Lucien Bouchard

Lucien Bouchard

BORN: Saint-Coeur-de-Marie, Quebec • 22 December 1938

Lucien Bouchard is a man Canadians love to despise. The occasionally temperate Globe and Mail noted that Bouchard is Canada’s chameleon, with a short but mercurial career in public life. “He has shed more skins than the average snake,” the newspaper noted, pointing to Bouchard’s successive political affiliations: Union National, Liberal, Parti Quebecois, Progressive Conservative, Bloc Quebecois, and Parti Quebecois. No principle here, but a “means of ascent, fed by the oxygen of ambition.”

Born to a working-class family in the Lac St-Jean area, the cerebral Bouchard went to the classical college run by the Oblate Fathers at Jonquiere, and then to Universite Laval. He took his law degree in the same class as Brian Mulroney in Quebec City and the two ambitious poor boys became fast friends, a fateful pairing for Canada if ever there was one.

In 1974 Mulroney brought Bouchard onto the staff of the Cliche commission investigating construction industry corruption in Quebec and, for the first time, gave him public notice. Then, although Bouchard was an open Pequiste and a campaigner for the “Oui” in the 1980 referendum in Quebec, Mulroney, elected Tory leader in 1983, called on his crony to advise him during the 1984 election that brought the Tories to power.

As his reward for advice that markedly soft¬ ened Mulroney’s hitherto strong federalist/centralist approach, Bouchard became ambassador to France in 1985, a blatant patronage appointment.But unlike most political ambassadors, Bouchard did well. The French liked the darkly handsome Bouchard’s reputation for womanizing, they knew that he had Mulroney’s ear, and they went along with his efforts to push the French-speaking commonwealth, La francophonie, as a vehicle to serve Canadian interests.

Then it was the federal Cabinet in 1988, initially as secre¬ tary of state and then as environment minister. Most impor¬ tant, Bouchard became Mulroney’s Quebec lieutenant, the controller of patronage and the head of the party’s then- powerful Quebec caucus.

The Meech Lake accord was running aground by 1990, and the prime minister was twisting arms, modifying and changing text, and pulling out all the stops to save it. Fearing that Quebec’s interests were about to be sacrificed, Bouchard dramatically broke with his old friend, left the government and party, and, within a short period, gathered a group of former Tory and Liberal MPs around him as the Bloc Quebecois.

The old friendship was destroyed, and the prime minister gloomily watched his classmate become the defacto leader of Quebec separatism.“1 don’t think there is anyone,” Mulroney said in Parliament, “who would believe that we have lessons to learn from [Bouchard] in the area of truth and loyalty.”

In the 1993 elec¬ tion, Bouchard’s Bloc won 54 seats in Quebec, becoming the official Opposition in Ottawa; the Tories under Mulroney’s successor were reduced to one seat in Quebec and one in New Brunswick.Effective in opposition, Bouchard won national sympathy in December 1994 when he fought off necrotizing myositis, the flesh-eating disease, but at the cost of a leg.

His near¬ martyr status helped greatly when Bouchard’s defining moment came during the 1995 Quebec referendum on inde¬ pendence. With the campaign led by PQ premier Jacques Parizeau faltering, Bouchard stepped in to take the lead, waving his “magic wand” and promising to create a “beau¬ tiful vista” for the province.

This charismatic twaddle, wrapped in a racial package aimed at pur lame Quebecois, led the “Oui” side to within a percentage point of victory. Parizeau’s resignation as premier and Bouchard’s departure for Quebec City soon followed in early 1996.

Promising another referendum (“If at first you don’t secede,”Maclean’s dryly noted, “try, try again”), declaring that Canada was not a “real” country, the messianic Bouchard was at the Quebec helm. For the first time in his life he now had to grapple with the reality of deficits, debt, unemployment, and foreign bondholders.

Bouchard’s stock in trade was the “humiliation” the Quebecois nation had suffered at the hands of the “maudits anglais”—through three centuries of history, in the 1981 constitutional negotiations, during Meech and Charlottetown, in the Montreal federalist rally in the 1995 referendum, and yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

His black hair dropping over his forehead, his orations resonating with passion and fervour as he rang the changes on the litany of federalist Canada’s sins, he resembled nothing so much as a leader in search of a white horse to ride at the head of a mob crying “liberte”—and tram¬ pling on the rights of everyone else. A dangerous demagogue, Bouchard will destroy Canada or paralyse it. Unless, of course, the ambitious snake sheds his skin one more time and emerges again as…a reluctant federalist?