Ten years ago, on October 2, 1996, former Quebec pre- mier Robert Bourassa passed away. To the political and journalistic world, it marked the end of an era and the departure of an influential political figure from the political scene. First elected in 1970 as Quebec’s youngest premier at 36, he won four of five general elections and went on to govern Quebec in two separate terms for over 14 years.

His first term lasted from 1970 to 1976, when he lost power to the sovereignist Parti Québécois led by René Lévesque. This defeat led to the birth of polarized politics in Quebec between separatist and federalist political parties, which has been a char- acteristic of Quebec politics ever since. While considered a politician of the past following this loss, Bourassa never gave up and returned to recapture power in 1985 in a Rocky-type come- back unparalleled in Canadian history. His second term ended in January 1994 when he retired from active politics.

It can be said that studying the Bourassa years can help us better understand Quebec politics and its complexities. Robert Bourassa was a mirror of the complexity, the ambi- guity and the determination associated with politics in Quebec. Who then was this influential and, to a large extent, enigmatic figure?

Soon after his defeat in 1976, Bourassa went to Europe to study how the European Union functioned and taught in various universities in both Quebec and the United States. René Lévesque was governing Quebec and preparing to face off in a referendum on sovereignty-association with the new Liberal leader of the day, influential journalist Claude Ryan. However, as we discovered later, Robert Bourassa was already planning his comeback.

Bourassa began his slow, meticulous return to power by remaining close to his Liberal roots while embarking on his journey in academia and the world of research. Little is writ- ten about his role in the 1980 referendum. Yet he was active and always willing to debate the more ideological and hard- line sovereignist leaders such as Jacques Parizeau and the more radical Pierre Bourgault. And he would debate in stu- dent venues, never hesitating to put forward his belief in the federalist option and presenting a vision of federalism patterned along the emerging model in Europe. He may have been under the radar to most observers in this cam- paign, but it was Robert Bourassa launching his return and finally escaping from his political purgatory. When Claude Ryan resigned the leadership of the Quebec Liberals in 1982, Bourassa did not hesitate and made his move.

He easily won his party’s leadership race in October 1983. Author and journalist L. Ian MacDonald appropri- ately titled his book about this period From Bourassa to Bourassa. Yes, the former premier was back and somewhat vindicated within a Quebec that had already declared his political demise just a few years earlier. He was to be once again the dominant political figure in Quebec for the next decade.

Much has been made of his early and close relationship with René Lévesque when the latter was still a Liberal in the 1960s. After the Quebec Liberals lost power to the Union Nationale in 1966, a group of reform- minded Liberals led by Lévesque began to explore other political options for Quebec. For Lévesque, this meant sovereignty, and he was ready to propose his brand of political sepa- ratism to his fellow Liberals in the summer of 1967. Even Lévesque held out the hope that Robert Bourassa would make his conversion. He was wrong. Lévesque left to launch his separatist movement. Bourassa stayed a Liberal and in 1970 became leader of the party and went on to win the elec- tion in April of that year.

Many federal politicians close to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau never felt comfortable with what they con- sidered Bourassa’s lukewarm federal- ism. They were reinforced in this belief when, shortly after Bourassa became premier in 1970, a constitu- tional round began and eventually resulted in the Victoria Charter, grant- ing a political veto to Quebec on future constitutional change. Bourassa ultimately rejected the deal, further alienating the Trudeau Liberals, who were already suspicious of his commit- ment to federalism.

Was Bourassa a closet sover- eignist? Actually, Bourassa was very much a convinced federalist but his view of federalism was more rational than emotional. The lure of the Rockies or the call of the country from ”Ɠsea to sea to sea” was never a compelling argument to preserve national unity.

Rather, he believed that the future of Quebec was better served within a political system that recog- nized diversity and regional differ- ences, based on an economic common market, a common currency and democratically based common political institutions. These are the reasons why he did not follow Levesque in his shift to the sovereign- ty option. Granted, he did not believe in status quo federalism, but sover- eignty was uncertain and he doubted its economic viability. Moreover, he believed then that the breakup of Canada could lead to the isolation of Quebec within North America.

Throughout his political career, he never wavered in his conviction that federalism was the better course. Pushed to the limit, Bourassa believed that it was more logical and a better recipe for balanced federalism if we had five regions as opposed to ten provinces. He knew, however, that this was hardly a possibility, and he was willing to participate in the existing process as evidenced by his role regard- ing the Victoria Charter, Meech Lake Accord and Charlottetown Accord.

When it came to the Constitution and Quebec’s future in Canada, he was a master of vocabulary. Bourassa could in a phrase summarize his position and redefine the political debate. He spoke of ”Ɠcultural sovereignty,” ”Ɠshared sovereignty” and ”Ɠneo- federalism.” All these terms represent- ed the essence of his vision of federalism. He firmly believed that the existing constitution gave the Quebec government sufficient latitude to pro- mote the cultural distinctiveness of Quebec. With Bill 22 in 1974, he made French the official language of Quebec and this was done within a federal Canada. His notion of ”Ɠshared sover- eignty” clearly acknowledged the legitimacy and presence of the central level of government. He wanted change, wished to have formal recognition of the Quebec difference within the

Constitution and was ready to redefine the division of powers. Hence the def- inition of neo-federalism. Still, he never questioned the importance of the central government and its need to have real power, provided provincial jurisdictions were respected.

