Quebecers Favour Drug-snorting PQ Leadership Candidate

HE'S GOT the looks of a matinee idol, a grin that could melt icebergs, and, at 39, in a political formation made up mostly of white-haired veterans, André Boisclair still passes for young.

Quebecers Favour Drug-snorting PQ Leadership Candidate

HE'S GOT the looks of a matinee idol, a grin that could melt icebergs, and, at 39, in a political formation made up mostly of white-haired veterans, André Boisclair still passes for young. So what better than a little political striptease to sex up his campaign for the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS leadership even more? At the onset, he admitted he is gay, and "proud of living in such a tolerant society." Two weeks ago, he went on Tout le monde en parle, the province's hippest talkshow, and admitted to having smoked pot.

Then André Boisclair discovered that playing with fire is a good way to get burned. Reporters began grilling him about his rumoured penchant for booze-fuelled, cocaine-driven all-night revelry. He finally admitted to "youthful errors," adding, "It's all behind me now."

No, it wasn't. Not yet.

First elected in 1989 at 23, Boisclair became a cabinet minister at 30 and was the opposition house leader when he quit in 2004 to go to Harvard. National Assembly reporters seemed to know Boisclair had used coke more recently, when in cabinet. "I don't think anyone had to leak it to us. We'd heard the rumours," a press gallery veteran says. "It's just that nobody felt the urge to hang out in after-hours gay bars to check them out at the time."

Boisclair was soon reminded how much the PQ - which has turned on the likes of René LÉVESQUE and Lucien BOUCHARD - enjoys lunching on a frontrunner. "I have children of my own and I certainly don't want to see cocaine use become trivialized," said leadership candidate Richard Legendre. François Gendron, a veteran PQ minister, twisted the knife: "We had all heard the rumours. If there is anything else we should know, it's up to André to come forward."

By early last week, Boisclair looked frazzled and on the verge of a meltdown. Besieged by reporters, he finally conceded he had "consumed" while in cabinet. He insisted quite vehemently that he is clean now, and always had his wits about him while at work.

And then Boisclair discovered that road kill can indeed get back in the race, and more. A poll by Léger Marketing showed last Wednesday that despite, or perhaps because, of the ordeal, Boisclair's popularity had shot up, and that the eight other candidates in the Nov. 15 leadership race were eating his dust, with former finance minister Pauline Marois a distant second. The public had seen enough of the press hounding the candidate. "It is a very Catholic reflex: the sinner has confessed his sins, and should be forgiven," Yves Dupré, a Montreal communications expert, says. Journalists were dumbfounded; Boisclair's leadership opponents roped in their dogs before the first of seven candidates' debates last week.

Boisclair, described by a former schoolmate as "a Bourassa-style politician, no hard edge, all-options-open kind of guy," was able to pick himself up, and dance through last Wednesday's debate. A few barbs were traded during the tightly scripted exchange, which was confined to discussing public finances, but "personal" questions were banned. Boisclair promised to pay down the debt - not a hot PQ priority.

Then, after a newspaper report revealed that the overwhelming majority of the 83,000 or so card-carrying PQ members are baby boomers contemplating retirement, or enjoying it already, Boisclair filled a building with 1,600 enthusiastic Université de Montréal students on Thursday, reportedly selling 300 new membership cards. So, Boisclair is shaken, but, apparently, still on his feet. "If he has no other skeleton in his closet, the race is probably over for Marois and the others," a veteran Liberal organizer says. "What we don't know yet is how big an 'if' that is."

Dupré, a veteran political organizer, warns that the Léger poll doesn't mean much in the long run. "People felt instant sympathy for a man on the ropes - but in a leadership race or an election, people look for a winner, they don't vote for a victim."

Boisclair's burden now is to convince PQ members that a coke-snorting gay man just off the fast track can lead them to their Promised Land.

Maclean's October 3, 2005