Formed in 1990, the Bloc Québécois came from nowhere to become the Official Opposition three years later. What lies behind such startlingly dynamic growth? And how will it develop in the Bouchard-less future? Preston Manning and the Reform Party are chomping at the bit to replace it and become Her Majesty's more Loyal Opposition.
Manon Corneiller offers the first book on the Bloc. It may also be the last, now that the Bloc head has metamorphosed away from Ottawa, to the no less Kafkaesque capital city where he thinks the real action is.
Corneiller works with Canadian Press in Ottawa. Her book is a well-written and well-translated narrative of the party's growth. There is very little on Lucien Bouchard's background or personal life. For the former, you have to go to his autobiography (published in English by Stoddart in 1994). And even that supplies only a very strict diet of the latter: there are less than twenty words on his first, childless marriage of twenty years.
There's practically nothing here on how the Bloc has been more a movement than a party; in general, Corneiller chooses not to analyse very much. She does, however, think it unlikely that it will long survive Bouchard's departure for Quebec City. She looks in some detail at its policies, which she portrays as overwhelmingly social-democratic-a character trait unlikely to persist, as Bouchard moves from the comforting impotence of opposition to the harsher realities of fighting the deficit in his own nation. Corneiller reminds us that he was known as Lévesque's big stick when he was the front man for cutting public service wage increases, less than two years after the referendum of 1980.
The introduction provides a useful capsule history of modern Quebec nationalism, particularly of the virage in which Lévesque's sovereignty-association gave way to his conversion to le beau risque of renewed federalism, to be followed by his successor Pierre-Marc Johnson's "national affirmation". That led some of the pur-et-dur sovereignists, such as Parizeau and Landry, to leave the government until they could return to fight for true independence.
Corneiller shows how the everlasting, ever-frustrated attempts of Quebec to assert itself manifest themselves in different ways, among different sectors. In her very first sentence, she starts in the ballroom of Le Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, where on May 23, 1990, the day after he resigned from Mulroney's cabinet, Bouchard received unexpected and sustained applause: "It was a Chamber of Commerce luncheon, and 650 people, the cream of the Montreal business community" were "his first audience as an independent member of Parliament."
A good deal of this book shows how the uneasy coalition that is the Bloc was brought together. We get a valuable insider's perspective on all the wheeling and dealing, on how the different fragments and factions interact with each other, and on the fluctuating relations between the Bloc and the Parti. Certainly, the initial hopes of many of its founders that it could remain totally independent of the PQ soon dissipated.
Also useful is a professional observer's views on Bouchard's modi operandi (the plural is intentional). Bouchard, who "dislikes strong characters.never criticized his MPs in public.. Some people, however, remember virulent attacks made in private against some MPs. Bouchard's imagination had no limits when the time came to find fault, one witness remembers, and there was no shortage of insults and curses. For Bouchard, some were lazy, others could not be trusted, while others had harebrained ideas or lacked discipline and weren't conscientious.."
Soon after Bouchard became Quebec's premier, one of the province's most experienced journalists, Jean-V. Dufresne, devoted his column in theJournal de Montréal of February 15, 1996, to counselling the "very, very impulsive" Bouchard: "Softly, softly, Lulu.. Loosen up."
In a way this isn't very surprising because Bouchard is still new to politics, or at least to the public, professional, full-time, full frontal confrontational side of it; a Joe Clark he's not. After his leg was amputated in November 1994, he carefully managed the media as he returned to politics. He told Valerie Pringle on CTV's Canada AM in February 1995 that he had started his political life believing it was going to be short. "Yet he came back. It was not only his sense of mission but also because he was hooked. In fact, he told Pringle, `For the first time in my life, I entered politics.' "
Corneiller goes on to quote him on whether he would like to be premier: "It's like asking a bishop if he wants to become Pope. All bishops dream of becoming the Pope." Her book came out in early October, exactly four weeks before the referendum, but she's good on how Bouchard took over the campaign, and on the styles, perspectives, and views of national assertion that Bouchard and Parizeau by no means share.
She delineates how typically Canadian the Bloc MPs are, for instance, in their honest confusion on Native issues. But that is a long way from saying that the different visions of Quebec and English Canada will be soon be reconciled. (Even different televisions: Corneiller reminds us how in March 1995 the feisty Bloc MP for Rimouski-Témiscouata, its heritage critic Suzanne Tremblay, "underlined that the new president of the CBC, Perrin Beatty, was unable to name one French TV show during his press conference.")
Like Quebec, English Canada wavers between options. Sometimes the Rest of Canada doesn't worry at all, thinking that "everyone in Quebec is bilingual," or that "the two solitudes are ended," and or accepting other such self-deceiving myths, which emerge every so often, particularly from Toronto. Or at the other extreme, there's excessive worry, such as is being stoked at present by the partitionists, or by Saturday Night: its February issue wields an astonishingly, unfairly virulent piece by Mordecai Richler on the current situation in Quebec.
Saturday Night's proprietor, Conrad Black was, as it happens, one of the Anglo elite who studied law at Laval around the same time as Mulroney and Bouchard-people such as Michael Meighen (now a senator), George McLaren, and Peter White, who runs much of Black's North American operations when he's not chairing the Council on Canadian Unity.
The book started in Le Queen Elizabeth, so perhaps we should end in the Ritz-Carlton. While Richler seems to have disappeared from Corneiller's index (as least he doesn't suffer the fate of Lise Bissonnette, the publisher of Le Devoir, who in Bouchard's autobiography gets confused with one of Mulroney's disgraced ministers), he does make an appearance.
Peter White "introduced the Bloc leader to the disputatious Montreal writer, Mordecai Richler. Accompanied by their wives, White, Bouchard, and Richler had dinner in a room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Montreal. Bouchard reported having enjoyed the evening greatly. `Mordecai is a funny guy. We laughed like crazy. We had fun. Oh, yes..' "
Corneiller's next paragraph begins: "Bouchard prefers his contacts with intellectuals: `Communication is more direct. People say things.' He is counting on intellectuals to be `catalysts of rationality' in the wider public. He believes English Canada will have no choice.."
It's unclear whether he's counting solely or largely on English Canada's intellectuals. Until the next trahison des clercs-or virage? "Softly, softly, Lulu, loosen up." Dream by all means, but don't put too many of your hopes of independence in one basket of eggheads.
Alexander Craig is a freelance writer based in Sherbrooke, Quebec.