Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's age.

Many Reformers themselves are not quite sure what to make of him. Manning is most often painted as a simple conservative ideologue. But according to University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flannagan, that characterization misses the mark. Flannagan, a former Manning adviser who was fired by the Reform leader in 1993 for questioning his leadership style, places him firmly in the tradition of Prairie populists - bent on changing the way politics represents people. "Ideology is not his deepest concern," stresses Flanagan.

Others, though, just find the mixed signals Manning sends out confusing - which helps to explain the growing tension within the party over his leadership. Some Reformers say he has not done enough in the quest for power; others feel he has gone too far and turned Reform into a party of pragmatists and opportunists - like all the others. Barring a breakthrough in the election, some Reform knives will almost surely be out for Manning after June 2. Preventing that will require more than a haircut and new clothes.

Tories Back From the Brink

Jean Charest is only 38 years old, but his wunderkind days now seem long gone. First elected to the House of Commons in 1984 at the age of 26, he was chubby and baby-faced, with a mass of flaming-red curly hair. Today, the hair is thinner, more neatly trimmed and touched with gray; the once-cherubic face is gaunt, the result of 45 lb. lost through dieting and daily exercise over the last six months. "I have," he says with a grin, "done arm exercises - pushing myself away from the dinner table."

For most of the last 3½ years, Charest has travelled the country, seeking to rebuild his shattered party. He often flew in cramped, 16-seat passenger aircraft, alone or with one aide, relying on lifts from Tory supporters in each riding to cut costs. Now, he flies on charter aircraft, accompanied by his wife, Michèle Dionne, an entourage of about a dozen tour aides, policy advisers, assistants and security people, as well as members of the media.

Despite being the youngest of the five leaders, Charest has, after Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the most government experience. He served in a variety of cabinet posts from 1984 to 1993, and was deputy prime minister in Kim Campbell's short-lived government. His time in cabinet was marred by one scandal: he resigned as sports minister in 1990 after telephoning a judge about a case related to his portfolio. At the start of the 1993 leadership race, Kim Campbell's lead appeared so insurmountable that Charest, like other ministers, saw no point in running - until Brian Mulroney pleaded with him to do so "for the good of the party." In the end, Charest lost by only 187 of a total of 3,447 votes.

The leadership finally came in December, 1993 - following Campbell's resignation after leading the party to its devastating electoral defeat. But the past 3½ years have been difficult. In the wake of the 1993 election, Charest remained publicly upbeat - but later acknowledged periods of deep despair to friends. At one stage, he confessed that he had not told Dionne of several lucrative offers from law firms because, he said, "she would insist that I accept." His name continues to surface as a potential successor to provincial Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson. That would put him at the head of Quebec's most important federalist party - but Charest has repeatedly denied any interest. "I love Quebec, but I also want to do things for all of Canada," he said recently. But if the Tories fare badly in this election, and Johnson's woes as Liberal leader continue, Charest will face heavy pressure to reconsider that decision - soon.

McDonough Family Tradition

Irvine Carvery was a teenager growing up in Africville - a ramshackle black community in Halifax - in the 1950s when he first met Alexa McDonough. The future NDP leader had arrived one morning with her Bible to teach Sunday school at the local Baptist Church. But, Carvery recalls, McDonough soon set aside the scriptures and began lobbying the city to do something about the deplorable living conditions in the area. Africville has since been razed to the ground, but McDonough's commitment to social change has endured. "She would always take charge," says Carvery, now a janitor, "and try to improve things for people."

But in the NDP's scheme of things, improvements cost money - and in today's fiscally prudent times that may carry a political price. A storm of criticism has greeted the NDP election platform, unveiled on May 1. The party has promised to kick-start the economy by pumping almost $19 billion into a massive public works program. That would be partly paid for by raising $8 billion in tax increases on corporations and individuals who earn more than $100,000. The shortfall, McDonough argues, would be made up from tax revenues that would increase as the economy picks up steam. But Jack Carr, an economics professor at the University of Toronto who analyzes government budgets, notes that most Western countries have rejected such massive spending proposals because they have failed to produce lasting jobs. And he says that after years of painful deficit cutting, most Canadians would probably reject McDonough's program. "We don't want to see the deficit balloon," said Carr, "and go through all that pain again."

McDonough, 52, defends her party's platform by saying that job creation demands as much effort as deficit reduction. And she acknowledges that, with the NDP enjoying little hope of gaining power, her main emphasis is on leading the party out of the political wilderness in which it found itself after the 1993 election - with only nine seats and no official party status. To rebuild the party, McDonough, who spent 14 years at the helm of the Nova Scotia NDP, has been campaigning at a frantic pace. So far, in the opinion of Paul Nesbitt-Larking, a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, her campaign has gone well. At every stop, McDonough delivers the same message: more NDP MPs are needed to force the Liberals to keep their commitments. "Liberals tend to run on a social democratic platform," McDonough told Maclean's, "but after the election is over they govern on behalf of the elites."

With its election platform, however, the NDP may also have left itself open to charges of manipulation. Nesbitt-Larking notes that it is designed to appeal to the NDP's bedrock leftist support, in the hopes of attracting enough votes to win at least 12 seats and regain official party status. That, he says, would increase McDonough's profile in the House, allowing her time to prepare the ground for the next election. She could then appeal to more Canadians, he adds, with a more practical economic plan. "If she is able to achieve party status," says Nesbitt-Larking, "she will be very well positioned."

Among the seats that the NDP hopes to win is one for McDonough herself. She is running in her home town of Halifax, which has never elected a New Democrat. But she has earned widespread respect there. Her father, Lloyd Shaw, was both a prosperous businessman and a longtime social democrat who served as the first researcher for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation - the precursor to the NDP. Shaw also owned and managed L. E. Shaw Ltd., a brick manufacturing company that McDonough's great-grandfather Robert Irwin founded in 1861. To win, McDonough will have to defeat incumbent Liberal Mary Clancy, popular Tory candidate Terry Donahoe and Reform candidate Stephen Greene. "She is the party leader and very well-known," says Jennifer Smith, a political scientist at Dalhousie University. "I think she could win." That in itself would be one large step in the political rehabilitation of the NDP.

Maclean's May 19, 1997