One must admit that these linguis- tic gymnastics could be exasper- ating to the unconditional federalist camp both in and out of Quebec. Yet it was obvious to Bourassa that for a fed- eralist party to win a provincial elec- tion in Quebec, the appeal could not be limited solely to the unconditional federalists. The Quebec electorate is complex and an appeal must be made to nationalist voters whether they be soft federalists or soft sovereignists. Bourassa understood the attachment Quebecers have to their provincial government and its unique responsi- bility in defining and defending Quebec interests.

In September 1984, Brian Mulroney led his Progressive Conservative Party to a majority government victory, indeed a landslide of 211 seats, including 58 of 75 from Quebec. A major plank in his electoral platform was to bring Quebec to sign the 1982 Constitution, which had excluded Quebec, with ”Ɠhonour and enthusiasm.” With Bourassa reach- ing power in late 1985, Mulroney saw the opportunity to make good on his election promise.

The process began in early 1986 with the Mont-Gabriel speech by Gil Rémillard, Bourassa’s intergovernmen- tal affairs minister, laying out Quebec’s five condictions for signing the 1982 Constitution, and was followed by the Edmonton Declaration at the summer premiers’ conference accepting the idea of a Quebec Round. By the spring of 1987, all first ministers had agreed to the Meech Lake Accord. This was a significant achievement, with the Ontario premier of the day, David Peterson, playing a pivotal role. The Accord had to be ratified by all the leg- islatures and a three-year deadline was imposed by the 1982 Constitution Act.

Unhappily, the rest is history. Meech failed to obtain the final unan- imous ratification, with Manitoba and Newfoundland holding out in a suicide pact between premiers Gary Filmon and Clyde Wells. Quebec was plunged into a constitutional crisis as the support for sovereignty rose to over 60 percent. Bourassa actually came out stronger from the process because of his moderation. Quebecers would look to him for direction. He could be trusted.

It would have been easy for Bourassa to ride the crest of the sover- eignty wave. His prudence and moder- ation, coupled with his pragmatism and realism, made him a reassuring figure to those nervous about sover- eignty. Many waited and hoped for his shift to sovereignty, including the opposition PQ.

Bourassa chose instead to give fed- eralism another try. With the help of the newly elected Ontario pre- mier, Bob Rae, a new process had begun without the formal participa- tion of the Quebec government. The Quebec position was to wait for a new offer from the rest of Canada through the federal government.

It should be noted that the way Meech was defeated made it difficult, if downright impossible, for Bourassa to act as if the events leading to its demise were to be treated as ”Ɠbusiness as usual.” The day the Meech Lake Accord was defeated, Bourassa had rallied the National Assembly and the Quebec population by declaring Quebec was and will always be a dis- tinct society irrespective of its politi- cal choice. His approval ratings coincided with the backlash support for sovereignty.

For the next two years, the coun- try was mobilized around the nation- al unity crisis. By the fall of 1992, the Charlottetown Accord was negotiat- ed, and it was presented to the Canadian population in a nationwide referendum in October 1992. Five provinces including Quebec rejected the Accord, which had recognized Quebec as a distinct society. There was to be no constitutional agreement.

When he left politics, Bourassa believed that he had made some progress for Quebec within Canada and, in times of great risk, had kept the country together. An immigra- tion agreement was signed with the federal government in the aftermath of the Meech Lake debacle, giving Quebec increased authority in selecting and integrating immigrants, not a small feat. Despite the two setbacks (Meech and Charlottetown), he still favoured the federalist option and was active for the ”ƓNo” side in the 1995 referendum on sovereignty. My last conversations with him led me to believe that his commitment to keeping Quebec within Canada had not wavered, in spite of the disappointing results for constitutional change.

If there is any criticism to be lev- elled at Robert Bourassa, it may have been a lack of understanding of the undercurrents affecting Canadian political life. He invested much time and energy in personal relationships with fellow premiers but he underestimated the changes that had taken place since the early 1960s.

The appetite for constitutional issues had decreased, the continual threats by Quebec to leave the federa- tion provoked a backlash in the rest of Canada, and the Trudeau vision, which included official bilingualism, multiculturalism and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, represented where Canada was at the time of Meech and Charlottetown.

Canadians were rejecting the closed-door executive federalism of the 1960s and the 1970s; they now wanted a say. Canadians generally accepted the recognition of minority rights for French-speaking and English-speaking minorities but bought into Trudeau’s argument that the concept of the ”Ɠdistinct society” represented ultimately a threat to Quebec’s English-speaking minority.

