From one exceedingly narrow perspective, the history of Quebec politics in the last 20 years has been the story of Jean-François Lisée seeking his true nature. The wunderkind reporter for L’actualité started as an observer and has become a combatant. He entered the arena as a counsellor and is, it’s said, about to become a candidate. He has strong beliefs and a healthy and honestly-earned ego; he decided in 1994 that he wanted to influence events instead of writing about them, and he seems now to have decided that the best way to ensure politicians take his advice is to be one.
That Pauline Marois, who was barely clinging to the PQ leadership a year ago, has now (it’s said) recruited Lisée is one thing. That she has also lured Pierre Duchesne, a veteran Radio-Canada television newsman who was still covering Marois and Jean Charest only several weeks ago, is another. She seems to be working to constitute a slate of star candidates, the sort of thing one does when one is preparing (or at least hoping) to take power back. The model here, a bit debased because every opposition leader in Quebec has tried to recreate it at every election for a half-century, is the “Équipe de Tonnerre” Jean Lesage built in 1960 around, among others, a Radio-Canada journalist named René Lévesque.
But there’s something else Lisée and Duchesne have in common: they’re both linked extraordinarily closely to Jacques Parizeau.
Lisée left journalism to work with Parizeau when the wily old trout managed to get himself elected in 1994. The day Parizeau showed up for his first news conference with Lisée smirking at his side was only a little less shocking than, say, the day Paul Martin showed up at a news conference with Belinda Stronach. Lisée was an architect of Parizeau’s referendum strategy, constantly urging the boss to reach outside the PQ itself to seek sovereignist allies in other parties, in trade unions, in municipal politics, and so on. He stuck around for some time after Lucien Bouchard replaced Parizeau, but he has always been a Parizeau man, which means he believes “being a sovereignist” isn’t some genteel state of mind, it must always be concrete action in pursuit of the specific goal.
As for Duchesne, he wrote the book on Parizeau, or rather three of them. His three-volume biography is one of the most ambitious anyone has written on a still-living Canadian politician. I wrote about the last volume here (I should issue a note of caution on the Preston Manning stuff: the former Reform leader wrote to Maclean’s after that column ran to say Duchesne misrepresented his actions during the 1995 referendum, though I’m afraid I don’t have details to hand). I know Duchesne just a wee bit and he’s a soft-spoken, gentle man, but his book makes it clear that he has always (I think accurately) seen Parizeau as the man at the centre of the sovereignty movement.
The arrival of a Parizeau acolyte and a Parizeau biographer at Marois’s side is a vindication for the PQ leader, who suffered an open revolt a year ago at the hands of the party’s Parizeau-ite wing. The former leader’s own wife, Lisette Lapointe, left the caucus along with a couple of other fans of the party’s longest-serving hardliner. He was at the National Assembly when the falling-out happened. But in what is perhaps a sign that he’s finally losing his edge in his 80s, Parizeau and his fan club weren’t able to orchestrate any serious sovereignist alternative to a Marois-led PQ. The rebellion eventually collapsed.
Lisée, who has informally advised Marois since she became leader, did not join last year’s rebellion and he discouraged the rebels on his L’actualité blog. This is consistent with his big-sovereignist-tent philosophy: Just as the PQ could never win a referendum alone without allies, there cannot be a referendum without the PQ at the centre of it. By remembering this and riding out the roughest period of Marois’s leadership, Lisée was arguably being more focused and strategic than Lapointe and the other rebels. More, one might say, Parizeau-esque.
So now a new generation of Parizeau students replaces the previous generation at the side of a leader who has turned into something of a survivor. This all matters because the Parizeau wing has always been associated with a desire to do something about wanting to separate, not just to sit around wishing Quebec would separate some day. The questions about Marois are whether she’ll win the election in several weeks, and whether she’ll be trouble for Canada after she wins. The presence of these two at her side increases the likelihood that she’ll be trouble.