This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 30, 1998
Quebec Election Campaign
On the crisp wintry morning after the televised leaders debate that was supposed to save his sinking election campaign, Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest took his remaining hopes home to the comfort of Quebec's Eastern Townships. Before a squeezed-in luncheon crowd of 250 at the University of Sherbrooke, with the snapped trees from last January's ice storm visible through windows overlooking the surrounding hills, Charest stood at a podium and spoke quietly about how he had been shaped by the place where he grew up. As a teenager, he had worked just down the hall in the theatre box office and been inspired by the entertainers who came to perform at the small city university. It was here, too, that Charest studied law with his wife, Michèle - "my first debating partner," he told the crowd with a husband's self-deprecating smile. And he said it was in the Eastern Townships, where French and English, federalists and sovereigntists have managed to avoid nasty confrontation, that he absorbed the local values that still define him: "Tolerance. Respect. Diversity. Hard work. Harmony."
These were the very characteristics that Charest's supporters thought would be so welcome in Quebec politics when they begged him to assume the leadership of the provincial Liberal party last April. It seemed irresistible: the federal Tory leader would trade his long-shot dream of becoming prime minister of Canada for an even higher calling: to slay the separatist Parti Québécois and its near-mythical leader, Lucien Bouchard. In doing so, he could put Quebec's perpetual debate about its constitutional future into a box for a few years at least. But Charest himself knew it would never be that easy. The fundamental insecurity that comes with being an embattled minority still defines Quebec political culture, he warned those who weren't too busy draping him in the Maple Leaf and wishing him Godspeed on his mission. To associates, he confided he "would be expected to prove I can be as good a defender of Quebec as Lucien."
So far, with the last sands of the campaign hourglass running out, appearances suggest he has failed. Far from aiding him, Charest's familiarity and ease with the rest of Canada has been a point of suspicion for many Quebecers. They know he was born in the province, but they want to know if his ideas are a good fit for Quebec. The doubts penetrate beyond Bouchard's early-campaign cheap shot that Charest "does not like Quebec." The crack was widely excused as a regrettable error, and Charest's tepid response showed a strange unwillingness to challenge Bouchard directly over the slur.
But Charest's economic plan, with its free-market orientation, was derided as foreign - in this case Ontario - economics that would contaminate the "Quebec model" of social democracy. Even his pledge to banish the prospect of a referendum if elected - seemingly the guarantee of constitutional peace that Quebecers so overwhelmingly tell pollsters they want - has been vulnerable to Bouchard's attacks. By contending Quebec would be weakened should the referendum arrow be removed from its arsenal, the premier has made the idea of suspending a referendum sound like unilateral disarmament in the midst of the Cold War.
Critics contend many of Charest's wounds are self-inflicted. His call to relegate much of the Quiet Revolution's powerful state apparatus to history was seen as a reckless repudiation of one of the province's most glorious accomplishments. Quebec's scrappy media pack arched their eyebrows and duly noted each time Charest seemed caught out on the minutiae of local issues. And there have been hard questions about the wisdom of the title of Charest's hurriedly produced autobiography, I Chose Quebec. It provoked Mario Dumont, the brash leader of the third party contesting the election, Action démocratique du Québec, to suggest during the leaders debate that the title implied "there was another choice."
So, with the campaign almost over, Charest found himself forced to stand before his friends, in his home town, and insist he could be trusted to protect Quebec's interests. "I am proud of being from Sherbrooke, and proud of being from Quebec. That doesn't diminish when I go outside Quebec's borders," he said, his voice rising. He reminded them he had defended Quebec's demand for status as a distinct society while in federal politics - even though it cost him politically in other parts of Canada. "I've always been consistent in my political career," he said. "My convictions haven't changed. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the issue, whatever the occasion, I will always defend what is in my heart and guts. And I will always defend the interests of Quebec."
