||Up to No Good
by David Homel
ON SEPTEMBER 19,1994, THE DAY after the Parti Quebecois swept the Quebec National Assembly with a .4 per cent majority of the popular vote, Jean-Francois Lisee, ace investigative freelance reporter, became a government employee. And not just any old government employee. The man who'd worked for the CBC, Radio-Canada, L'Actualite, and had won a Governor General's Award for a book on Quebec -American relations called In the Eye of the Eagle, signed on as special adviser to Jacques Parizeau for referendum strategy and international affairs.
If you want to find out why Lisee got the job, read The Trickster.
In all fairness to Lisee, the border between journalists and political power has always been less demarcated in the French tradition than in ours. I know of no ready phrase in French for "journalistic impartiality." Lisee belongs to the school of journalism engage -- combat journalism, if you like. All the same, there's plenty of room for cynicism when a freelancer loses his freedom. After Lisee went to work for Parizeau, the defeated Liberal premier Daniel Johnson pointed out that now everyone knew who had been holding Lisee's pen all along.
This revealing book about Quebec and Canadian backroom politics is based on a magnificent piece of intellectual dishonesty. Lisee told me that, after the death of the Meech Lake Accord, he felt Bourassa would be forced to declare sovereignty in order to stay in power. Bourassa would thus become the father of an independent Quebec despite himself. Yet it's made quite clear in The Trickster that Bourassa was never anything but a federalist, no matter what he
said or did along the way. Essentially, Lisee attacks Bourassa for being what he was, and for what Lisee knew he was all along. It's like criticizing a zebra for having stripes under the pretence that the zebra once let on that he really had spots.
But all's fair in love and war and politics, and though you may not respect Lisee after you've read The Trickster, you'll feel even queasier about Bourassa. It's a shame that the author didn't attempt a little more analysis of the former Liberal premier's character, though backroom politics, not psychology, is obviously Lisee's stock-in-trade. In the prologue he says that "a historic moment was hijacked, and wasted by a man who was terrified of his own dream." Not so fast, Jean-Francois; never is it proven that Bourassa ever dreamed of an independent Quebec. Or that he ever dreamed -- period. Then again, people have a right not to dream.
The Trickster (the original French title Le tricheur -- "the cheater" -- is somewhat harsher) gives us an exhaustive, behind-the-scenes account of the Meech Lake negotiations, the failure of the accord, Quebec's Belanger-Campeau Commis-sion, the Allaire Report, Mario Dumont's Liberal youth wing, the national referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, etc. Every time the rest of Canada fails to understand or even entertain Quebec's wishes for greater powers, pressure for some form of sovereignty increases. Bourassa's response, according to Lisee, was to promise everything to everyone, but do nothing, and allow nothing to be done. In other words, Bourassa was a loathsome liar, a hijacker of history who would not let a nation become what it wanted to be.
If you're a federalist, of course, you'll cheer on the other side. In fact, what drives Lisee mad was that Bourassa successfully avoided all confrontations, and miraculously managed to silence the strong pro-sovereignty forces within his own party. The apparently weak-willed Bourassa did so much so skilfully that we can't help but admire his abilities -- even if we subscribe to Lisee's political theses. Lisee has made Bourassa into a devil, and we all know that the devil is a fascinating gentleman.
The Trickster is a massively abridged version of the 1,300-page, two-volume original. The abridgement, by the translator Robert Chodos, with Simon Horn and Wanda Taylor, was done with the cooperation of the author, who decided to stress sections that featured the rest of Canada. As a result, we get generous helpings of Don Getty, David Peterson and Bob Rae, Clyde Wells, Ovide Mercredi, among others, as well as their advisers. Especially their advisers, since Lisee is most interested in the backroom game. The provincial premiers and Mulroney are painted as guys who just can't get it; they are so incredibly obtuse about what Quebec wants and so blind to the need to compromise that they should all wear the mantle of destroyers of their country -- according to Lisee's reading, at least. Then again, Bourassa never made much of a negotiating partner.
Those who think that the Canadian political class is a bunch of ninnies will find their opinion richly confirmed in this book. Then again, their Quebec counterparts don't fare much better. The Belanger-Campeau Commission was a poker game, Lucien Bouchard a turncoat waffler; the only one who comes out smelling like a rose is Monsieur Parizeau. Here in Quebec, we're all waiting for Bouchard and Parizeau to start slugging away at each other. If that happens, Lisee will be firmly in Jacques' corner.
Lisee is a skilful writer, and the favourable comments in the French press when the two volumes came out in French in April and June of 1994 centred on this ability to make the scrapping over Meech Lake and Charlottetown read like a political thriller. Despite his shrill tone, Lisee does capture our interest, and I can imagine that members of the Canadian political elite (those who don't read French) will want to find out how things are done in the distinct society.
What's missing in this English version is Bourassa himself, the central enigma of the story, Lisee's despicable clown. Perhaps he got lost in the abridgement. Perhaps, one day, someone will write his true psycho-political biography. Until then, we'll have to settle for Jean-Francois Lisee's partisan tract.