Fourteen years in power, in an era of great and often tumultuous trans- formation, the Bourassa years can be characterized as a period of durable reforms. That is, reforms that have passed the test of time.

Bourassa always believed that real independence for Quebec was its economic strength. While he adhered to Canadian federalism as a form of political association best suited for Quebec’s progress, his priority remained economic development, wealth creation and jobs. The develop- ment of hydroelectric power as the best form of energy over the nuclear option was his trademark. No one today questions the wis- dom and the vision of the development of James Bay hydroelectric power.

Again on the economic front, he was the leader among provincial premiers in support- ing North American free trade and played a pivotal role in assisting the Mulroney govern- ment’s negotiations with the United States and later with Mexico. His agreement with the federal government regard- ing value-added-tax reform, the GST, was part of an overall streamlining of our economy as we prepared for the implemen- tation of FTA and NAFTA. It was not popular but he believed it served Quebec’s eco- nomic interests.

Bourassa also foresaw the rapid technological change beginning to emerge in the 1980s. Quebec under his direc- tion was ready to meet the challenges and the opportunities associated with technology and innovation. Development of Quebec’s hydroelectric potential, free trade and adaptation to technological change became the cornerstones in moderniz- ing Quebec’s economy.

On the social level, Bourassa always believed that the primary by-product of a strong economy was the capacity to distribute wealth and to act to promote social justice. He considered social stability an impor- tant component in pursuing his eco- nomic agenda and consequently invested much energy in creating the conditions for social harmony. Important social reforms took place under his stewardship including health insurance (medicare), legal aid, consumer protection legislation, the Council on the Status of Women, Quebec’s Immigration Ministry, the Ministry of Environment, the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, reor- ganization of social services and the reform of Quebec’s civil law code, to mention the principal achievements.

In the linguistic and cultural domain, as indicated earlier, Bourassa passed legislation proclaiming French the official language of Quebec. Following his four mandates as pre- mier, it can be said that he was able to develop a social balance and consensus where Quebecers feel a reasonable degree of cultural security and the minorities have the recognition of their rights and institutions. While issues affecting language and culture can render this consensus fragile at any moment, Bourassa was the first to attempt to find a durable solution.

Since his departure in 1994, the linguistic consensus he helped forge seems to be holding firm.

Robert Bourassa was first and fore- most a Quebec politician. He always considered his primary role was to defend Quebec interests. While a federalist, he never hesitated to put Quebec interests first. In this sense, he is a reference and the model for all Quebec premiers.

This does not mean that a federal- ist Quebec premier like Bourassa is less a Canadian than his counterparts in other provinces. It indicates that a Quebec premier has a special responsi- bility leading the only francophone majority society in North America. With current demographic trends, one cannot expect a different approach from any successor.

In assessing Bourassa’s record, it is clear that he considered his contribu- tion to advancing Quebec more impor- tant than his success at the federal level. He would have cherished a constitu- tional deal with the rest of Canada but he was mostly proud of the progress of Quebec’s economy, its labour force and its social fabric. Quebecers expected no less from his governance.

At the outset, I indicated that Robert Bourassa was a mirror of Quebec. Quebecers are pragmatic, pru- dent and moderate as was Bourassa. Quebecers may occasionally flirt with other political options but ultimately prefer a flexible and open federalism, just as Bourassa wished. Renewed fed- eralism remains consistently the pre- ferred choice in poll after poll. Robert Bourassa embodied this option.

Quebecers also expect their pre- mier to consider defending Quebec interests as his priority. Here, Bourassa made it his duty. They hope and expect change but, above all, want their difference to be respected. Bourassa always conducted his politics with this in mind.

Quebecers care about Canada but are not obsessed with understanding it. Sometimes, they confuse the voice of some in English Canada with the voice of all. Bourassa occasionally failed to make the distinctions between what central Canada thought best and what the rest of Canada wanted.

Undoubtedly, Quebec continues to be a major fac- tor in the conduct of feder- al politics. In the last federal election campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was able to make gains in Quebec because he began to grasp how politics in Quebec was conducted. His Quebec lieutenant, Lawrence Cannon, was a close collaborator of Robert Bourassa in both his terms in office and was a solid adviser in this regard. The current Liberal leadership race has shown how important a role Quebec plays in the political dynamic of Canada. Even the NDP, with tepid support in Quebec, held its national convention in Quebec City last month in the hope of making a break- through in Quebec.

Robert Bourassa will go down in history as one of Quebec’s great pre- miers. His years in power were not without flaws and failures, but in the final analysis he represented faithfully his fellow citizens and he believed that Quebec could progress better within Canada. He was a democrat and a man of stature in an era of transformation. When one wants to understand how Quebec politics was conducted then and is conducted today, one can learn from studying the life and character of this unique man. From this perspec- tive alone, it is worthwhile remem- bering Robert Bourassa.

Vous pouvez reproduire cet article d’Options politiques en ligne ou dans un pĂ©riodique imprimĂ©, sous licence Creative Commons Attribution.

Creative Commons License