That dollop of Charest's passion brought the Sherbrooke crowd to its feet, chanting his name. But it is late in the game to be trying to convince Quebecers there are no risks in taking a flyer on the newcomer to provincial politics. The polls suggest voters are telling Charest he must pay his dues in Quebec politics. An example of the hurdles he faces? The Liberals spent the first half of the campaign hammering the PQ's drastic, $2-billion cuts to health care. The cutbacks sparked controversies over hospital closings, long waits for surgery and emergency-room overcrowding. The Liberals saw the situation as their first real opportunity to scrape some of the Teflon coating off Bouchard - and seemed to catch a break when a leaked report suggested lower-income Quebecers were getting sicker - even dying - because they were no longer eligible for free prescription drugs. Bouchard's poll numbers went up anyways.
PQ MNA David Cliche knows he is up against an unsympathetic audience. Clutching a microphone in the Ste-Rose community centre in Laval, Cliche faces a room filled with seniors eager to play bingo. The personable tourism minister makes a brief pitch for re-election in Vimont, one of those off-island Montreal ridings regarded as crucial for the Liberals to steal from the PQ. Cliche then invites questions. Almost all of those who speak out are critical of the health-care system. One woman complains that she has been waiting eight months for an appointment with an ophthalmologist. Cliche insists the PQ's health-care reform was necessary medicine. "I don't deny that there have been difficult cases," he says. But, he insists, "most people are very satisfied with the care."
A rumble of disapproval rolls down the bingo tables. But the voices are hushed when Gaetane Foucault, a petite 69-year-old, stands up and informs Cliche that she lost an eye because her surgery was delayed three times. "When you say that people are satisfied, I don't know where you're finding them," declares Foucault. A former nurse, she blames her situation on the government's cutbacks. "If there would have been a place in the hospital, they would have operated," she says. But in spite of her misfortune, Foucault still hasn't decided on her choice of parties. Her take on the PQ's health-care reform, however, is crystal clear: "They wanted to do it in too drastic a manner," says Foucault.
The Liberals have gotten some mileage out of the health-care system's woes. But after Charest vowed to suspend the current round of health-care cuts and reinvest in the system, Liberals watched in frustration as Bouchard turned around and pledged to put $2.1 billion back into health care during another PQ mandate. Among some Quebecers, the flurry of spending promises by both parties after four years of belt-tightening by the PQ provoked disdain. In Montmagny, a chic tourist town east of Quebec City, store owner Pierre-Paul Gaudreau complained that the funding pledges have resulted in an election that "doesn't seem very serious - it seems like a campaign from the past." In his small collectibles shop, Gaudreau said he plans to switch his usual vote from the PQ to the ADQ, which has ridiculed the largesse. Although Gaudreau approves of the PQ's deficit-cutting, he worries about ruining that progress. As for the Liberals, Gaudreau says, "For me, their leader isn't very credible."
Cars start pulling into the parking lot at Shawinigan's Jacques Plante Arena an hour before the faceoff. For hundreds of local residents in this industrial city 125 km northeast of Montreal, the old rink with its arched wooden roof is the nerve centre on Friday nights. Inside, a single Quebec Major Junior Hockey League championship banner from the 1984-1985 season hangs conspicuously over centre ice, a reminder of better days for the local Cataractes - named for the nearby waterfalls. From a corner seat high up in the stands, 37-year-old club president Mario Boucher sits calmly as his fourth-place "Cats" clobber the visiting Cape Breton Screaming Eagles 5-0. He spends part of the game waving and chatting with people in the crowd. The 1,400 fans are boisterous, but large pockets of empty seats show the impact of the five-month strike that shut down the two local Abitibi-Consolidated Inc. pulp and paper plants until last week. "It affected the local economy," says Boucher. "It's another factor that hasn't helped us this year."
