by Chantal Hebert
In the dead of the pre-referendum summer of 1995, a copy of a federal government memo summing up a recent meeting between a high-ranking Canadian foreign affairs official and a European ambassador was sent anonymously to my desk in La Presse’s Parliament Hill bureau.
The diplomat had shared the highlights of a private discussion between Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau and the European Union’s envoys to Canada with his Canadian interlocutor.
Most notably, Parizeau had illustrated the irreversibility of a pro-secession referendum victory by comparing Quebecers in the aftermath of a yes vote to lobsters caught in a trap.
When the premier’s office got wind of the leak, former journalist Jean-François Lisée – then a senior adviser to Parizeau but today a leadership candidate for the Parti QuÈbÈcois – was dispatched to plug it.
As is often the case in such situations, Lisée opened the conversation with threats. Should the story be published, it would be denied categorically, at great cost to my professional future as a journalist.
Then he changed tack. If La Presse agreed to hold the story over the weekend, he would find ambassadors to back his contention that the quote was a fabrication.
Lisée offer would turn out to be a great gift to La Presse.
For on the following Monday, the ambassador of Belgium rang up, not to back the premier’s version, but to confirm, on the record, that Parizeau had indeed – believing that he was speaking in confidence – compared Quebecers after a yes vote to trapped lobsters.
This was not the first of Lisée strategies to backfire and if he becomes PQ leader next month, it likely will not be the last.
Given a choice between prolificacy and consistency, he tends to default to the former at the expense of the latter.
In the lobster case, for instance, Lisée’s calculations did not include the inconvenient fact that in 1995 many EU ambassadors were sympathetic to federalism and, therefore, more likely to dig a deeper hole for Parizeau than to help him out of one.
In the PQ leadership campaign, some of Lisée’s versatility has again been on exhibit.
As a member of Pauline Marois’s cabinet, he defended the project of a securalism charter. But in opposition, he said he would have resigned rather than see some public servants risk being fired for refusing to observe a government-imposed secular dress code.
Then, over the course of the leadership campaign, he said he would consider a ban on the wearing of the burka in public, to prevent terrorists from hiding under a full-body cloak.
He alleged his main leadership rival, Alexandre Cloutier, had ties to a controversial Islamist activist because the latter had made positive comments about his campaign. In the wake of Lisée’s gratuitous association, Cloutier and his family received death threats.
On the weekend, Lisée told party members the national assembly should unanimously back any Liberal initiative to affirm Quebec’s secular character if only because it could lead to a showdown between the province and the Supreme Court.
To this day, variations on the securalism charter continue to divide the PQ and to drive younger voters away, but that does not mean there is not a method to LisÈe’s apparent strategic madness.
At last count, the average age of the PQ membership hovers around 60 years old. Not only is the party most popular with older voters, they are also the most supportive of coercive measures on the securalism front.
Lisée initially seemed destined to play a maverick role in the leadership campaign. His pledge to put a referendum on the back burner until 2022 was expected to be a very hard sell with the diehard sovereigntists that make up party’s shrinking base.
But with Cloutier running a lacklustre campaign and with the resurgence of the dog-whistle identity politics as a wedge issue, the playing field has levelled off. LisÈe is going in the home stretch to the Oct. 7 vote, with, if not a lead, at least some momentum.
If he fails to become leader next month, it will likely be because he is not the second choice of enough of the supporters of the two also-ran candidates. If he does win, the PQ may be in for its rockiest transition to a new leader ever. The battle for Pierre Karl PÈladeau’s succession has been the most acrimonious Quebec leadership campaign in living journalistic memory.
With a scorched-earth strategy, LisÈe may once again have outsmarted himself.
Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2016 – Syndication Services