Many Quebeckers, including a sizable proportion of those who voted Yes in the 1995 referendum, reached the conclusion long ago that the sovereignty of Quebec was impossible. But when the same verdict came from the man who, in the 1995 referendum, led the sovereigntist movement to a near victory, the impact had to be huge - and it was.
Two weeks ago, former Parti Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard said that this old dream will never be achieved, at least in his lifetime, and that, in any case, sovereignty is not the solution to Quebec's problems.
Since he resigned from politics in 2001, Mr. Bouchard has kept silent on the issue. He even refused to appear in a CBC documentary on the 1995 referendum. It was already clear to anyone who'd brushed elbows with him that Mr. Bouchard, a successful lawyer in Montreal who sits on many corporate boards and volunteers as chairman of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, was no longer interested in sovereignty. But he had never said so in so many words.
To add insult to injury, in the same remarks, he chided his former party for being intolerant toward religious minorities. The PQ, he said, has become a "niche for radicalism" in the debate over reasonable accommodations, and has thus parted company with its founder, René Lévesque, "a generous and open man." He said he didn't want the government "to legislate against the burka and the veil," as the PQ would like to do.
The PQ was quick to dismiss Mr. Bouchard's verdict as the reflections of a tired and disenchanted man. Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe then made the curious announcement that he will soon go on a speaking tour to talk about sovereignty - in English Canada and Europe!
Mr. Bouchard's sortie, as brief as it was, was more appreciated within the general population, where he is seen as a respected elder statesman as well as a sincere and committed nationalist. Indeed, an Angus Reid poll showed that three-quarters of Quebeckers also believe sovereignty is unachievable and shouldn't be a priority for the politicians.
What's interesting is that, on this issue, there was no difference between francophone and anglophone respondents. Mr. Bouchard's stand on the burka , though, was not shared by 71 per cent of the respondents (and 77 per cent of the francophones). (The debate about the face-covering burka is actually kind of eerie since one has to look hard to find one in Montreal.)
Mr. Bouchard's relations with the PQ have always been quite difficult. The love story that bloomed in the early 1990s turned sour a few months after the referendum, as soon as Mr. Bouchard succeeded Jacques Parizeau as premier. The PQ hard-liners hated him for focusing on public finance and deficit reduction, and for his lukewarm approach to sovereignty. Mr. Bouchard, who's always been a conservative at heart, couldn't stand his party's left-wing activism and its doctrinal, uncompromising approach to minority rights.
A week after his comments about sovereignty, Mr. Bouchard spearheaded a group of public figures calling for higher tuition fees for the tragically underfinanced universities. For decades, Quebec has had the lowest tuition fees of all the provinces, and this policy hasn't even encouraged accessibility since its participation rate in higher education is still under the Canadian average.
Two years ago, Mr. Bouchard was the spokesman for a group of academics and public figures advocating for more "lucidity" in tackling Quebec's public finances. The group, nicknamed "the Lucids," wanted to increase the fees for some public services such as electricity, daycare centres and universities. The Liberal government of Jean Charest is sympathetic to these suggestions but is obviously afraid to act for fear of seeing the province's most vocal interest groups take to the street - with the encouragement of Lucien Bouchard's former party.
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