Best known outside Quebec as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's home town, Shawinigan is a good place to gauge why Charest has had difficulty making inroads with francophone voters. The riding is held by Chrétien federally, the PQ provincially, and delivered a 56-per-cent Yes vote to the sovereigntists in the 1995 referendum. Despite the struggling local economy, with its 15-per-cent unemployment rate, finding residents who are satisfied with the Bouchard government isn't difficult. Several voters praise the PQ's efforts in tackling the province's deficit, which hovered around $6 billion when the party took power in 1994 (Bouchard promises a balanced budget by the year 2000). "I think they've done good work," says Yves Gélinas, 46, a machinist at a local factory. As for the leaders, Gélinas says it is difficult to offer an opinion about Charest because he has never been in power. "For Quebecers," adds Gélinas, "Mr. Bouchard has an incredible charisma - and that gives him a lot of votes."
During the third period, in the modest VIP lounge overlooking the ice, Gilles Grondin ponders the reasons for Bouchard's popularity. "He doesn't have the charisma of René Lévesque, but he has a way of speaking and presenting things that makes them sympathetic to the francophone population," says Grondin, a federalist and former mayor of Shawinigan South who served briefly as the riding's Liberal MP when Chrétien left politics in 1986. Grondin sees the PQ as almost a one-man show. "People don't vote for the Parti Québécois, they vote for Bouchard," he contends. The PQ's campaign advertising lends credence to that claim. Several of their feel-good television ads revolve around an avuncular Bouchard, as do their green campaign posters with the "I have confidence in a Bouchard government" slogan. In fact, the only reference to the PQ is a small party logo relegated to a corner.
Most polls now show Bouchard with a slight lead in the popular vote and a massive 20-point lead among francophone voters - a combination that would add up to a big PQ victory. And the premier is clearly appealing to federalists and sovereigntists alike. Strolling along Shawinigan's deserted main street after supper one evening, self-described federalist Gérard Daigneault concedes he hasn't made up his mind. "I like Charest a lot," says Daigneault. But he also admires Bouchard, giving him points for attacking the deficit, unlike the previous Liberal government. The prospect of another referendum does not scare him, Daigneault says, "because I know that at some point we'll have the chance to vote No to separation."
He is not alone. Many francophone Quebecers do not view this election as a showdown on their future status in or out of Canada. They are simply electing a provincial government. And, while a majority of Quebecers don't want another referendum, many also dislike the constitutional status quo. As a result, Bouchard has pounded away at Charest's pledge for a moratorium on referendums. "Why should a government deny itself such a powerful instrument in democracy?" said Bouchard, who further cast a Wonderland-like spell on the debate by hinting he could hold a referendum on issues other than sovereignty.
Bouchard also muddied the referendum waters by suggesting that before a sovereignty vote, a PQ government would focus on an agreement with other provinces to restrict federal spending power in areas of provincial jurisdiction. Such statements may annoy PQ hardliners - but they may be the route to power. "People don't want to choose between Quebec and Canada," says Jean-Marc Léger, head of the Montreal polling firm Groupe Léger et Léger Inc. "They want both."
Bouchard's calculated ambiguities appear to have satisfied such desires. The premier seems almost unassailable, especially since promising not to hold another referendum until he creates the proper alignment of circumstances needed to win. Whatever his vague phrase "winning conditions" means, however he plans to bring those conditions about (and he has left little doubt that he intends to do so, if only through "fervor," as he explained during the debate), the tactic seems to have worked. "Bouchard has convinced people he is less sovereigntist than his party," Liberal insider John Parisella explained in a luncheon speech to a group of Montreal businessmen.
Aware they were getting nowhere with their health-care attacks, the Liberals have opted to spend the last days of the campaign focusing exclusively on Bouchard's vow to hold another referendum. The polls are clear: a majority of Quebecers do not want to go through the anguish of another debate on sovereignty, which inevitably strains families and friendships. Charest's campaign bus is now emblazoned with an eye-catching yellow banner proclaiming: "No more referendums."
The switch in tactics came as a relief to many concerned Liberal candidates. Some were unsettled by the same thing that worried party members, says Liberal caucus chairman Jacques Chagnon, and wondered, "When will we get to the referendum question?" Charest has now given them what they wanted - and some voters are certainly receptive. Jean Lemarier, 39, who works at a door and window company in Shawinigan, thinks the referendum promise hurts the PQ. "Among the people I know, they are losing a lot of votes because of that," says Lemarier, who voted PQ in 1994. Upset over health-care cuts and opposed to separation, Lemarier says he'll likely vote Liberal on Nov. 30. "The essential thing is that referendums cost us a fortune."
