Support Crumbling for Landry and PQ

In his novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel García Márquez unwinds the final hours of a man fatally marked by circumstances and bad timing, whose death is preordained and who is utterly powerless to skew his fate, thus living with a sense of eerie, fatalistic determination.

Support Crumbling for Landry and PQ

In his novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel García Márquez unwinds the final hours of a man fatally marked by circumstances and bad timing, whose death is preordained and who is utterly powerless to skew his fate, thus living with a sense of eerie, fatalistic determination. Bernard LANDRY knows a little something about how it feels to be, politically, a dead man walking, going about the business of governing and mapping out his province's future while knowing he may himself run out of future in about a year. Formerly the omnipresent, ribbon-cutting PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS "minister-of-everything," Landry became the leader of the PQ and premier of Quebec in March, 2001, following the abrupt resignation of Lucien BOUCHARD. Now we know why Bouchard bolted - something to do with death foretold.

Thirty years ago, phalanxes of young idealists were making placards, knocking on doors, demonstrating in the streets and heralding "the beginning of a new era," as the PQ jingle said at the time. Bernard Landry, a young lawyer and former student activist, was on the crest of the wave of the future. Today, the PQ has fallen behind the times, and is not a driving force in the province anymore - unable to capture imaginations and rally generations. Blaming Ottawa for everything and the weather, promising greener pastures in a sovereign Quebec - those ideas are now widely perceived as sterile, the fixations of aging baby boomers.

That was evident on April 15, when the PQ went down to defeat in three by-elections. Two of the losses, in Liberal-held ridings, were understandable. The third, in the separatist heartland of the Saguenay, and to François Corriveau, a 32-year-old Baie-Comeau lawyer running for the Action Démocratique, was a body blow. Poll numbers indicate worse to come. According to a mid-April sampling by the polling firm CROP, Jean CHAREST's Liberals are running ahead of Landry's party by a whopping 14 points - more than enough to sweep the province if a general election were held now (the PQ currently has 69 seats in the National Assembly compared to the Liberals' 51 and two for the Action Démocratique). The Liberals are ahead even among francophone voters, which is new.

Good news for the opposition? Not really. Polls also indicate that the Liberals are more popular than their own leader, Jean Charest, the former Tory who has yet to convince Quebecers he can lead them somewhere. If the Liberals do win an election, it may be due to voter fatigue more than anything else, says Quebec pollster Jean-Marc Léger. "After six elections and one referendum in the last 10 years," Léger says, "people are fed up. They have stopped believing in politicians, they have no expectations." Mario Dumont - the 31-year-old Action Démocratique leader who holds his party's other seat, concurs. "Your average francophone voter is no doubt a nationalist, and could be a separatist," he says. "But he thinks sovereignty will never happen. He thinks the PQ is finished, that Charest's Liberals have nothing to put forward, and that the Action Démocratique is a long shot."

Ever since the 1960s, Quebec's fundamental dynamic has been the division between those Quebecers who wanted out of Confederation and those who wanted to change Canada to make Quebecers feel more at home. These fundamental options evolved into complete package deals - of values, attitudes, culture and style - and created two mutually exclusive social monoliths. Bear in mind that in the 1995 referendum, a little more than 50,000 voters made the difference between Yes and No. Now, unable to resolve the deadlock - and after most of the social, cultural and economic problems that fuelled the separatist movement 30 years ago have been corrected - Quebecers just want it to go away.

Too bad for Landry. For 30 years, he has played politics with an eye on the top job. He could not find a worse time to fulfill his lifelong ambition. Nowadays, the prime minister, as he likes to call himself in English, has to put up with cheeky reporters asking if he will still be leading his party in the next election. (Unflinching, albeit with cheeks reddening, Landry assures them he will.) But he also has to deal with questions about whether it would not be wise to put his separatist platform in the freezer for a while - a long while - since it seems to generate so little interest. Landry answers with the slightly annoyed voice of a teacher repeating the same lesson over and over again to inattentive children. "Dropping our platform would not be a wise choice, only a waste of time," he recently told Maclean's. "Besides, even if you said we would win with 60 per cent of the vote if we dropped our option, we would not drop it, because we believe in it."

So - Bernard Landry, the unpopular leader of an unpopular party, will ride an unpopular platform, to face a dissatisfied electorate, in about a year from now, at the very end of a second mandate, in a province where voters like to dump their government every eight or nine years. Death foretold.

Not that it all comes down to a lack of interest in sovereignty. Landry's first year has seen a series of bad luck, blunders and mishaps, some tragic, some verging on slapstick. First, he unveiled his lavish official residence on two floors of the Price Building, an art deco heritage site in the heart of Quebec City. Then he triggered an expensive round of musical chairs by deciding to move his staff from one government building into the neo-classical offices once used by Premier Maurice DUPLESSIS. Quebecers were not amused.

