Obsession with Quebec marked prime minister's career

18. Actualité archives 2006

"It's a terrible mess!" That's how Jean Chrétien referred to the constitutional question as the Charlottetown Accord quagmire was deepening in the summer of 1992. But it's a mess the outgoing prime minister has been revelling in for decades.
If one thing defines Chrétien's political career, it's his absolute obsession with the sovereignist movement. From the late 1960s, when he became Pierre Trudeau's bogey man in Quebec, to the hard-line Plan B strategy he imposed as prime minister, Chrétien has lived and breathed to defeat the separatist dragon.
As he's now poised to leave 24 Sussex Drive, the victim of the longest putsch in the history of federal politics, it's no coincidence the so-called Clarity Act stands at the top of his list of main achievements. But even with his obsession, this act would never have existed if Chrétien hadn't seen his own political death looming on the evening of Oct. 30, 1995.
Still, in the months that followed the Yes side's near victory, when most English-Canadian media were demanding his resignation, convinced the new charismatic Premier Lucien Bouchard would soon hold another referendum, Chrétien chose to stay and fight his ultimate battle. That's when he demonstrated to all his determination to save Canada was much more profound than Bouchard's alleged will to achieve sovereignty.
Almost everything from then on was dictated by his obsession. His deficit-slashing agenda, including major cuts to transfer payments, weakened Quebec's revenue base. Once his own books were balanced, Chrétien racked up huge surpluses in federal coffers and spent hundreds of millions of tax dollars in the most extensive visibility campaign of "Canadian symbols" Quebecers had ever witnessed.
In classic the-end-justifies-the-means mode, mountains of free Canadian flags were distributed in Quebec. An array of radio and TV commercials publicized the federal government's role in almost every area of activity. Tons of free publications with the Maple Leaf all over them started popping up in stores, métro stations, bars, restaurants and so on. In major Quebec cities, Canada Day celebrations received so much money they extended into a yearly Canada week.
Generous sponsorships were allotted to just about any activity or group as long as the Maple Leaf and the logo of the federal government were made highly visible. Then came the Human Resources scandal. Its main, unforgettable point man, Alfonso Gagliano, dished out appalling amounts of money to Liberal-friendly communications firms in Chrétien's home province to find new ways of enhancing Ottawa's visibility in Quebec.
But at the beginning of it all was perhaps Chrétien's best move: hiring Stéphane Dion as his intergovernmental affairs minister and president of the very powerful Privy Council. The man Bouchard had made the fatal mistake of underestimating - "Stéphane Dion does not exist," he once said - turned out to be even more determined than Chrétien to make sure there would never be another referendum.
With the arrival of Dion came the hiring, mostly by the same Privy Council, of some of the best analysts and intellectuals in Canada, who produced countless pro-federalist arguments and strategies. Then Ottawa moved into the universities themselves. It handed out generous bursaries, created institutes and teaching posts on Canadian studies. It also recruited some of the brightest graduates from Quebec universities to work for the federal government.
While all this was going on, Bouchard huffed and puffed at PQ national councils, but failed to counter most of Chrétien's moves. Bouchard refused to invest a penny of public funds in the promotion of sovereignty. He cut university grants to the bone. While Dion travelled the world speaking about the wonders of federalism, Bouchard never did name an intergovernmental-affairs minister bright enough and strong enough to stand up to Dion. That same ministry was kept terribly underfunded and wanting for staff.
At the same time, Ottawa was making sure Canadian embassies would promote national unity on every possible international stage, public or private, Bouchard closed foreign delegations on every continent and reduced the budget of those that survived.
So at the end of the day, Chrétien's determination might have been paramount, but it never did find many obstacles in its path coming from Bouchard. He might have waged a peaceful war on sovereignists using every means at his disposal, noble or not, but the general facing him never returned his fire.
While Chrétien, like him or not, threw himself heart and soul into the lions' den - to use one of his favourite expressions - his main adversary, Lucien Bouchard, turned out to be nothing more than a paper tiger.

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