Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Liberal leader's comeback signals big changes in Quebec politics

``Bob le Job'' seems likely to be the next premier of Quebec. Robert Bourassa, who was given that nickname in the 1970 campaign that brought him to the premiership for one term, was reelected head of the provincial Liberal Party last year after eight years in the political wilderness.

This week he is expected to return to the National Assembly after running in a byelection the polls say he is certain to win. His comeback shows just how much the province has changed.

About these ads

Quebec has turned away from dreamy thoughts of an independent French-speaking state in the Anglo North American sea. Now it is old-fashioned getting down to business.

The change is bad news for the separatist Parti Qu'eb'ecois and Premier Ren'e L'evesque, who has led the province since 1976. It is a breath of fresh air for the provincial Liberal Party and Mr. Bourassa.

The big reason for the resurgence of a party dedicated to business rather than nationalism is that the use of the French language is no longer seen as threatened.

``People under 30 see French as a language of prestige,'' says Montreal newspaper columnist Lysianne Gagnon. French is truly the language of work in this province: A French-speaking Quebecker can spend his entire working life using only French.

Young people in Quebec once ignored business because they thought the good jobs were restricted to the English-speaking elite. Now they are flocking to jobs in the corporate world because French is so widely accepted. Even so, they are learning that to get to the top, speaking English is a must.

Pierre Laurin, former head of the business school at the University of Montreal and now a vice-president of Alcan Aluminium, is one of the new heroes to Quebec youth. His brother, Camille Laurin, is the strident nationalist who brought the French-language legislation into being. Camille is the hero of an older generation.

It was that earlier generation, the first children of the postwar baby boom in Quebec, that dreamed of an independent Quebec. It was an emotional dream, led by Ren'e L'evesque, the politician, and Gilles Vigneault, the chansonnier, who sang the poetry of independence.

About these ads

In 1976 Bourassa was defeated in his own district by a poet, Gerard Godin, who is still a member of the Quebec Cabinet.

Bourassa had been elected premier of Quebec in 1970, when he crushed the nationalistic Union Nationale. In November of 1976 the separatist Parti Qu'eb'ecois rolled over Bourassa and his Liberals.

The nickname ``Bob le Job'' was given to Bourassa by the Parti Qu'eb'ecois as it made its first political foray in 1970. It referred to Bourassa's promise to create 100,000 jobs in the province. Use of the English word ``job'' subtly said to French-speaking nationalists that Bourassa and his Liberals were in the hip pocket of English-speaking Quebeckers, especially the rich business class of Montreal.

The Liberal Party did receive the support of the English-speaking minority in the province. But in the end it didn't matter.

In his bid to win back the French vote, Bourassa alienated all sides. By the close of his six-year term in office, he had a new nickname, ``the most hated man in Quebec.''

The James Bay project was Bourassa's dream: He envisioned taming the subarctic rivers that flow into James Bay in northern Quebec. The Parti Qu'eb'ecois mocked the young premier -- he was only 36 years old when he was elected -- and said it couldn't be done.

``How can we, even for a moment, envisage the possibility of exporting electricity?'' asked Guy Joron of the Parti Qu'eb'ecois in 1971. Mr. Joron went on to be the minister of energy in charge of exporting electricity.

The giant hydroelectric site now earns the province valuable American dollars as the power is sold to New York and the New England states.

Once the Parti Qu'eb'ecois came to power, the giant hydroelectric project became a high point of French Canadian pride. But his political enemies did not give Bourassa much credit. They had to be embarrassed into inviting him to opening ceremonies several years ago.

Now Bourassa has another dream, and once again the Parti Qu'eb'ecois is pouring cold water all over it.

``Power from the North'' is the title of a new book by the former premier. It envisions a $17-billion project to turn rivers around and sell both hydroelectric power and fresh water to the United States. Financing would be dependent on the advance sale of the electricity and water to customers in the US.

Once again ``Bob le Job'' is promising work for the 1.1 million Quebeckers who are unemployed or who are living on welfare. The province's total population is 6.5 million.

Critics say Bourassa is selling the province's resources and hugely increasing Quebec's debt load.

``It's on the level of fantasy,'' says Montreal engineer Helene Lajambe, who also opposed the James Bay project in the early 1970s. ``Is he so pessimistic that he has nothing to propose but selling off our reservoirs one by one?''

Premier L'evesque has also heaped ridicule on the project; he too laughed at the first James Bay plan.

Quebec society has moved to the right during the years the left-wing Parti Qu'eb'ecois has been in power. This was the province that wanted to model itself on Sweden: a social democracy with cradle-to-grave social services.

The free-spending social programs have driven the province into massive debt. Its civil servants and teachers -- once the core of separatist support -- are highly paid and have generous benefits and working rules. The Parti Qu'eb'ecois has had to cut back on the goodies it gave to its supporters, and because of that it has lost votes.

Robert Bourassa wants the individual to take over from the state. ``Quebec's development henceforth is to be based on in its citizens,'' said Bourassa in outlining his party's philosophy.

In Quebec City there seems little doubt that Bourassa will form the next government.

His public image has changed since the early 1970s. Then he was seen as an uncaring technocrat. Now his image is that of a strong, self-confident leader, but he is hardly charismatic.

L'evesque, on the other hand, is a likable man, but he is obviously ready to quit politics. He is expected to announce a decision later this month.

``It's not that we love Bourassa, it's just that we accept him,'' said one Quebec City resident. There is even a little joke about the transition. In French it is said that Bourassa is being accepted ``sans amour'' (without love) while it is goodbye to L'evesque ``sans rancour,'' or without hard feelings.

Of course, nothing is inevitable, especially in Quebec politics. An electorate that on the federal scene turned out the Liberals of Pierre Trudeau for the Conservatives of Brian Mulroney could do a switch.

But for now it seems that Quebec has rejected both the politics of independence and the party of independence.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.