Landry's brave new Quebec was supposed to make its international debut in New York City with a multi-million dollar art and business symposium. The big events were slated for Sept. 13 - right next door to the World Trade Center. The show was cancelled, of course. Shortly after Christmas, Landry had to cut short his winter travels to come back and discipline cabinet ministers jockeying for position in newspaper interviews. He took several more days to announce his long overdue cabinet shuffle, only to have it blow up in his face when two veteran ministers stole the show by resigning in a huff over impending demotions one day prior to the announcement. That convinced many voters that Landry had poor control over a cabinet of self-obsessed prima donnas. When the premier finally introduced one of the largest cabinets in the province's history - 32 ministers, four secretaries of state, one party whip, one chairman of the caucus - the joke was all about the traffic jam of chauffeured limos at the door of the National Assembly.

And then the merde really hit the fan.

It was revealed in the spring that a lifelong associate of Landry, his former chief of staff Raymond Bréard, had pocketed hefty commissions acting as lobbyist for cultural organizations seeking government grants. Landry looked bad when, first, he tried to protect Bréard, who was also director general of the PQ, then dropped him when a revolt in his cabinet became public. Bréard resigned - as did Gilles Baril, a cabinet minister and close friend of Landry, when news broke that he had vacationed in Mexico with an executive of Oxygène 9, Bréard's lobbying firm.

There was nothing illegal in the business of using government contacts to help clients obtain grants and subsidies, for a pre-established cut of those grants. But the scandal grew huge, fast, especially among the PQ rank and file. "Go tell a cabbie in Matane who makes $25,000 a year that it is no big deal to make an easy $200,000 in fees just because you have chums in the cabinet," Dumont says, sneering. "I wonder when was the last time the Péquistes took a walk down Main Street."

Catherine Escojido, 38, a communications specialist and lifelong Péquiste, assesses the damage and shakes her head. "We have spent our youth knocking on doors collecting $5 and $10 donations to finance the party, because we believed in René Lévesque," she says. "And now this." For many Péquistes, clean politics is an article of faith that ranks way up there in the pantheon of values; one of the very first laws enacted by the PQ when it took power in 1976 was to impose strict limitations on corporate contributions to political parties. The Landry government is now pushing a bill imposing very strict guidelines on the business of lobbying. But for many PQ supporters, it comes too late: the men in suits have already shattered the glass house. "Many Péquistes will long remember Bernard Landry for this - it will have long-ranging repercussions," Escojido says.

Forget about the long term - for Landry, hell is now. A PQ leader could always count on a warm welcome from francophone university students. But when the premier spoke at the Université de Montréal in late March, he drew cheers from the students only once, when he promised to maintain a freeze on tuition fees. Never mind the lack of applause - at the end of Landry's speech, one student dashed across the stage, brandishing a two-litre bottle of Pepsi to protest against the monopoly granted to that brand on campus.

Pierre-Philippe Lefebvre, 23, a sociology student, was ultimately pinned to the wall by the premier's bodyguards. "I had no aggressive intention," he later told Maclean's. "I just wanted to toast him." Smoking cigarettes with friends outside, Lefebvre expressed political views and attitudes that were just as widespread when the PQ started: distrust of logos and multinational corporations, wariness of government, opposition to globalization. Problem is, 30 years ago rebellious young intellectuals supported the Parti Québécois as their warhorse. For today's youth, the PQ is just another old-fashioned, traditional party. "Landry protested when Quebec was kept out of the talks about the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Quebec City last spring," said Lefebvre. "But had he been allowed in, he would have danced with the rest of them." For him, the PQ is "just like any other party - corrupt, opportunistic and asleep at the wheel."

One of the most striking distinctions between the political monoliths that constitute modern Quebec is in their governing style. Federalists - read Liberals - are more pragmatic, prudent and opportunistic in government. But the PQ, like the NDP, is an ideology-driven organization, a party dominated by intellectuals and activists, who tend to govern according to an agenda. "Call us naive, foolhardy or courageous, but we tend to honour our commitments and fulfill our electoral promises," says Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, Landry's new minister of intergovernmental affairs.

In recent years, with Landry presiding as finance minister, those commitments and promises have not been the stuff to elicit impassioned rallying cries. The government has slashed the province's $6-billion deficit to zero by instituting wage rollbacks, cutting health-care and education budgets, and forcing municipalities to merge. The PQ has forged ahead with the damn-the-torpedoes determination of starry-eyed leftists - and the political fallout has been catastrophic. "We have cut the deficit but we can't brag about it, because we are supposed to be to the left, not to the right, so we lose on all fronts," a PQ insider lamented.

