Log Cabin Chronicles

Old Quebec City

Photograph/John Mahoney



Tearing off a strip

It's not everyone who's had his head bitten off by the premier of Quebec. So your chronicler takes some perverse pride in having been on the receiving end of a right royal chomp from Lucien Bouchard a few weeks back.

The setting was a scrum outside a government office in Vieux Quebec. Reporter innocently asks premier what, in his opinion, is wrong with the referendum question - a simple and clear one - suggested by Jacques Parizeau in a think piece in that morning's Le Devoir.

For a half-second Bouchard shrugs off the question, but he then wheels and fires, eyes blazing.

"I'm not crazy," he snaps, "I know when there's a trap."

He quickly regains his composure and suggests the reporter pose the question in a more positive way. Reporter obliges. Bouchard then recites the appropriate slippery response and chuckles, pleased he has managed to avoid saying anything provocative about a referendum question or Jacques Parizeau.

This electrifying moment comes back to mind because in the recent leaders' debate there was a similar exchange that offered a glimpse into the premier's apparent sensitivity and unease on the subject of referenda. This came in the final showdown segment of the rhetorical mènage à trois when Jean Charest attempted to bruise Bouchard on the sovereignty issue.

Fed up with badgering from Charest about the promise of a referendum if he is re-elected, Bouchard blurted out that "je ne suis pas maniaque des référendums" - "I'm not crazy about referendums."

Bouchard repeatedly vowed he would only hold a "winning" referendum. At the post-bout presser, Bouchard downplayed his "maniaque" remark, saying he was confident he could conjure up the requisite "winning conditions" over the course of a renewed PQ mandate.

That Bouchard is touchy on the subject of the timing, content, and process of a new referendum is not surprising. After winning re-election - a "winning condition" that seems assured Nov. 30 - it then falls on the PQ leader's shoulders to find a way to lead his followers, many of whom question Bouchard's commitment, to the promised land.

One recalls the screaming headline in La Presse the morning after the 1994 election which begrudgingly anointed Jacques Parizeau - "Onward to the Referendum." No question there that friends and neighbors would soon be engaged in the wrenching process of a sovereignty crusade. Indeed, Parizeau got down to it immediately, commissioning studies and studying commissions. Elected in September, Parizeau had the Quebec government in total referendum mobilization by December.

This time it will be Bouchard's show alone, with Parizeau, now paroled on good behaviour by the sovereignty elite after his "money and ethnics" rant, relegated to a utility role. That means, for one thing, there will not be a dispute with Parizeau about proposing "partnership" with the rest of Canada in a referendum question. (See above outburst over Parizeau question.)

Bouchard has not volunteered much during this campaign about his game plan as undisputed captain of the Yes team. He did offer a hint of what might be in store, though, in an eye-opening interview in a recent issue of L'actualité:

"First, there must be a full reflection, which will involve the universities, different people, the public. Once renewal of the sovereignty project is completed, we will think about the means (to achieve it). There must be a period of reflection to rethink sovereignty in the modern context. It seems to me more necessary and possible than ever before."

A consistent majority of Quebecers, according to surveys, are less convinced of the necessity of separation, partnership or whatever, which naturally affects the possibility of same. If Bouchard cannot convince them otherwise and the winning conditions do not materialize in the next four years, Jean Charest might want to stick around and see what happens to the sovereignty movement - and his chances of becoming premier - come the next election.

CBC logo Peter Black is a writer living in Quebec City, where he is the producer of Quebec A.M. -- CBC Radio's popular English-language morning show (91.7 FM, 6-9, Mon.-Fri).

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