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Arguably one of the most influential men to ever be leader of the official opposition, but not become prime minister was Lucien Bouchard. His role as a founding member of the Bloc Quebecois would completely change the Canadian politics forever. For almost a century, Quebec had always been the powerbase of the Liberal Party, but with this new party and Bouchard at its helm, winning the province, and gaining a majority government, became much harder.
So, who was Lucien Bouchard and how did he go from being the Quebec Lieutenant of the Progressive Conservatives, to become the leader of a new party?
Lucien Bouchard was born in Alma, Quebec to Alice and Phillipe Bouchard on Dec. 22, 1938.
After graduating from Jonquiere (JON-KEE-YEAR) Classical College in 1959, he would earn a bachelor’s degree in Social Science and a degree in law from Laval Universite in 1964. One year later, he would be called to the bar. While at law school, he would become close friends with a fellow student who would have a massive impact on his life, Brian Mulroney. The two men became extremely close friends in a friendship that would last decades. Bouchard would state quote:
“We both came from small regions. His father was an electrician, while mine was a truck driver. We’re both from modest backgrounds. That marks people you know.”
It was also at Laval that Bouchard became a prominent NDP activist in the area, and the editor of the newspaper. One friend would state quote:
“Lucien was far and away the smartest guy in our class. He was the one who impressed us all as someone who would be a great success in any career he chose. He is blessed with a superior intellect.”
Bouchard had hoped to study in France and become a professor of economics, but money was tight, and he had to cut his pursuit of more degrees on hold.
On Oct. 15, 1966, Bouchard married his first wife Jocelyn, but the couple would eventually divorce. He would then marry Audrey and have two children with her.
For the next two decades, Bouchard would practice law in Quebec, while also serving in the public sector several times in a variety of roles. He was the president of the arbitration committee for the education sector from 1970 to 1976, the prosecutor in chief for the commission for labour and industry from 1974 to 1975, and the co-president of the study commission on the public and parapublic sectors in 1975. His appointment as a counsel for the 1974 commission into the violence in the Quebec labour scene was thanks to his friendship with Mulroney. His appointment came at the perfect time for Bouchard. He had left a Liberal law firm in 1971 after joining the Parti Quebecois, and his new law practice was struggling before the appointment came.
His interest in politics was growing at this time, beginning in 1970 when the Quebec October Crisis and the implementation of the War Measures Act by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau served as a spark for his interest and belief in Quebec sovereignty.
In 1976, the Parti Quebecois won the general election in Quebec and Bouchard would become the chief negotiator for the government with the 300,000 public servants who worked for the provincial government.
In 1980, he would work for the Yes side in the Quebec referendum over its independence. Bouchard would state quote:
Four years later, one of the most important events in Bouchard’s life occurred when his friend, Mulroney, became Prime Minister of Canada. One year after Mulroney became prime minister, he appointed Bouchard as the Ambassador to France, a role Bouchard would remain in until 1988. This post came not only because of his friendship with Mulroney, but because he led Mulroney away from a centralized federalist approach, similar to that of Trudeau, and pushed him towards decentralizing federalism.
Many questioned the appointment due to Bouchard’s history of supporting separatism in Quebec. Bouchard would respond, quote:
“I suppose there could be a bad image projected but I think I’m a guy of good faith.”
He would then add that there was no contradiction to serve his country while also believing, quote:
“Quebec must be a distinct entity, perhaps in the federation.”
For Bouchard, he saw his post in France of realizing his earlier dream of living in France and studying Economics. He would state quote:
“Call it destiny, or luck, but my job here resembles what I originally wanted to do, even though I never thought I would attain it this way.”
Of his time in France, Bouchard would state, quote:
“When I went to Paris, everyone said, how will you be able to reconcile the interests of Quebec and Canada? I knew I could do it. If we have differences, and we do, we must settle them here, not in Paris. It is just common sense.”
Mulroney would state of the appointment, quote:
“In effect, Lucien in Paris will be not only the reflection of our reality, but the man who carries our aspirations, the privileged spokesman for the place our country must make for itself on the international scene.”
Mulroney would ask Bouchard to run in a by-election in 1986 in the riding of Jean Chretien but that didn’t happen after it became known that Bouchard was romantically involved with Denise Bombardier, who was a controversial host of a Radio Canada news show.
It was in June of 1988 he was elected to the House of Commons as a member of the Progressive Conservatives, becoming the Quebec lieutenant for Mulroney… Bouchard had been chosen as the Secretary of State before he was elected, and would join the House of Commons through a by-election after a large amount of federal spending from the Progressive Conservatives flooded into the riding. That funding was essential to Bouchard getting elected. In his autobiography, Bouchard would state that he was humiliated campaigning in Lac St. Jean in 1988 when he discovered few voters knew who he was, or even what campaign he was on. Mulroney would even go and campaign on the behalf of Bouchard in an effort to get him elected.