Landry has tried to claim the political centre for himself. "I am a social-democrat, but I am not a socialist," he says. "Socialists are very good at redistributing wealth, but they have little or no respect for the people who create it. I have great respect for the market, for the people who create the wealth." In the year ahead, Landry promises "no more irritants, no more divisive policies. We have exhausted our reserve of political courage in the municipal mergers. We will govern to systematically meet the expectations of the population." Landry has put three cabinet ministers in charge of fixing the chaos in the health-care system. He will implement policies to help job creation in the province's poorer regions. "I am a dedicated interventionist, and the Quebec government has powerful tools at its disposal," he says. "And we will listen to the population, listen and listen again. I am convinced that if we govern well, our mandate will be renewed."

He's also getting advice, whether he wants it or not. Jacques PARIZEAU, the former premier who regularly likes to come out of the woodwork to snipe at his successors, has been at it again lately. "Communicate!" he told Landry in a speech widely reported in the local media in February. But communicate what? Landry likes to wax enthusiastic over Quebec's recent achievements - every second new book printed in Canada is published in Quebec; every second dollar of high-tech export from Canada originates from Quebec; Quebec's economy has been growing faster than Ontario's on a per capita basis; Quebec is an economic powerhouse the size of Sweden ... So why bother separating? Landry's new crusade is against "fiscal imbalance," and he hopes other premiers will join in. "Ottawa's tax grab shortchanges Quebec by $50 million a week," he says, everywhere, every time. But too many people just roll their eyes, thinking: the Péqs are at it again.

Some are still at it. Maybe communicate means more than crafting a message, says Gérald Larose, a former high-profile union leader and a left-wing sovereigntist. "What happened to public debate in our society?" he asked during a recent interview. "Discussing thorny issues such as identity, citizenship, language, democratic institutions, governance have been shoved under the carpet, or postponed, for fear of making waves or of hearing ugly truths. Of course, addressing such issues as who is a Quebecer, what language do we speak here, what are our collective priorities and what are we doing in Canada, would trigger one big, loud, messy debate, but so what?" By choosing to skirt the debate on such fundamental and difficult issues, the PQ made a fatal strategic mistake, Larose says - and it is paying the price now by becoming irrelevant for many voters.

Is there any life left in the sovereignty debate? To the everlasting frustration of PQ strategists, the only time in recent history when Quebec voters seemed ready to massively endorse independence was when the province was run by a federalist premier. In the weeks surrounding the collapse of the Meech Lake constitutional accord in 1990, support for sovereignty shot up to an unprecedented 68 per cent. At the time, Parizeau tried to coax Premier Robert BOURASSA to ride the wave, offering the PQ's full support, but nothing of the sort happened. Several months later, in a private conversation, Bourassa was asked if he had been tempted to go along. True to his style, he offered this oblique answer about what might have been: "People were frustrated and angry and ready to break things then, but what mood would they have been in, say, six months or one year later, amid economic and political difficulties?"

We can only speculate. Support for sovereignty, which came close to 50 per cent in the 1995 referendum, is down to around 41 per cent, a full four percentage points lower than when Landry took over in March, 2001. "Sovereignty still is a highly positive value for a great many people in Quebec, but now it is more like a fantasy, something that belongs to an ideal world, a perfect scenario," says Alain Giguère, president of CROP. To update his pitch, Landry now argues that the European Union is the model of the future. "Everybody agrees today that Quebec has evolved into a full-fledged civic nation," Landry told Maclean's. "But that nation has the status and the powers of a province of another nation, and this does not make sense." Nation, association, are his ticket.

Studying the evolution of "sub-nations" in a globalized world - Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders, Quebec - is all the rage among Quebec intellectuals nowadays. One of the most recent to publish a book on the topic is Stéphane Paquin, a political scientist who teaches at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "Globalization tends to weaken central governments from the top up and the bottom down at the same time," Paquin says. "Countries tend to lose a part of their powers and prerogatives to supra-national entities. At the same time, sub-nations tend to gain more clout, more visibility in the marketplace and international forums."

Landry likes that global trend very much. To preach by example, Quebec recently agreed to sign "nation-to-nation" treaties with the Cree and Inuit living in Quebec. And different nations sharing a common territory is exactly how Landry sees Canada. "If Ottawa agreed to create a Canadian Union in which Quebec would have a status comparable to that of France inside the European Union," he says, "then the Quebec problem would disappear for good."

Can Quebecers be reawakened? Even some Péquistes privately admit to serious doubts about pushing the sovereignty message. But what's left? The PQ dilemma was clear when students in a communications class at the Université du Québec - Montréal were recently asked why so many of them now seem so cool to the PQ. According to one, "well, trimming the deficit and addressing overflowing emergency rooms may be important. But it is not very inspiring."

And what was once inspiring? It is the Utopia. It is gone.

Maclean's May 13, 2002