Richard Gwyn, “Robert Bourassa: Canada’s new Mackenzie King”, Toronto Star (29 April 1975)

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Date: 1975-04-29
By: Richard Gwyn (Toronto Star)
Citation: Richard Gwyn, “Robert Bourassa: Canada’s new Mackenzie King”, Toronto Star (29 April 1975).
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Name of Publication Nom de la publication
Toronto Star

APR 29 1975

‘I will fight separatism to the end of my career’

Robert Bourassa:
Canada’s new Mackenzie

Star staf writer


To visit Quebec is to wonder what-
ever happened to it all.

The verve, the passion, the arro-
gant bravado that inspired the
nationalists songs of Pauline Julien,
that made “for sale” signs blossom
on the lawns of Westmount after
every speech by separatist leader
Rene Levesque, that sent batallions
of Quebec technocrats in well-cut
suits to out-argue the Ottawa man-
darins with Jesuit skill–all these
are gone.

Instead one finds self-doubt–the
corrosive malaise of a society that
no longer knows what it really
wants or even what it is. Commini-
cations Minister Gerard Pelletier
has anguished over a “crisis of lead-
ership” at every level, from class-
room to church. Robert Cliche, head
of the inquiry into the chaos of the
construction industry, speaks of “an
illness” in the society. La Presse,
Quebec’s largest newspaper, warns
in an unprecedented front-page
editorial, “the vacuum is getting
deeper and deeper.”

Premier Robert Bourassa has pre-
sided over this change. Five years
ago he came to power, and today he
celebrates his anniversary.

Bourassa looks at what has hap-
pened in the last five years, and
it as good.

Theory is for the intellectuals in
their drawing rooms,” Bourassa
said during an exclusive interview
with The Star. “Look at the results.
The year I came to power, Ottawa
had to send troops into the streets of
Montreal. This year Ottawa is send-
ing us $1 billion in oil subsidies.
That’s what Quebec wants.”

No heat

The answer measures the man.
No heat, no hurried attempt to de-
fend difficult terrain–he says Pel-
letier’s analysis is “too pessimis-
tic,” and as for the scandals, “not
one has been proven against a
minister or member.” Instead, a
balance-sheet, cool, rational and
calculated so the account comes out
in his favor.

To any interview with a public fig-
ure, one arrives freighted with set
impressions. In Bourassa’s case
these are the memories of his panic
during the terrible 1970 FLQ crisis,
of B.C. Premier David Barrett’s de-
scription of him as “a white
mouse,” and of the nickname “Boo
Boo” that Ottawa insiders call him
behind closed doors.

At first glance, these images
apply. Bourassa has a certain
charm but no magnetism or air of
authority. “Boyisa,” in his case
means that he is easy for
cartoonists to caricature as Otta-
wa’s puppet.

“An underfed bank clerk,” some-
one has called him. No clerk could
afford Bourassa’s superbly tailored
dark-blue suit, but he spoils its ef-
fect with a beige wool sweater.

The interview takes place in a
small, private room aboe a restau-
rant so that Bourassa can eat and
talk the same time. (Bourassa
works 12 and 14 hours a day.) On
the stairs outside stand two body-
guards, hard, thickset men who
smile with difficulty. Presumably
they are there partly to inspire awe:
Instead they make Bourassa seem
more vulnerable.

Youngest premier

As Bourassa talks, on and on until
nearly midnight, the preconceptions
receds. One remembers instead that
he won power at 36, the youngest
premier in Quebec’s history; that
his majority is larger even than
Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed’s;
that by the next election he will
have held power longer than any
premier since Maurice Duplessis.
Slowly one begins to comprehend
how he has done it.

Across the table, never entirely
relaxed, coming back again and
again to his main points, skillfully
dropping the odd bit of inside infor-
mation that always delights a re-
porter, sits Mackenzie King, re-

Jack Pickersgill, for years the
gray eminence of Canada’s least-
loved, least-understood, and most
successful politician, has said that
Bourassa is more like King than any
politician he has known.

Pickersgill has hit the mark.
Bourassa likes the comparison, and
adds to it. “Yes, I have studied him,
carefully,” he says. “King was often
accused of not being firm, but he
knew how to be firm when he had to
be. So do I. Remember I jailed the
union leaders. But I did it without

As in the case of King, Bourassa’s
opponents, particularly the
separatists with their quick, self-
righteous passion, make the fatal
mistake of underestimating him.

“Charisma,” he says disdainfully,
with the quick smile he uses when
he knows he is going to score a

“Clement Atlee had no charisma,
and look what happened to Winston
Churchill. Levesque has charisma,
and look what has happened to

Once the connection is made,
resemblances between the two are
easy to find. King, his crystal ball
hidden, made himself as colorless as
he could manage. So does Bourassa.
About the only anecdotes to be hold
about him concern his personal hair-
dresser; the steaks he consumes to
try, without success, to gain weight;
his 20 daily lengths in the pool, “for
intellectual and physical discipline.”

Only one magazine has attempted
a full-length profile of him. That
was Chatelaine, a woman’s maga-
zine, and it really was more inter-
ested in Andree Bourassa.

