National Column: Meet the PQ’s new, formidable leader

by Paul Wells

At last, evidence that sometimes a journalist can make something of himself. On Friday, in a hall in Levis, across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, Parti Quebecois members learned the separatist party had elected Jean-FranÁois Lisee as its ninth leader.

Since I learned a lot about Quebec politics by reading LisÈe a quarter-century ago, when he was
a star reporter for the newsmagazine L’actualitÈ, it was gratifying to see him win. Perpetually
boyish even in late middle age – he is 58 years old – LisÈe is gregarious, ever-eager to dish good gossip, intellectually curious, immense fun in a private conversation or in front of a crowd.

He is the most formidable PQ leader at least since Bernard Landry, who quit in 2005 after a
leadership-review vote gave him a mere 76.2- per-cent support. Maybe the most impressive since
his former boss Lucien Bouchard, whom LisÈe served as an adviser until he quit in frustration
over Bouchard’s reluctance to hold a proper referendum at the end of the 1990s.

(I will not be so bold as to hold LisÈe up for comparison with his first political boss, Jacques Parizeau, who lured LisÈe into politics and made him a senior adviser as soon as Parizeau was elected in 1994. Not that LisÈe needed much luring. I have long believed Parizeau was in a league of his own, smart and tough and persuasive.)

There is a tendency, among nervous outside observers of Quebec politics, to treat each new PQ
leader as a sign that Canada may soon be back in big existential trouble, of the kind it last faced in 1995. Partly this is simple boredom talking. It was fun watching the country teeter on the brink, the way playing chicken in traffic is fun, and among some jaded denizens of the federal capital, some part of them yearns for a pure hit of the adrenalin that flowed like rivers through their veins for those harrowing few weeks.

This means there is also a tendency to wildly overstate each new PQ leader’s chances. Landry
liked to send English-speaking reporters photocopies of a long article about him that ran in
Saturday Night magazine soon after he became premier in 2001. Its thesis was that he could
really be the guy who’d take Quebec out of Canada, so, you know, watch out.

When AndrÈ Boisclair, urbane and generous, became Landry’s successor, Michael Ignatieff told
an Ottawa conference that Boisclair could really be the guy. “I know him,” said Ignatieff, who,
like Boisclair, had spent some time at Harvard. “He’s good.” No he wasn’t.

And already, I feel the need to remind everyone that when the billionaire media magnate Pierre
Karl PÈladeau took over the PQ in 2015, many PÈquistes were sure they’d found the guy who
could finally make the great day come. They were so sure of it that LisÈe dropped out of the race against Peladeau early. Even for briefly criticizing PÈladeau, LisÈe was so thoroughly ostracized in the party it seemed hard to believe he could ever come back to lead it. Plus he was getting old-ish. When PÈladeau abandoned the leadership, less than a year after he won it, it was briefly trendy to prefer a new face from a much younger generation as the new face of the PQ.

Lisee fought against those prejudices with his well-known gifts: eloquence, sharp debating skills, and an impressively shameless willingness to say whatever pops into his head. He has suggested banning Muslim headgear in public because it’s a security risk. In Quebec, where people often cover their head because it’s cold out. That’d be a fun policy to apply in the real world.

He also promises he would not hold a secession referendum during the first mandate of a PQ
government. This seemed significant at first. But surely nobody should attach any weight to the
promise. LisÈe wrote a two-volume book about Robert Bourassa, castigating him for not taking
Quebec out of Canada after the Meech Lake Accord collapsed in 1990. If Canada ever handed
him a comparable crisis he would take the shot, election promises be damned.

It is Canada’s job not to hand him a crisis. Lately Canadian prime ministers have been pretty
good at avoiding crises. LisÈe’s good, but he’s no magician. The best advice to federalists now is the same as the advice when the last four PQ saviours showed up: Be of good cheer.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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