Lucien Bouchard doesn’t venture out much. Since leaving politics nearly a decade ago, the former Quebec premier has become the political equivalent of a hermit crab: guarded, aloof and maddeningly difficult to pin down, he occasionally ventures out to pinch a nerve or three, only to quickly disappear thereafter. As a result, his infrequent declarations on the state of things in Quebec are collectively analyzed and obsessed over, demonstrating Bouchard’s enduring influence—and to what extent Quebec itself is beholden to its own ghosts.
Even by his own standards, Bouchard’s most recent sortie was devastating, if only because he denigrated Quebec sovereignty—the very cause he himself came so close to achieving 15 years ago. In a forceful, sometimes rambling dialogue that brought to mind his own fiery referendum-era speeches in 1995, Bouchard excoriated the sovereignist movement for pressing on with its 40-year obsession, to the detriment of Quebec society. “There’s no referendum in sight, and I don’t want any more defeats,” he said at a recent round table discussion in Quebec City. “We were so obsessed with it that today we have challenges practically hitting us in the face.”
The main challenge, he said, was to awaken Quebecers from their “stupor,” brought on by being debt-ridden, over-taxed, undereducated and spoiled by expensive government programs and cheap electricity. He says he is still a sovereignist, yet he has clearly all but given up on the idea. “It remains just a dream,” he said. “We all have dreams. Some come true, others won’t in our lifetime. I’d like to use my remaining time to work together and fix the things that need fixing.”
The Parti Québécois, which Bouchard once led, has become, in his words, a “radicalist niche” bent on exploiting Quebecers’ fears over linguistic and cultural assimilation for political gain, and Bouchard suggested that, as a result, Quebec’s immigrant population has become a target. Unlike the PQ, he said he was in favour of certain “reasonable accommodations” for Quebec’s immigrant population. “I’m suffering because of what [the PQ] is doing,” Bouchard said. “We’re wasting time.”
And then he was gone. The man once labelled “the greatest threat to unity Canada has ever known” had effectively called for a truce and trashed his former party, and he wasn’t going to explain himself or respond to the PQ’s collective wrath. “I know you’re going to ask me a thousand questions, there are a thousand questions to ask, but no,” he told a journalist the following day. Bouchard’s office was clear: no interviews, no pictures. The crab had returned to his shell.
“It’s pretty typical of him,” said Jacques Brassard, a former cabinet minister in Bouchard’s PQ government. “If he was getting back into politics it might be different, but since he’s not, I think he just said what he had to say and that’s it. He’s already moved on.”
Moving on has been a constant for Bouchard. He left politics in 2001, following an acrimonious split with the PQ. Relations between the PQ base and its leader had been strained for years; Bouchard, it seemed, wasn’t eager enough to launch another referendum campaign. Though Bouchard downplayed the incident, it is widely believed that the final straw came in the form of Yves Michaud, a member of the party’s hardline faction. Michaud, whose involvement with the PQ dates back to the early ’70s, declared in a radio interview that “Jews believe they are the only people to have suffered in the history of humanity.” Several days later, Michaud said large parts of Côte-St-Luc, a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal, hadn’t given a single vote for sovereignty in the 1995 referendum; this, he concluded, was an example of “ethnic votes against the sovereignty of Quebec.” The national assembly unanimously condemned Michaud’s remarks, prompting near-civil war within Péquiste ranks.
Bouchard resigned less than a month later and soon joined Davies, Ward, Phillips & Vineberg, a high-profile Montreal law firm specializing in corporate and finance law. He sits on the boards of several large corporations, including Transcontinental and Saputo, as well as the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. As a moderator, he negotiated a deal between the SAQ, the province’s liquor commission, and its workers in 2005—smack in the middle of Jean Charest’s first term, and the same year sovereignists booed his effigy at the PQ leadership convention. His second marriage to Audrey Best, with whom he has two children, ended around the same time; he has since dated entrepreneur and former Loto-Québec chairperson Solange Dugas. The couple frequently appears in the society pages of the Montreal Gazette.
His first public declaration after leaving office came in 2005, when he chided Quebecers for being less productive than their neighbours to the west and south. He signed the so-called “Lucid Manifesto,” a non-partisan ode to less government and higher productivity. In 2006, speaking to an audience at McGill University, he said that Quebecers, teetering on the brink of economic and demographic collapse, were nonetheless “hiding in denial and immobility” and refusing to acknowledge their problems. Péquistes heaped scorn on the man who once nearly realized their dream. “Once again we Quebecers disappoint Mr. Bouchard,” said former Péquiste premier Jacques Parizeau.
Since then, and until this week, Bouchard has largely kept himself out of the headlines. As Bouchard’s former adviser Jean-François Lisée notes, the few public statements he’s made have been unusually kind to Premier Jean Charest, his former political opponent. “He’s apparently decided that enough time has gone by that he can embarrass [PQ leader] Pauline Marois,” Lisée told Maclean’s recently. “That’s his choice.” (Charest, who is under fire for his handling of the construction industry corruption scandal and reasonable accommodations files, seemed delighted with Bouchard’s distraction last week.)
Bouchard’s continuing public feud underscores the obvious: the PQ was never a good fit for its fiscally conservative former leader. “It’s true that his relationship with the PQ has always been difficult,” Lisée said. Policy-wise, Bouchard was far more at home in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives—where he was a cabinet minister before bolting to form the Bloc Québécois in 1990—than on the PQ’s stubborn leftist perch. “People to the right of centre are orphaned,” says Brassard. “They don’t have a party that suits their needs. That’s been the situation in Quebec for a long time.”
That’s another piece of the Bouchard enigma: whenever he pokes his head out, there is inevitable speculation that he will return to politics to swoop Quebecers off their feet once again. He remains extremely popular: a recent poll said a Bouchard-led party would handily beat Charest’s Liberals and Marois’s PQ. Current and former members of the Action démocratique du Québec, Quebec’s languishing rightist party, practically salivate at the possibility of his return.
Bouchard, though, doesn’t seem to want to be a saviour any longer. “I would be extremely surprised if he went to the ADQ,” said Lisée. “I think there was a chance for him in 2005, when he helped produce the Lucid Manifesto. That’s when he would have had his winning conditions, to use his term, and he chose to not do it.”
At 71, Bouchard would rather write a book. “I haven’t written it yet, and it’s already making me suffer,” he said recently. Until his words are on paper, Quebecers who pine to be vexed and enthralled with Lucien Bouchard will have to wait until he next comes out of his shell.