The party deeply wanted Bouchard elected, seeing him as someone who could help them with the concerns of Quebec. One Progressive Conservative would state quote:
“Bouchard is star material. He could work some magic for us.”
Bernard Roy, the principal secretary for Mulroney, would state, quote:
“He would be a formidable opponent in any challenge he tackles. He won’t like me saying this, but they all find him charming. I think it’s the dark hair and the dark eyes, and his way with words.”
Only a few months after he was elected in a by-election, Bouchard was now back on the campaign trail for the 1988 federal election.
In the campaign, about 20 of Bouchard’s campaign signs were vandalized, usually with Groucho Marx glasses and moustaches painted on his face. When one sign was placed on the Alma Hospital front lawn, outraged workers pressured the administration to get Bouchard’s campaign to take it down.
His belief in an independent Quebec had not disappeared, even as he was a member of the federal government. As the Meech Lake Accord negotiations began, with the goal of persuading the government of Quebec to endorse the 1982 constitution, Bouchard believed that it would help placate nationalist feelings in the province.
That changed when Jean Charest, who headed the commission, recommended changes to the Accord. Bouchard was heavily against these changes, which he felt diluted the spirit of Meech Lake. His old friend, Mulroney, rejected the worries of Bouchard.
Soon after, Bouchard stated that he was a sovereigntist and he sent a message to the Parti Quebecois, which was holding an anniversary meeting in his riding, that stated, quote:
“Rene Levesque’s memory will unite us all this weekend. He was the one who led the Quebecois to realize they had the inalienable right to decide their own destiny.”
This angered Mulroney who promptly fired Bouchard, while Bouchard was already planning to resign.
By this point, the two old friends were barely talking. Mulroney would say years later that he considered firing Bouchard when Bouchard supported a ban on English-language signs in Quebec after he promised Mulroney, he would oppose them in 1988. Bouchard would tell Mulroney that he would resign if he sent a letter to the Quebec premier reprimanding him about the ban on English on outdoor signs. Mulroney would say not firing Bouchard then was a mistake.
The two friends would never speak again after the firing of Bouchard over the Parti Quebecois message. Mulroney, who by all accounts, considered Bouchard to be his best friend, was deeply hurt by the rift in their relationship. One confidant of Mulroney would state quote:
“It was like a death in the family. The test of Brian’s feelings is measured not in anger but in sadness and I haven’t seen him this upset since his father died.”
Bouchard resigned from the party soon after his firing on May 21, 1990, and he would sit as an independent.
Bouchard would state of his resignation, quote:
When Meech Lake failed, Bouchard formed the Bloc Quebecois with five Quebec MPs, three from the Progressive Conservatives and two from the Liberals. The founding meeting for the new party was on June 15, 1991.
At the time, Bouchard would state, quote:
“We mean business. This country doesn’t work anymore. We have to remake it.”
In 1992, Bouchard would release his autobiography titled Unveiled. Many found it lacked any sensational stories of Bouchard’s rise in Canadian politics. He would say quote:
“I did not want to cause pain for anyone. I left out some of the most intimate conversations. I really tried to be objective.”
Many may not have expected much from the Bloc Quebecois, but when 1993 rolled around, Canadian politics was ready to take a huge turn. I covered this astounding election a month ago, so go check it out.
In the 1993 election, the Bloc Quebecois picked up 54 out of 74 ridings in Quebec, sweeping nearly all Francophone ridings. Even though the party only ran in Quebec, it had enough seats just from that province to form the Official Opposition.
At his victory speech, Bouchard stated, referring to the failed Charlottetown Accord, quote:
“A year ago, tomorrow night, Quebecers said what they didn’t want. Tonight, Quebecers have started to say what they do want. When we will go to Ottawa, we will be responsible, respectful of parliamentary democracy and ready to establish a real dialogue with English Canada, but a real dialogue is only possible if it rests on reality. We will behave with honesty and respect toward the Canadian people.”
For the first time in Canadian history, neither the Liberals nor a Conservative party formed the Official Opposition and Bouchard became the first separatist leader of the Opposition in the history of Canada.
Bouchard would say quote:
“Quebecers not only sent a completely new team to Ottawa, but they gave their elected representatives the mandate to get prepared to bring about a new order.”
Bouchard quickly found that many of his Opposition caucus could not speak English well enough to debate using it in the House of Commons. The founding members of the party had all been bilingual. As a result of this, he would announce a policy that exists to this day, stating that Bloc Quebecois MPs would only speak French on the floor of the House of Commons.