But in Cliche's Vimont riding, on a recent afternoon swing through a middle-class neighborhood, only one of 36 voters expressed concern about the referendum issue. "That is perhaps the big surprise of this door-to-door campaign," says Cliche. "People very rarely raise that question. They know that it's an election of a government." Noting that the Earth kept turning after previous referendums, Cliche adds: "I no longer think that this referendum issue is a worrisome question."
In fact, while polls show most Quebecers don't want another sovereignty vote, and Bouchard keeps insisting there will be one, the premier's support grows. "When we point out the contradiction to people in our focus groups, they say: 'Oh, he won't hold a referendum, Bouchard wouldn't do anything that would hurt us,'" says a mystified Jean Bazin, a Montreal lawyer and adviser to Charest. "How do you fight that?"
Charest had one good shot at it - and missed. Near the end of the televised debate, finally face-to-face with the man who ruptured their own friendship eight years ago by walking out on attempts to save the Meech Lake accord when they were both members of the Mulroney government, Charest tried to get Bouchard to explain why he favored taking Quebec down the path of further, undesired constitutional adventures. Bouchard parried by asking Charest if he would sign the Calgary declaration, the vague, goodwill statement drafted by the other nine premiers in 1997 that is little more than a framework for more constitutional talks. "Sign or not, yes or no," taunted Bouchard, as Charest dodged and fudged and the debate clock ran out.
As for the Bouchard enigma? "Even federalists in Quebec want checks and balances," says Senator Jean-Claude Rivest, taking a stab at explaining Bouchard's continuing allure. Rivest, who was an adviser for former Liberal premier Robert Bourassa, is travelling with Charest to help him through the minefields and back roads of Quebec politics. "With Jean Chrétien in Ottawa, who has a different idea about how Canada should work," Rivest notes, "they feel they need someone strong in Quebec, someone to play goalie."
Standing on the banks of the fast-flowing St-François River, Rivest waits for Charest to finish a campaign stop in the old mill town of Windsor, 115 km east of Montreal. He tells a parable to explain the Québécois love for ambiguity. "The daughter of a Gaspesian fisherman comes home to tell her father she has fallen in love with a man who is not from the peninsula," says Rivest. " 'But don't worry,' she tells her alarmed father. 'I'm going to go to a notary to get a prenuptial agreement.' The father still appears agitated. 'OK,' he tells her. 'Talk to the notary. Just don't sign anything.'" Rivest smiles grimly. "That's why Lucien succeeded in the debate," he says. "Most Quebecers have never even heard of the Calgary declaration. They just don't want to be committed - they don't want to have to sign anything."
Eric, the hyper warm-up man, has teased and tickled the television studio audience into the required excitable state. It is seconds before 10:30 on a Thursday night, and the crowd of 250 - a mix ranging from young couples to single older women and several rows of university students bused in from Trois Rivières - is ready to "give Julie the energy she needs" to make the coming 60 minutes of live television work well. "Julie" is Julie Snyder, the infectiously giddy, 31-year-old host, who has already made her new talk and variety show, Le Poing J, required watching in Quebec. Poing J - the J is for Julie and the name is a play on words for G-spot - averages 720,000 viewers a night, Monday to Thursday, or about one in eight Quebecers, and Snyder has little trouble booking the biggest stars from Quebec's homegrown celebrity culture. "Julie has become an institution in Quebec," says the show's producer, Pierre-Louis Laberge. "Refusing to come on our show would be a bit of an affront to Quebecers. In Quebec, you go on Poing J."