The vital link is that, like King
during the conscription crisis of
World War II. Bourassa governs a
society that is deeply polarized. Out
of choice, but also out of necessity,
he disguises his purposes and goals,
at times perhaps even from himself.

As one example, Bourassa praises
U.S. capital and loves to tell of a
weekend spent with the Rockefel-
lers. Yet he also calls himself “a so-
cial democrat” and quotes British
economist John Maynard Keynes’
dictum that inflation, well handled,
can be used income.
Indeed denticare
legal aid, and in the
budget cut 300,000 from the
tax rolls.

Race relations

Race relations require Bourassa
to apply his fluid formula beyond
the boundaries of his own province.

“I am always surprised that Eng-
lish Canada should jump at some of
the words I use. (His comment, “A
French state in a Canadian common
market,” comes to mind.) Why do
they not understand? I am working
at the same time for Quebec and for
Canada. This is not always easy.”

Bill 22, the controversial language
legislation, is a case in point. Pro-
tests by English-Canadians, it be-
comes clear though Bourassa will
not say so, have served their pur-
pose by strengthening his reptutation
among Quebec nationalists.

His judgment of separatism is
rational, and cold.

“It would be a tragic, stupid mis-
take. I will fight separatism to the
end of my career. We would lose
200,000 people, more. Today we have
to go on our knees to Wall Street
because we need the money. Separ-
ate, we would be flat on our face
to Wall Street.”

Rather than to Canadianism, the
natural opposite to separatism,
Bourassa’s commitment is to
federalism a kind of half way house.

He remembers his time in Ottawa
as a civil servant as “very enjoy-
able,” and, surprisingly, he says
that one Ottawa position that might
one day interest him would be minis-
ter of finance. “I have always been
deeply interested in public adminis-

Federal system

Bourassa says, “I believe deeply
in the federal system, in the 11 lead-
ers making this country work. Que-
bec today has sufficient economic
strength. James Bay will give us
jobs in the ’70s, and energy in the
’80s.It is our culture that is in dan-
ger. Today with Pierre (Trudeau) at
Ottawa we are in no danger. But
tomorrow, with our population de-
clining and perhaps with another
government and only a half-dozen
Quebec ministers, how then could
we allow our cultural survival to de-
pend on the good-will of the major-
ity? This is the guarantee I must get
for my people.”

A constitutional confrontation, at
a conference probably to be held in
mid-’76, seems to be in the making.
Trudeau has said he intends to bring
Canada’s constitution back from
Britain but that he will not agree to
any transfer of power to the prov-
inces. Bourassa in turn has declared
he will not agree to repatriation ex-
cept as part of a package deal that
gives Quebec expanded jurisdiction
over immigration and culture.

Without being specific–“Why
should I show my bargaining
hand?”–Bourassa hints that a solu-
tion can be found. Instead of a
transfer of actual jurisdiction he
might accept explicity constitutional
guarantees for Quebec’s culture and
future population composition.

Bourassa’s style of negotiation
has been shaped by his experiences,
“the toughest of my life,” at the
1971 Victoria constitutional confer-
ence. He agreed to a new constitu-
tion, then at the last minute chang-
ed his mind and refused to sign. “I
felt almost physically the pressures
of being a federalist Quebecker,” he

Bourassa appreciates that these
days Trudeau has to be more con-
cerned about the West than about
Quebec. He knows that he also has
to condition public opinion before he
commits himself. So he moves for-
ward, an inch at a time.

“Relations, practical working
relations, between Ottawa and Que-
bec have never been better.”

None of these administrative
deals is glamorous. When he feels
the need to strike a pose, he asks for

“English-Canadians must under-
stand that I cannot do things differ-
ently. My margin for manoeuvre is
very small. I am working to consoli-
date a beseiged society.”

Bourassa’s vision for the future of
that society will leave his critics as
dissatisfied as before. He foresees,
“an equilibrium, economic strength
and an assurance of cultural surviv-

That vision is practical: It is nei-
ther moral nor philosophic. But to
demand more, bold oratory, brave
promises, from a Bourassa as much
as from a Mackenzie King, is to ask,
not as much for the impossible as
for the non-existent.

More durable

“Nietsche or was it Goethe said
that every epoch must have its own
servant. The ’60s were the time of
bombs and slogans and for Latin,
emotional leaders. Is it wrong that
in the ’70s Quebec should be led by
someone who believes in rational,
cool, politics?”

A good self-description of a politi-
cian who has taken the measure of
his own inability to generate
warmth and excitement, and who
has learned to turn that lack to his

Quebec will have to solve its own
malaise. Bourassa will provide the
75,000 jobs a year, the five budgets
without tax increases in a row, the
federal money.

He will be doing that, one comes
away convinced, for a long time.
The boyish facade hides a politician
far more shrewd, far more calculat-
ing and resilient, and above all far
more durable, than most observers
and all of his opponents yet have
recognized. Quebec, one remembers
at the end, gave Mackenzie King
each one of his victories.

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