"Stéphane Dion à contre-courant"

Best chance for sovereignty was lost

A quick election and referendum in 1996 would have meant a Yes victory

"Stéphane Dion. À contre-courant"

Hindsight is always 20/20. But as Parti Quebecois members, even with a new leader, are faced with an uncertain future, looking back at Lucien Bouchard's tenure might carry some important lessons.

A good start would be to read Linda Diebel's book - Stephane Dion: Against the Current, published by Penguin (also available in French at Les Editions de l'Homme).

She lists a number of fatal strategic choices that Bouchard made after he became premier and which ended up weakening the PQ and the possibility of sovereignty in the foreseeable future.

In that book lies the story of Bouchard's pivotal decision that sealed the fate of the sovereignty option: His refusal, in the spring of 1996, to call an election asking for a mandate to hold a third, decisive referendum.

At the time, except for a natural disaster that would destroy Canada physically, Bouchard calling a spring election was the one single thing that Prime Minister Jean Chretien most feared.

The book confirms Chretien thought, with reason, that given the close results of the October 1995 referendum, Bouchard's saint-like popularity, Liberal leader's Daniel Johnson's ineffectiveness and Ottawa's utter unpreparedness, if Bouchard had called an election, he would have swept Quebec and probably won another referendum.

Fearing Bouchard would do just that, Chretien gave a specific mission to Dion, his newly recruited minister of intergovernmental affairs: Make sovereignty almost impossible to attain by setting out new, strict "rules" for secession in case the Yes side won - almost a certainty at the time.

But what Ottawa hadn't yet picked up on, and which Diebel missed as well, was that by the spring 1996, Bouchard had already moved on, choosing governance and his battle against the deficit rather than the final settling of the sovereignty issue.

Diebel recalls the time Chretien became the most frightened that Bouchard would go for an election. In May 1996, Bouchard threatened publicly to do so when Ottawa decided to intervene before the Superior Court in a case related to Quebec secession.

But Bouchard backed down. He didn't call an election. He ended up only cancelling a meeting with Chretien. Not believing their luck, Chretien, Dion and their advisers heaved a sigh of relief.

When Bouchard chickened out, Chretien saw what Pequistes would take years to see: After he became premier, Bouchard was a paper tiger on sovereignty.
The rest is history. Bouchard's retreat in 1996 gave Chretien and Dion ample time to refine their Plan-B strategy, go to the Supreme Court and get a ruling on secession saying that after a Yes vote Quebec's borders would be part of the negotiations, and adopt the Clarity Act.

Bouchard's refusal to call an early election, followed by his winning-conditions rhetoric, resulted in the demobilization of Pequistes and sovereignists at large, with some angry social democrats leaving the PQ. It was capped with an election victory in 1998 in which the PQ got fewer votes than the Liberals.
In 1996, Bouchard didn't go for sovereignty even though the planets were perfectly aligned, as Chretien knew. Instead, over the years, Bouchard's inaction squandered the Yes side's political momentum after the referendum near-victory.

Someone wrote a book that called Robert Bourassa a "trickster," saying he had wasted a historical chance amid the post-Meech fury, to hold a winning referendum. But it was no state secret that Bourassa was a federalist. In his case, not going for sovereignty wasn't cheating. It was buying time for his own option.

Bouchard is a different story. He was leading a sovereignist party and this is what he said he believed in, at the time. His wasting of the one chance he had of possibly taking sovereignty to a final victory in 1996, acknowledged at the time by a very frightened Chretien, is what will make historians render a much harsher judgment on Bouchard than they will on Bourassa.

Laissez un commentaire

Aucun commentaire trouvé