Little surprise, then, that all three political leaders have made appearances during this campaign, despite the risk of having to handle whatever pointed questions or surprises the zany Snyder might throw their way (for Dumont, she produced a cow in the studio and demanded he prove his claim to have spent summers milking them). Politicians remain stars in the Quebec celebrity firmament, although their reputations are slipping, as they are everywhere else. "Politics was a national sport in Quebec for a long time, but it is now a sport that's more and more abandoned," says Snyder, as she swivels on her dressing-room chair after the show. In the current Quebec pantheon, Celine Dion is undoubtedly bigger than Bouchard, she says with a laugh.
Despite the obvious benefits of reaching Snyder's big audience, PQ strategists were uptight about loosing Snyder on Bouchard. Charest, on the other hand, revels in appearing on Snyder's show. His campaign appearance was his second time on Poing J, and he told producers he did not need to see a script in advance. "Charest was raised with television, he's like a fish in water," says Snyder. Charest could easily switch careers from politics to hosting a TV show, she adds, with a sincerity that suggests she is not referring to his low polls. Bouchard's entourage, on the other hand, tried to exert more control, making a few suggestions about what she might want to do with their leader. "They improvised a bit at being TV producers, had some ideas," Snyder laughs. "We said, 'No - that will be very boring.'"
Instead, Bouchard's appearance turned into an emotional - and controversial - moment. Film-maker Claude Fournier, one of the premier's closest friends, made a surprise appearance. He brought along a copy of a scrapbook containing written thoughts and photos he had kept during Bouchard's 1994 illness, when he almost died of necrotizing myositis, the so-called flesh-eating disease, and his right leg had to be amputated. Bouchard was visibly emotional at his friend's recollections. "He was really moved - during the commercial break he just stared at the floor," says Snyder. Back in the guests' waiting room after his appearance, Bouchard was met by his wife, Audrey, and the pair collapsed into each other's arms.
Bouchard's illness and his death-defying recovery are part of his political mystique, and La Presse political columnist Lysiane Gagnon accused the premier of shamelessly exploiting the issue on Poing J for political ends. "The peak in the art of manipulating emotions," she wrote. A furious Bouchard responded with a letter to the paper, saying he was outraged that his "surprise and certain discomfort" had been cynically "described as staged." Snyder says she, too, was distressed by Gagnon's attack. Quebecers all shared the experience of Bouchard's illness, she says. "I think what people are looking for from their politicians is something less packaged, the human being behind the politician. When we see it, it feels good."
A certain gloominess had fallen over Montreal federalists by last week. There is a general grievance in the city's corporate community that it pays the economic price for Quebec's constitutional high-wire act, something Charest was supposed to solve. If the PQ wins, says longtime Liberal Parisella, "life will be more difficult, more complicated. And some people will be very disappointed. They had put so much hope in Charest." There were hints that many corporate leaders had gone to ground, which may have prompted Charest's complaint during a speech in Sherbrooke that "loyalty doesn't count when things are going well - it counts when we're challenged."
So Charest soldiered on. Perhaps he gathered some strength from the experience of Daniel Johnson, his predecessor, who made up some ground in the last days of the 1994 campaign by emphasizing the need to avoid another referendum. That was what brought Charest to Quebec politics in the first place, the basis on which he made his gamble. Now, he has to hope Quebecers will see his no-referendum pledge for what it is: an escape from being asked to choose.
SUPPORTING THE CAUSE OF QUEBEC SOVEREIGNTY:
Since the death of the Meech Lake accord in June, 1990, when Quebecers took to the streets in protest against what they saw as rejection by the rest of Canada, francophone voters have consistently supported the sovereigntist cause. The Nov. 30 election will mark the province's sixth trip to the polls in the past six years. The results since 1990:
Charlottetown referendum: 65 per cent of francophones support the Parti Québécois position and vote No to the constitutional accord.
Federal election: the Bloc Québécois sweeps the largely French-speaking ridings outside Montreal, and wins 54 of the province's 75 seats.
Provincial election: the Parti Québécois triumphs in the same areas, and takes power with 77 of 125 seats.
Quebec referendum: 60 per cent of French-speakers vote Yes to independence.
Federal election: the Bloc Québécois holds most of its francophone seats, taking 44 of 75 ridings.
Maclean's November 30, 1998