Only year after he took the Bloc Quebecois to such a great height, Bouchard would receive horrible medical news when it was discovered he had a flesh-eating disease in his leg. The rare disease, caused by several different bacteria, is usually fatal with 80 per cent of those stricken with the disease dying from it. Within two days of the diagnosis by doctors, on Dec. 1, 1994, Bouchard had his leg amputated.
When told that his leg had to be amputated, Bouchard stated, quote:
“My life is more important than my leg.”
The process took three operations over the course of two days to stop the spread of the bacteria. During the operation, Bouchard was conscious as his leg was amputated at mid-thigh.
Jacques Parizeau, the premier of Quebec, would say, quote:
“Our prayers are with you. I hope this will soon be just a bad dream. Hold on my friend.”
Prime Minister Jean Chretien would state quote:
“At moments like this, we put political differences aside to express our personal solidarity with the suffering of a fellow human being.”
He would return to Parliament on Feb. 22, 1995.
In 1995, Bouchard signed an agreement with the Parti Quebec’s leader, Jacques Parizeau, and Action democratique leader Mario Dumont, which began to map out the road to a referendum on independence. During the 1995 Referendum, Bouchard would campaign for the Oui campaign, and would eventually gain the official leadership of the campaign. In the end, the referendum was narrowly defeated with 50.58 per cent of voters choosing not to seek independence.
Soon after the referendum loss, Jacques Parizeau resigned as leader of the Parti Quebecois. On Jan. 16, 1996, Bouchard would resign as leader of the Bloc Quebecois and 11 days later, was acclaimed as the new leader of the Parti Quebecois, becoming the 27th premier of Quebec.
Upon resigning from Parliament, Bouchard began to collect a $32,000 annual pension, which garnered criticism in Canada since he would also receive $130,000 as salary to be Quebec’s premier. Bouchard would respond to the criticism stating, quote:
“I earned it. It’s mine.”
He would add that he earned it because of the eight years he spent in Ottawa during some of the best earning years of his life.
As premier, Bouchard would announce that he would not seek a referendum while he was leading the province. His main concern as premier was the economic recovery of the province and reducing the deficit in the provincial budget.
In the 1998 provincial election, he led the party into the Quebec general election, going up against his former colleague Jean Charest, who was now leading the Liberals.
In the election, little changed with the Parti Quebecois losing one seat and the Liberals gaining one seat.
Heading into his second term as premier, Bouchard would balance the budget of the province and expand the social safety net of the province by implementing pharmacare and universal childcare. He would also refuse to grant provincial funding for the Montreal Expos for a new stadium, which would lead to the baseball team moving to Washington. Bouchard would state that his decision came down to the fact that he couldn’t authorize funding for a baseball park when the province was being forced to close hospitals.
On Jan. 11, 2001, Bouchard would retire from politics, stating that the desire for independence was fading in the province and he took responsibility for it.
He would state quote:
There were other reasons for the retirement though, including spending more time with his sons. He would state quote:
“I also want to live fully the marvelous adventure of educating my boys, who are 11 and nine-years-old.”
Bouchard would go back to practicing law once again and begin to sit on several boards including the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. From 2011 to 2013, he was the president of the Quebec Oil and Gas Association, and he would also serve as the mediator between Resolute Forest Products, the Quebec government and the Cree and Innu communities of Lac Saint Jean.
For the most part, Bouchard would avoid making public comments on politics, only taking part in a panel event in 2010 and stated independence was out of reach for Quebec and did not offer any solutions for the province. He would accuse the Parti Quebecois of being fixated on independence and could not offer solutions for the basic needs of the province. Many in the Parti Quebecois would criticize him over these comments and call him an armchair quarterback.
In 2011, Bouchard’s second wife, Audrey Best, died of breast cancer at the age of 50. At the time, the couple were separated. On May 18, 2013, he would marry his third wife, Solange Dugas.
In 2014, Bouchard stated that the Bloc Quebecois was only supposed to last until the 1995 referendum and its role was to prepare the ground for that referendum. He stated that the party staying around weakened Quebec’s influence in Canada by limiting how many MPs from the province could serve as federal cabinet ministers.
Bouchard has been honoured extensively in his life. He was presented the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal, has received three honorary degrees, was made a Commander of the Legion of Honour and a Grand Commander of the National Order of Quebec. In 2021, Bouchard was honored with honorary citizenship in the City of Montreal in recognition to is contribution to the city’s public life.
I will finish off this episode with what the National Post wrote on Jan. 12, 2001, when Bouchard retired from politics.
“Indeed, he has an intellectual depth, an appreciation of logic and a sensitivity to the human condition that is uncommon in politicians. He was a larger-than-life figure of a type we rarely see on our political landscape.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Global News, Wikipedia, Macleans, Edmonton Journal, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen,